January 11, 2017
Kishonna Gray [#KishonnaGray] is giving a Berkman-Klein [#BKCHarvard] Tuesday lunch talk . She’s an ass’t prof and ML King Scholar at MIT as well as being a fellow at BKC and the author of Race, Gender and Deviance in Xbox Live. She’s going to talk about a framework, Black Digital Feminism.
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
She begins by saying, “I’ve been at a cross roads, personally and intellectually” over the Trump election, the death of black civilians at the hand of police, and the gaming controversies, including gamergate. How did we get to this point? And what point are we at? “What matters most in this moment?” She’s going to talk about the framework that helps her make sense of some of these things.
Imagine we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of the Berkman Klein Center (in 305 yrs or so)? What are we celebrating? The end of online harassment? The dismantling of heteronormative, white supremacy hierarchy? Are we telling survivor narratives?
She was moved by an article the day after the election, titled “Black women were the only ones who tried to save the world Tuesday night,” by Charles D. Ellison. She laughed at first, and retweeted it. She was “overwhelmed by the response of people who didn’t think black women have the capacity to do anything except make babies and collect welfare checks.” She recalled many women, including Sojourner Truth who spoke an important truth to a growing sense in the feminist movement that it was fundamentally a white movement. The norms are so common and hidden that when we notice them we ask how the women broke through the barriers rather than asking why the barriers were there in the first place. It’s as if these women are superhuman. But we need to ask why are there barriers in the first place? [This is a beautifully composed talk. I’m sorry to be butchering it so badly. It will be posted on line in a few days.
In 1869 Frederick Douglass argued that including women in the movement for the vote would reduce the chances of the right to vote being won for black men. “White womenhood has been central in defining white masculinity. ” E.g., in Birth of a Nation, white women need protection. Self-definition is the core of intersectionality. Masculinity has mainly protected its own interests and its own fragility, not women. It uses the protection of women to showcase its own dominance.
“Why do we have to insert our own existences into spaces? Why are we not recognized?.” The marginalized are no longer accepting their marginzalization. For example,look at black women’s digital practices.
Black women have used digital involvement to address marginalization, to breach the boundaries of what’s “normal.” Often that is looked upon as them merely “playing around” with tech. The old frameworks meant that black women couldn’t enter the digital space as who they actually are.
Black Digital Feminism has three elements:
1. Social structural oppression of technology and virtual spaces. Many digital spaces are dominated by assumptions that they are color-blind. Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name are attempts to remind us that blackness is not an intrusion.
2. Intersectional oppressions experience in virtual spaces. Women must work to dismantle the interlocking structures of oppression. Individuals experience oppression in different ways and we don’t want a one-size approach. E.g., the “solidarity is for white women” hashtag is seen as an expression of black women being angry, but it is a reminder that feminism has too often been assumed to be a white issue first.
3. The distinctness of the virtual feminist community. Black Digital Feminism privileges women’s ways of knowing. “NotYourAsianSidekick” is rooted in the radical Asian woman tradition, insisting that they control their own identity. Black women, and others, reject the idea that feminism is the same for all women, disregarding the different forms of oppression women are subject to based upon their race, ethnicity, etc. Women have used social media for social change and to advance critical activism and feminism.
The tenets of Black Digital Feminism cannot detach from the personal, communal, or political, which sets it part from techno- and cyber-feminism.
These new technologies are not creating anything. They are providing an outlet. “These groups have never been voiceless. The people in power simply haven’t been listening.” The digital amplifies these voices.
Q: With the new administration, should we be thinking differently?
A: We need to identify the commonalities. Isolated marches won’t do enough. We need to find a way to bring communities together by figuring out what is the common struggle against structural oppression. Black women sacrificed to support Trump, forgetting the “super-predator” stuff from Hillary, but other groups didn’t make equivalent sacrifices.
Q: Does it mean using hashtags differently?
A: This digital culture is only one of many things we can do. We can’t forget the physical community, connecting with people. There are models for doing this.
Q: Did Net Neutrality play a role in enabling the Black community to participate? Do we need to look at NN from a feminist perspective…NN as making every packet have the same weight.
NN was key for enabling Black Lives Matter because the gov’t couldn’t suppress that movement’s language, its speech.
Q: Is this perceived as a danger insider the black feminist movement?
A: Tech isn’t neutral, is the idea. It lets us do what we need to do.
Q: Given the work you’ve done on women finding pleasure in spaces (like the Xbox) where they’re not expected to be found, what do you think about our occupying commercial spaces?
A: I’m a lifelong gamer and I get asked how I can play where there aren’t players — or developers — who look like me. I started the practice of highlighting the people who are there. We’re there, but we’re not noticed. E.g., Pew Research showed recently that half of gamers are women. The overwhelming population of console gamers are black and brown men. We really have to focus on who is in the spaces, and seek them out. My dissertation focused on finding these people, and finding their shared stories: not being noticed or valued. But we should take the extra steps to make sure we locate them. Some people are going to call 2016 the year of the black gamer, games with black protagonists. This is due to a push from marginalized games. The resistance is paying off. Even the Oscars So White has paid off in a more diverse Golden Globes nominees set.
Q: You navigate between feminist theory and observational work. How did the latter shape the former?
A: When I learned about ethnography I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created — being immersed in a community and let them tell their own stories. But when it came time to document that, I realized why we sometimes consider ethnography to be voyeuristic and exploitative. When transcribing, I was expected to “clean up” the speech. “Hell no,” she said. E.g. she left “dem” as “dem,” not “them.” “I refer to people as narrators, not ‘research participants.'” They’re part of the process. She showed them the chapter drafts. E.g., she hasn’t published all her Ferguson work because she wants to make sure that she “leaves the place better.” You have to stay true to the transformative, liberatory practices that we say we’re doing.” She’s even been criticized for writing too plainly, eschewing academic jargon. “I wanted to make sure that a community that let me into its space understood every word that I wrote.”
Q: There’s been debate about the people who lead the movement. E.g., if I’m not black, I am not best suited to lead the movement in the fight for those rights. OTOH, if we want to advance the rights of women, we have to move the whole society with us.
A: What you’re saying is important. I stopped caring about hurting peole’s feelings because if they’re devoted to the work that needs to be done, they’ve checked their feelings, their fragility, at the door. There is tons of work for allies to do. If it’s a real ally dedicated to the work, they’ll understand. There’s so much work to do. And Trump isn’t even the president yet.
Q: About the application of Black Digital Feminism to the law. (Intersectionality started in law journals.)
A: It’s hard to see how it translates into actual policy, especially now. I don’t know how we’ll push back against what’s to come. E.g., we know evaluations of women are usually lower than of men. So when are we going to stop valuing the evaluations so highly? At the bottom of my evaluations, I write, “Just so you know, these evaluations are filtered through my black woman’s body.”
Q: What do we get things like”#IamMichelle”, which is like the “I am Spartacus” in the movie Spartacus?
A: It depends on the effect it has. I focus on marginalized folks, and their sense of empowerment and pride. There’s some power there, especially in localized communities.
Q: How can white women be supportive?
A: You’ve to go get your people, the white women who voted. What have you done to change the thinking of the women you know who voted for Trump? That’s where it has to begin. You have to first address your own circle. You may not be able to change them, but you can’t ignore them. That’s step one.
Q: I always like your work because you hearken back to a rich pedigree of black feminism. But the current moment is distinct. E.g., the issues are trans-national. So we need new visions for what we want the future. What is the future that we’re fighting for? What does the digital contribute to that vision?
A: It’s important to acknowledge what’s the same. E.g., the death of black people by police is part of the narrative of lynching. The structural and institutional inequalities are the same. Digital tools let us address this differently. BLM is no different from what happened with Rodney King. What future are we fighting for? I guess I haven’t articulated that. I don’t know how we get there. We should first ask how we transform our own spaces. I don’t want the conversation to get to big. The conservation should be small enough and digestible. We don’t want people to feel helpless.
Q: If I’m a man who asks about Black Digital Feminism [which he is], where can I learn more?
You can go to my Web site: www.kishonnaGray.com. And the Berkman Klein community is awesome and ready to go to work.
Q: You write about the importance of claiming identity online. Early on, people celebrated the fact that you could go online without a known identity. Especially now, how do you balance the important task of claiming identity and establishing solidarity with your smaller group, and bonding with your allies in a larger group? Do we need to shift the balance?
A: I haven’t figured out how to create that balance. The communities I’m in are still distinct. When Mike Brown was killed, I realized how distinct the anti-gamergate crowd was from the BLM. These are not opposing fights. They’re not so distinct that we can’t fight both at the same times. I ended up working with both, and got me thinking about how to bridge them. But I haven’t figured out how to bring them together.
Date: January 11th, 2017 dw