Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Part One: Cultural Values in the Machine
- Chapter One: Digital Intersectionality Theory and the #Blacklivesmatter Movement
- Chapter Two: The Trouble With White Feminism: Whiteness, Digital Feminism, and the Intersectional Internet
- Chapter Three: Asian/American Masculinity: The Politics of Virility, Virality, and Visibility
- Chapter Four: Signifyin’, Bitching, and Blogging: Black Women and Resistance Discourse Online
- Chapter Five: Video Stars: Marketing Queer Performance in Networked Television
- Chapter Six: Black Women Exercisers, Asian Women Artists, White Women Daters, and Latina Lesbians: Cultural Constructions of Race and Gender Within Intersectionality-Based Facebook Groups
- Chapter Seven: Grand Theft Auto V: Post-Racial Fantasies and Ferguson Realities
- Part Two: Cultural Values as the Machine
- Chapter Eight: Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work
- Chapter Nine: Love, Inc.: Toward Structural Intersectional Analysis of Online Dating Sites and Applications
- Chapter Ten: The Nation-State in Intersectional Internet: Turkey’s Encounters With Facebook and Twitter
- Chapter Eleven: The Invisible Information Worker: Latinas in Telecommunications
- Chapter Twelve: The Intersectional Interface
- Chapter Thirteen: The Epidemiology of Digital Infrastructure
- Chapter Fourteen: Education, Representation, and Resistance: Black Girls in Popular Instagram Memes
- Series index
This book opens up new lines of inquiry using various intersectional frameworks. Whether we use Black feminism as a lens that allows us to ask questions and conduct new investigations, or other lenses such as political economy, cultural studies, and critical theory, what we need are theoretical and methodological approaches that allow us to intervene on the organization of social relations that are embedded in our digital technologies and that can foster a clearer understanding of how power relations are organized through technologies. In this book, we have engaged a number of leading scholars from the fields of information studies/library and information science, communications, digital media studies, education, sociology, and psychology, who are all researching how intersectional power relations function within the digital. The goal of this book is to provide a text that can inspire thinking about new methods, new theories, and, ultimately, new interventions in the study of the many global Internet(s).
This book was originally the brainchild of André Brock, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, who first conceptualized and proposed the framework and scope of the volume to Steve Jones, the Digital Formations Series editor for Peter Lang and editor of New Media & Society. We became partners with André and ultimately brought the book forward, but this book would not exist without his intellectual contributions and friendship. In the first call for papers for this book, Brock encouraged intersectionality as a lens for interrogating the Internet this way: ← 1 | 2 →
We view race as an “instrument of social, geographic and economic control” (Guinier, 2004). We acknowledge the importance of individual agency, but also the “institutional and environmental forces that both shape and reflect that agency” (Guinier, 2004). As such, intersectionality in this collection may highlight how individuals experience intersecting oppressions in a given socio/historical/political context, but also how they may transcend and even thrive in the face of economic and social inequality and oppression (Collins, 2000).
After meeting at a National Council of Black Studies conference in Indianapolis in 2013, we discussed broadening the intersectional approach to thinking about the Internet from the social sciences, including library and information science, education, sociology, and psychology. With the wide-ranging number of scholars from various fields conducting research in these areas, we felt the book would be more innovative and interdisciplinary, with representation from multiple methods and approaches. Along the way, Safiya Noble took primary responsibility for shepherding the collection through, with support and editorial contributions from Brendesha Tynes. What has come forth in this volume is a way of thinking critically about the Internet as a system that reflects, and a site that structures, power and values.
There is now quite a robust literature on intersectionality, although not a lot in the broadest scope of Internet studies. Taking a long view of the origins of intersectionality, scholars point to the speeches of Maria Stewart (1831) and Sojourner Truth (1851), among others, who conceptualized power and oppression across multiple axes. Intersectionality has been articulated through varied terminology including “double jeopardy” (Beale, 1970), “simultaneity” (Combahee River Collective, 1986), “interlocking oppressions” (Hull et al., 1982), “race-gender-class” (Collins, 1991, 2000), and “intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1989, 1991). Scholars such as Angela Y. Davis have long argued for the elimination of oppression of all kinds and a more complex analysis of power relations that cannot be understood studying individual variables such as race, class, gender, or sexuality (Davis, 1983). We now see intersectional frameworks in a wide range of theoretical traditions and fields, including queer theory, third wave feminism, and cultural studies. Crenshaw’s (1989) coining of the term intersectionality offered a single word to describe a long and complex discussion about Black women’s multiple forms of simultaneous oppression, best described in the following metaphor:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex ← 2 | 3 → discrimination or race discrimination.… But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm. (Crenshaw, 1989)
The field now enjoys broad popularity, with entire centers devoted to the scholarship of intersectionality. The Institute for Intersectionality, Research, and Policy was created at Simon Fraser University in 2005, and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies was created at Columbia University with Kimberlé Crenshaw at the helm in 2011. We also see the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, which houses the Intersectional Research Database, a collection of resources on intersectional scholarship. Collins (2015) also outlines a host of special issues including those in Journal of Sex Roles; Race, Ethnicity, and Education; Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media; Social Politics; Gender and Society; and Signs, along with a number of readers such as Race, Class and Gender, An Anthology (Andersen & Collins, 2012) and Intersectionality: A Foundations and Frontiers Reader (Grzanka, 2014) that point to the institutionalization of intersectionality.
In fact, the field of intersectionality has become so vast that Patricia Hill Collins (2015) suggests there are “definitional dilemmas,” where there is a risk of defining the field so narrowly or so broadly that it loses its meaning. She argues that its general contours include “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” (p. 32). She further argues that intersectionality is a “field of study that is situated within the power relations that it studies,” that it is an analytic approach as well as critical praxis that can inform social justice projects. Collins articulates intersectionality as both an overarching knowledge project and a constellation of knowledge projects, the latter of which involves a host of disagreements about its history, current organization, and future directions.
A CALL FOR INTERSECTIONAL CRITICAL RACE TECHNOLOGY STUDIES
Cultivating a theoretical frame such as Black feminist technology studies (Noble, 2012) and reframing it as intersectional critical race technology studies (ICRTS) is but one means of doing a closer reading of the politics of the Internet, from representation to infrastructure. It allows us to interrogate naturalized notions of the impartiality of hardware and software and what the Web means in differential ways that are imbued with power. It allows us to examine how information, records, and evidence can have greater consequences for those who are marginalized. Unequal ← 3 | 4 → and typically oppressive power relations map to offline social relations in ways that are often, if not mostly, predicated on racialized and gendered practices. ICRTS could be theorized as an epistemological approach to researching gendered and racialized identities in digital and information studies. It offers a lens, based on the past articulations of intersectional theory, for exploring power in digital technologies and the global Internet(s). More research on the politics, culture, and values embedded in, and on, the Internet and its many platforms, devices, interfaces, and representations can help continue to frame broader contexts of digital information and technology engagements on the Internet. Specifically in the context of an intersectional analysis, concerns are largely underexamined in the multiple fields that embrace the study of the Internet. In Noble’s (2013) research on the study of search engine results, her call for Black feminist technology studies was a way to articulate concerns about how Black women and girls are racially engaged through algorithmic imperatives that foreground profits over problematic narratives. In the future, she will continue to expand the theoretical and methodological imperatives of an intersectional critical race technology field of study that is situated at the interdisciplinary crossroads of information studies, African American studies, and gender studies.
Future research using critical, intersectional frameworks can surface counter- narratives in fields engaging questions about information and technology and marginalized or oppressed groups, which is the aim of this book. By looking at both the broader political and economic context and the many digital technology acculturation processes as they are differentiated intersectionally, a clearer picture emerges of how under-acknowledging culturally situated and gendered information technologies are affecting the possibilities of participation with (or purposeful abstinence from) the Internet. In essence, this book is attempting to engage with a series of concerns about how race, gender, and sexuality often preclude intersectional interrogations of the structure, activities, representations, and materiality of the Internet. These concerns are buttressed by state policies and economic forces, namely the interests of capital to expand its profits, in both local and global contexts.
This book could also be an incremental, modest response to Daniels’s (2013) call for theorization in the field of Internet studies that engages with social constructions of Whiteness and the material power and accumulation of wealth, resources, and privileges based on historical and contemporary discrimination against the “other.” We believe this is a research imperative, particularly as power is obscured by narratives of “post-raciality,” and ideological investments in color- blindness are adding to greater hostilities in society (Brown, 2003; Neville, Awad, Floress, & Bluemel, 2013; Tynes & Markoe, 2010). Tettegah (2015) found, for example, that an “empathy bias” exists among those who embrace color-blind ideologies, and this results in increased stereotyping and negative attitudes ← 4 | 5 → toward people of color. Noble discussed this lack of racial empathy in her examination of discourses about the death of Trayvon Martin, for example, and how profitable racist media narratives are, particularly as they circulate online (Noble, 2014). As an enduring narrative in technology fields, color-blindness makes it more difficult to intervene on how power operates on the Internet surface. Through this book we are introducing evidence that beckons a deeper look into the development of Intersectional Critical Race Technology Studies, which is a burgeoning articulation of intersectional theory in the digital and informational landscapes.
Certainly, there has been some important scholarly research on race and the Internet that predates this book by more than a decade. Daniels (2013) wrote an important and broad literature review covering the study of race and racism in the field of Internet studies, for those who want to quickly catch up on all of the former contributions. However, in her review, she offered a powerful critique of what was missing from the field: namely, a need to shift Whiteness away from serving as the primary, unnamed, lens for theorizing within the field. What she is naming are the ways that the field only nominally engages race, gender, and power simultaneously, set against a default backdrop of White normativity and investments (Lipsitz, 1998). Kendall (2002) and Brock (2011) have both studied the ways that Whiteness and maleness work as the default identities that define the culture of the Internet. These ways of thinking about the structure and practice of the Web are consistent with the way Harris (1995) theorizes Whiteness as a fundamental property right in the United States. Whiteness as a social construct (Daniels, 2009; Harris, 1995; Leonard, 2009; Noble, 2013, 2104; Roediger, 1991) has been the central organizing framework for the study of the Internet, which Daniels rightly critiques as underexamined in understanding the complexities of the activities, culture, and structure of the Web that substantively marginalize, without interrogation.
We, too, have been writing about how race and gender are implicated in intersectional ways on the Web. Noble researched the ways that the commercial search engine, Google, profits from hypersexualized misrepresentations of Black women and girls and cautions against the outsourcing of public information needs to private corporations (Noble, 2013). Tynes has published extensively about the racial landscape adolescents navigate online; the construction of racial identity, gender, and sexuality; and associations between racial discrimination online, mental health, and behavior (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, & Tynes, 2004; Tynes, 2005, 2007; Tynes et al., 2014; Tynes, Giang, Williams, & Thompson, 2008; Tynes, Reynolds, & Greenfield, 2004). Tynes’s work has consistently shown that online experiences have implications for adolescent mental health and behavior offline. Together, our findings are consistent with the way Brock (2011) characterizes how technology design and practice are instantiated with racial ideologies: ← 5 | 6 →
I contend that the Western Internet, as a social structure, represents and maintains White, masculine, bourgeois, heterosexual and Christian culture through its content. These ideologies are translucently mediated by the browser’s design and concomitant information practices. English-speaking Internet users, content providers, policy makers, and designers bring their racial frames to their Internet experiences, interpreting racial dynamics through this electronic medium while simultaneously redistributing cultural resources along racial lines. These practices neatly recreate social dynamics online that mirror offline patterns of racial interaction by marginalizing women and people of color. (p. 1088)
The work of many important scholars, including Anna Everett, Oscar Gandy Jr., Jessie Daniels, André Brock, Rayvon Fouché, Christian Fuchs, and David Harvey, to name a few, has laid the groundwork for those in this edited collection to add to discussions about how power and policy are manifest in intersectional ways on the Web. Each of us is engaging how discourses of technology are explicitly linked to racial and gender identity, all of which normalize Whiteness and maleness in the domain of digital technology. Intersectionality and critical race theory help us think about these social, political, and economic racialized patterns of inequality.
THE INTERSECTIONAL INTERNET
This book engages a number of established and emerging scholars who are integrating intersectionality in their research. It represents a scholarly dialogue among critical media and information studies scholars as a means of foregrounding new questions, methods, and theories we can apply to digital media, platforms, and infrastructures. These inquires include how everything from representation to hardware, software, computer code, and infrastructures might be implicated in global economic, political, and social systems of control. We must keep a close eye on these practices, and this book gives voice to our mounting concerns that we expand the research that explicitly traces and intervenes on the types of uneven power relations that exist in technological spaces.
Part I: Cultural Values in the Machine
This section addresses the relative dearth of research on intersectionality and technology, which includes approaching techno-cultural beliefs from a structural perspective, examining institutional discourses about technology’s effects on perceptions of intellect, sociability, progress, or culture as they are mediated by technology. In Part I, we emphasize intersectionality within real-world cultural interactions with technology, as opposed to speculating about technology’s future with some yet-to-be-established sociopolitical reality. To frame this section, we contend that information and communication technologies (ICTs) create ← 6 | 7 → social worlds that retain ideologies born of physical, temporal, and social beliefs, although early cyberculture researchers worked hard to convince us that digital worlds would be free from those constraints. That ideological retention can be seen in technological beliefs that privilege governments over citizens, corporations over people, and the expansion of White privilege in cyberspace. Examples of chapters in this section include technology debates on identity formation in the media, online activism, and discourses about technology’s tensions between mainstream and minority cultures.
Brendesha Tynes, Joshua Schuschke, and Safiya Umoja Noble open the book by examining the dimensions and applications of what they call digital intersectionality theory. Using hashtag ethnography, they conduct a thematic analysis of text, images, and video from Twitter and Instagram focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. Keyword searches for #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDontShoot, #icantbreathe, and #BaltimoreUprising were used. The authors find that previous theoretical approaches to race and social movements online inadequately describe the nature and critical praxis of participants in the movement. They note that cultural assets participants bring to online spaces inform their definitions of intersecting oppressions at the core of the movement as well as their agency.
Jessie Daniels, in “The Trouble With White Feminism: Whiteness, Digital Feminism, and the Intersectional Internet,” brings a clear analysis about how the lack of intersectionality in three highly visible online feminist movements perpetually buttresses feminist action with notions of White racial supremacy, to the detriment of any cohesive, anti-racist possibilities. Daniels examines three cases of White women’s activism online, including Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and “Ban Bossy” campaigns stemming from her popular New York Times and Amazon.com bestselling book, Lean In. Daniels also explores Eve Ensler’s “One Billion Rising” campaign and how it appropriated and exploited Indigenous feminists of color while remaining incapable of introspection. She includes a third case study that offers a detailed critique of a report on online feminism authored by Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin for the #FemFuture project. Her chapter elucidates the difficulties of challenging White feminism on the Internet by using critical Whiteness frameworks that underscore the importance of anti-racist, intersectional theory and application to social justice work online.
Myra Washington has contributed important work on the representation and commodification of PSY and Gangnam Style’s popularity on YouTube in 2012–2013, as an example of the virility, visibility, and virality of Asian/American masculinity. Her work explores the “conditional visibility of Asian/Americans,” and how Asian bodies and images are consumed and rendered both visible and invisible in the dominant U.S. culture of Whiteness. Washington’s discussion of the seemingly positive embrace of Korean popular culture, as evidenced through Gangnam ← 7 | 8 → Style’s co-optation in social and traditional media, is nuanced. She reframes these embraces through a critical and close reading of key media articulations of the social, political, economic, and technological forces that have become part of the latest wave of yellow peril discourses, which she frames as Yellow Peril 2.0.
Catherine Knight Steele’s work is an important reflection of why this book matters; her statement that “much of the early research on the Internet, particularly the blogosphere, centralized the experiences of western White men” underscores why we need more Black feminist theory in critical technology studies. Her contribution details the ways in which marginalized groups are using blogs online to engage in re-conceptualizations of participation in the democratic processes in the United States. She argues that new understandings of the Internet as a “public sphere” require epistemologies that allow for diverse ways of understanding the production of knowledge- and meaning-making. Steele’s study looks at online gossip of Black women and its potential as a “discourse of resistance.” Using a typology she crafted from Patricia Collins’s “matrix of domination,” Steele looks at celebrity gossip blogs edited by Black bloggers and analyzes how Black bloggers “resist or tolerate oppression at three levels: the personal, the communal and the institutional.” Her work suggests that “Black women use these blogs to ‘talk back’ (hooks, 1988) to the systems and structures from which they are excluded or within which they are exploited.”
Aymar Jean Christian writes about how “networked” (digital, peer-to-peer) television creates new opportunities and challenges for queer performers historically excluded from traditional media such as network television. He traces how marginalized voices rely on “difference” to present themselves to mass audiences that come at a variety of costs in platforms such as YouTube. Christian conducted interviews with producers of viral content and analyzes the making and spreading of viral video content. He analyzes the work of YouTube celebrities who are thrust into mass public view without explicit consent. In this timely essay, he helps us understand how intersectionality functions across multiple identities performed in online publics that foreground the complexities of being Black, queer, and woman on the Internet.
Jenny Ungbha Korn studies racially underrepresented populations and their activities and articulations of identity in Facebook Groups. In her study, she analyzed Facebook Group members across a variety of social and political interests to see how they align with multiple intersectional identities and signal belonging. Korn explores racial stereotyping and how Facebook Group users articulate their racialized and gendered experiences online. Her chapter explicitly engages intersectional identity and highlights the cultural constructions of Asian, Black, Latina, and White women’s identities in Facebook Groups.
David J. Leonard has come back to writing about video games and brings us up to date on why we should care about the release of Grand Theft Auto V. ← 8 | 9 → He contextualizes racialized and gendered tropes of the game in the context of racial violence and police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, as part of an ongoing assault on Black life in reality and in video games. Using critical Whiteness and interesectionality, Leonard argues against claims that racism is irrelevant in virtual games such as GTA:V. This chapter explores “the dialectics that exist between the narrative and representational discourse offered through Grand Theft Auto V and within the Ferguson rebellion.” Leonard argues that GTA:V signifies the hegemonic nature of contemporary racial discourse, and he concludes that both virtually and in everyday life, Black lives still don’t matter, as video game narratives “reflect the ideological and representational landscape of society as a whole.”
Part II: Cultural Values as the Machine
This section addresses the materiality of the digital and the politics embedded in systems and emphasizes how social and technical conditions work to create and constrain understandings of digital technologies. In this section, our contributors address how cultural values are articulated through technology design, in terms of both hardware and software. We placed this section toward the end of the book, rather than the beginning, to draw readers away from technological determinist perspectives on society and culture. Our foundational document for this section is Arnold Pacey’s (1983) The Culture of Technology. Pacey argues that technology can be understood as the amalgam of an artifact, the associated practices, and the beliefs of its users. Our vision for this section is that it synthesizes the beliefs and practices articulated in Part I and specifically focuses on the design of software artifacts and platforms that shape electronic experiences. As well, this section examines the politics, infrastructures, and labor that support them.
This section starts with Sarah T. Roberts’s work on Commercial Content Moderators (CCM), which stems from her interviews with workers at social media companies who manage and curate our digital content consumption. Her chapter is an important contribution to how we can rethink social media platforms as “essentially empty vessels that need user-generated uploads,” which, in turn, are either unrestricted or loosely managed through community codes of engagement. Her work underscores the relationship between CCM workers, who guard against digital damage to the brands of companies; and the politics of taste, acceptability, and the “logics by which content is determined to be appropriate or inappropriate.” Through her work, we are able to see how the logics of racism, sexism, and state power operate in an uneven and politicized way, as determined by the frameworks of CCM. Roberts’s research on CCM provides a unique insight into how racialized and racist language and imagery operate in social media and how these technology practices are predicated on the palatability of racist content to some imagined audience; the potential for its marketability and vitality; and the ← 9 | 10 → likelihood of it causing offense and brand damage. CCM work is directly implicated in the curation of such content for its profitability.
Molly Niesen, in “Love, Inc.: Toward Structural Intersectional Analysis of Online Dating Sites and Applications,” writes the first intersectional and political economic critique of online dating systems, which is much needed in the fields of information and communication studies. This chapter offers new insight on what Niesen has coined “Online Dating Sites and Applications (ODSAs)” and “mobile geosocial applications.” Niesen uses an intersectional lens to think through how online dating is commercially structured, in whose interests, and to what consequences. Using historical methods, she traces the “marginalization of identities” and how online dating platforms enhance differences, which can exacerbate racism, sexism, homophobia, and body shaming. This chapter will be heavily cited in its exploration of practical questions about the racial and gendered politics of online dating platforms.
Ergin Bulut discusses the national context of censorship and the relationship between the Turkish state and two major social media companies, Facebook and Twitter. In his work, he calls into question claims about the decline of the nation-state and emerging discourses about the liberating aspects of new media technologies posing challenges to traditional forms of political engagement. Bulut names with specificity the interrelations of the nation-state and social media companies in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and in light the NSA scandal, which exposed the ways in which everyday people around the world are being surveilled by governments and various U.S. national security agencies. His work challenges the notion that social media companies are politically neutral and challenges us to rethink how these platforms support activists, given social media companies’ willingness to cooperate with demands of government for records on citizens. In this work, we are able to trace the global/financial nature of multinational technology firms’ operations, and how these work in tandem with neoliberal political regimes.
Melissa Villa-Nicholas’s original research on the lack of Latinas in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), information technology (IT), and tech-related fields provides new insights into the historical precedents of underrepresentation. By tracing the EEOC vs. AT&T court case and consent decree, which mandated equal employment and affirmative action, she discusses the ways in which discrimination toward White women and women and men of color were differentially experienced, based on the intersectional experiences of simultaneously being women and people of color. Villa-Nicholas’s work uses intersectionality to theorize how Latinas entering lower levels of the telecommunications field has had long-term implications for their engagements in technology related fields. Her study argues that Latinas have largely worked as invisible information laborers, which directly affects Latina representation in Internet companies and IT environments today. ← 10 | 11 →
Miriam E. Sweeney provides a powerful feminist critique of the history of computer programs and the quest to assign human features, characteristics, and personality traits to virtual agents. In this research, she examines the ways in which embodied representations of interface agents are predicated on stereotypical and oppressive narratives of gender, race, and sexuality. Her work is an important contribution to theorizing the design of intelligent computer agents in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and human-computer interaction (HCI). Sweeney carefully traces the history of how conceptions of humanness and intelligence, and even gender roles, have influenced the development of computer programs that mimic humans, specifically in the design of anthropomorphized virtual agents (AVAs). This important chapter details how power structures predicated on social constructions of gender and race are operationalized in computer interfaces, and she interrogates AVAs as sites of intersectional power relations. Her research adds to a growing body of critical technology studies that challenge interfaces as neutral in their design and effects. Sweeney calls for “ethically responsible and socially just design,” which we agree can be successfully argued for across a variety of platforms and computing projects.
Robert Mejia forces us to engage with the future of the Internet. His chapter argues for an epidemiological turn for scholars engaging in Internet studies. He argues that media and cultural studies scholars, informed by British cultural studies and Black feminism, can take on “the forces that affect the meaning of a message as it travels through the circuit of communication.” Mejia calls our attention to digital technologies and the Internet as a material infrastructure that forces us to intersectionally engage “systems of communication and power.” He calls for greater recognition of the ways that “the experience and effects of global desire, pleasure, anxiety, and suffering operate unevenly across race, gender, class, and national lines.” This chapter has three case studies that elucidate why we must understand the epidemiological impact of media production, usage, and disposal, which happens across local and global boundaries that reflect uneven global power relationships.
Tiera Chante’ Tanksley powerfully closes this collection by blending together intersectionality, Black feminist thought, and critical race theory with critical media scholarship and calls for a Black Feminist Media Literacy to foreground a range of skills that we need for analyzing media codes, including how to speak back to, or criticize, dominant ideologies in social media. The goal of Tanksley, an emerging new media and education scholar, is to produce transformative change that can bolster students’ academic resilience. In her chapter, she brings attention to the ways Black women and girls are engaging their oppressive experiences with race, gender, and class through the circulation of alternative values and narratives in Instagram memes. We believe Tanksley is another one to watch as she cultivates theory about Black feminist media literacy, a framework we agree “can help students and teachers make strides toward eliminating marginalization in schools, media, and society.” ← 11 | 12 →
BINARY CODES OF RACE, SEX, AND CLASS: INTERSECTIONALITY IN PRAXIS
The cover of this book, illustrated by the extraordinary John Jennings, Associate Professor of Art and Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, presents The Intersectional Internet: Race, Class, Sex, and Culture Online against the backdrop of intersecting binary code. We believe the chapters are set in a racial framework and social code that is embedded with the historical (and contemporary) Black-White racial binary in the United States. We would be remiss to not acknowledge that this binary racial framework is part of what structures racialization in the United States (and even globally). We saw evidence of the realities of two different Americas in the news headlines while we were writing the introduction to this book in the spring of 2015. We have been deeply affected by the #BlackLivesMatter movement organized in response to escalating and out-of-control social inequality, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, and murder of African American women, men, and children.1 In the midst of the intense media coverage of victims killed at the hands of militarized police forces, Kimberlé Crenshaw foregrounds the importance of intersectionality by addressing the disparate resources, coverage, and care for Black women and girls. Her report, published by the African American Policy Institute, titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,”2 specifies the ways that gender and race simultaneously erase the importance of Black women and girls, especially in the context of national uprisings and demonstrations for justice and accountability of police officers who murder not just Black men and boys, but women and girls too. We need intersectional social justice. This book was almost complete as the national news coverage of activists and community members called for an intensification of surveillance and the use of body cameras and digital technologies to address these crises. We could not respond fully to these gestures in this book, but there was room for response outside of the context of this project that illuminates why we must take up social justice frameworks for interrogating the uses of technology.
In an effort to clarify the importance of the role of information studies researchers and educators to bringing intersectional, critical lenses to the role of digital technologies, information, records, and evidence, the majority of the faculty in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, at the behest of Safiya Noble, crafted a “Statement From Information Studies Academics and Professionals on Documentary Evidence and Social Justice”3 and posted it online for other information and technology researchers and practitioners to sign on and support: ← 12 | 13 →
We, the undersigned, are academic scholars and professional practitioners in the field of Information Studies and Library and Information Science. We support the role of information institutions such as libraries, archives, museums and academic institutions in fostering social justice and specifically affirm the importance of evidence and documentation in making sense of, and resolving, racial and social disparities, and injustice.
We are dedicated to inquiry and the advancement of knowledge. We develop future generations of scholars, teachers, information professionals, and institutional leaders. Our work is guided by the principles of individual responsibility and social justice, an ethic of caring, and commitment to the communities and public we serve. Moreover, we are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion of all members of society, and recognize our responsibility in contributing knowledge, research, and expertise to help foster social, economic, cultural, and racial equity and justice. Thus, for example, we stand in solidarity with members of multiple communities in their recent calls on all Americans to recognize that “Black Lives Matter.”
We affirm our long-standing commitment to the pursuit of social justice through the study of the production, management, authentication and use of documentary evidence, and the transformative role of education, as ways to promote better understanding of complex social issues, identify injustices and inequities, and formulate solutions to these problems. We believe that cultural and information institutions such as libraries and archives play a central role in advancing social justice and equity by offering spaces and resources for community-based dialog and reflection, providing access to information in all its forms, and designing and building systems of information classification, retrieval and access that expose and resist, rather than perpetuate, pervasive and unjust economic, class, racial, and gender disparities.
Furthermore, we recognize the vital importance of all forms of documentation, and especially records, in mediating contemporary conflicts and disputes rooted in longstanding historical patterns of injustice, such as the recent spate of killings of African-American men, women, and children at the rate of one person every 28 hours in the United States by law enforcement or security officers, as reported in the media. In these and other crises, publicly-created documentary evidence (such as photographs, cellphone-generated video, and oral testimony) has emerged as an indispensable resource for helping victims’ advocates, community members, and legal authorities alike to determine the facts of these cases, including claims of state violence against citizens. These records are necessary to assist victims’ families and advocates to pursue claims of wrongful prosecution or injury.
We believe that greater transparency of government agencies and actions through documentation and the public release of documents is essential. We call for national debate and professional engagement on why racism and state-sanctioned violence persists and is systemically embedded in our culture. We also see a disturbing connection between the local events and global instances of human rights abuses, including those chronicled in ← 13 | 14 → the most recent investigatory report on CIA torture processes. At the same time, we are doubtful that the growing, technologized “culture of surveillance,” in which both citizens and the state engage in a constantly-escalating spiral of hypervigilance, data capture, and retaliatory exposure of sensitive information, in any sense constitutes a sustainable solution to social injustice or state violence, nor does it address the root causes and consequences of an increasingly violent and painfully divided society.
The core ethics and values of the information disciplines and professions require that we steward, validate, protect, and also liberate the cultural and documentary record; that we insure that documentation is transparent and accountable; and that we provide equitable and ready access to information for all. Our teaching, research and practice must manifest these values. We call on our academic and professional colleagues across the nation and around the world to join our efforts to build archives, collections, and repositories of documents in all media forms, and systems of access to and use of these resources, in the service of helping people experiencing injustice to talk back to the record, and to power.
We encourage all educators to stand with us, and encourage signatures to this Statement in affirmation of our professional and personal commitments to social justice.
The statement signaled a critical engagement with the role of evidence, much of which is increasingly digital and on the Internet. One item of key importance in the UCLA faculty conversations while crafting the statement (a few faculty declined to sign their names for a variety of reasons), included the language, “At the same time, we are doubtful that the growing, technologized ‘culture of surveillance,’ in which both citizens and the state engage in a constantly-escalating spiral of hypervigilance, data capture, and retaliatory exposure of sensitive information, in any sense constitutes a sustainable solution to social injustice or state violence, nor does it address the root causes and consequences of an increasingly violent and painfully divided society.” If there were any key omissions from this book, it is a specific focus on these issues. Noble will be addressing them specifically in her future work, as she believes that a critical engagement with intersectionality, surveillance, and activism must become more central to our understandings of the long-term implications of the affordances and consequences of the Internet. The intensifications of racial, class, gendered, and transgendered inequality are ever apparent, and the Internet continues to be a contested space over its ability to ameliorate or exacerbate these tensions.
As we take up the frameworks for the book, we note that at the time of this editing, the class binary is profound, and wealth inequality is escalating. Black and White wealth gaps have become so acute, a recent report by Brandeis University found, that the racial wealth gap quadrupled between 1984 and 2007, making Whites five times richer than Blacks in the United States (McGreal, 2010). An intersectional analysis of wealth points toward hierarchies of income inequality that persistently depress wages and wealth for women. We recognize that sex ← 14 | 15 → and gender throughout this book are fluid and include a variety of transgendered identities (Sedgwick, 1990). As dramatic shifts are occurring in an era of neoliberal U.S. economic policy that has accelerated globalization, moved real jobs offshore, and decimated labor interests (Harvey, 2005), we see how these crises are under-theorized in intersectional ways by political economists studying the implications of the Internet and “informationalized capitalism” (Schiller, 2007). The traditional political economists offer us important histories and details about economic processes that others will take up intersectionally in this book, in local and global contexts. The sex and gender binary, upon which so much meaningful public policy is based, means we must resist dominant cisgendered narratives and demand space for transgender and queer theory to disrupt the normative landscape in intersectional ways. The chapters of this book illuminate the complexities of these concerns and the value in seeing things in these ways.
FINAL THOUGHTS: THE EMERGING BORN-CRITICAL-DIGITAL RACE TECHNOLOGY SCHOLARS
A senior person in the field of Internet Studies once said that she was envious of the new scholars who are among the first to earn doctorates explicitly engaging with the Internet as subjects of dissertations. Unlike many important early contributors to the nearly 20-year-old field of Internet studies, not including the long legacy of information studies and the field of communications, we are meeting the first “born-critical-digital” generation of scholars engaged in interdisciplinary approaches to technology, media, and information studies. These scholars are explicitly linking critical race theory and intersectional women of color feminisms to their work. Those holding degrees or enrolled in doctoral programs conducting what could loosely be called a first generation of “critical race technology studies scholars” include André Brock, Miriam Sweeney, Safiya Umoja Noble, Michelle Caswell, Sarah T. Roberts, Catherine Knight Steele, Felicia Harris, Delicia Tiera Green, Melissa Villa-Nicholas, Kristin Hogan, Wendy Duff, Stacy Wood, Ricardo Punzalan, Robin Fogle Kurz, Anthony Dunbar, Kishonna Gray, Sandra Hughes Hassell, Myrna Morales, LaTesha Velez, Karla Lucht, Ivette Bayo Urban, Jenny Korn, Sarah Florini, Meredith Clark, Dayna Chatman, Jillian Baez, Tanner Higgin, Ben Burroughs, Myra Washington, Sarah Park, Aguynamed Michael Sarabia, Aymar Jean Christian, Khadijah Costley White, Kristen Warner, Al Martin, Racquel Gates, Raechel Lee Annand, Tara Conley, Matthew Haughey, Molly Niesen, Nicole A. Cooke, Constance Iloh, TreaAndrea Russworm, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Regina N. Bradley, Paula D. Ashe, Faithe Day, Douglas Wade-Brunton, Omar Wasow, LaCharles Ward, Carole Bell, Dan ← 15 | 16 → Greene, Elizabeth Shaffer, Faith Cole, Reginald Royston, DaMaris Hill, Darrell Wanzer-Serrano, Adeline Koh, Deen Freelon, Alex Cho, Florence Chee, Jeffrey Jackson, Lori K. Lopez, and Cass Mabbott, to name just a few.
We believe that these few scholars we know and name here, and those we will come to know soon, are among the voices we need to hear from to help move our many intersecting research concerns forward.
1. A list of victims of state-sanctioned and extra-legal violence by police against people of color was published by Gawker.com at http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349.
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When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that 500,000 Black people in the United States are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence. And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.
—ALICIA GARZA, CO-FOUNDER, #BLACKLIVESMATTER1
Many historians cite the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the 1955 death of Emmett Till as the catalysts for starting the Civil Rights Movement in America (Bynum, 2013). Sixty years later, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others have grabbed national headlines as the United States has again been thrust into heightened ← 21 | 22 → protest around racial inequality. Since August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, protesters have organized a number of demonstrations, including rallies, “die-ins,” and boycotts (Lowery, 2015; Petersen-Smith, 2015). Like many other social movements across the globe, including the Arab Spring, social media has amplified the visibility of these events and the potential for actors to promote social change using digital technologies (Srinivasen, 2013). Using platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Vine, with the fight against police brutality at its core, the movement has frequently been dubbed the “Black Lives Matter movement” (often rendered as “the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” a reference to the Twitter hashtag).
The origin of “Black Lives Matter” began with the 2013 death of Trayvon Martin. Originally formulated as a hashtag on Twitter, a popular social networking site, #BlackLivesMatter was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Garza (2014) states in the epigraph to this chapter that Black Lives Matter is concerned with how Black people are denied human rights along with the ways in which poverty and genocide are violence sponsored by the state. The acquittal of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, as well as the deaths of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown, pushed #BlackLivesMatter into the national spotlight allowing it to sustain its visibility (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; Guynn, 2015). Social media served as a site of expanding coverage of the death of Martin, though such coverage was often produced in the interest of creating a media spectacle through discourses of Black male criminality, which is highly profitable to the media industries (Noble, 2014). Yet Black women and girls are also disproportionately over-policed and are victims of police violence who deserve the sustained attention of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.2 The erasure of women’s lives, despite the inception of the movement by women, demands theorization of digital intersectionality, such that continued erasures are not fomented by scholars. We have noticed these discontinuities, and we are interested in how they can inform a theory of digital intersectionality.
In the context of a theory of digital intersectionality, what is troublesome about the broadening of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the almost complete erasure of Black women, even and especially when they are at the forefront of organizing. We find this untenable, given that the history of Black feminism and intersectionality is rooted in the erasure of Black queer women from feminist and women of color organizing and intellectual thought (Harris, 1996) in previous historical social movements. We invoke the names of Barbara Smith, Adrienne Rich, Evelynn Hammond, Audre Lorde, and Laura Alexandra Harris, who not only theorized Black women’s gender and sexuality but also foregrounded the need for articulating a politic of inclusion of Black queer women’s knowledge production to the liberation of all Black people. Part of the ongoing marginalization and co-optation of queer Black women’s contributions to the #BlackLivesMatter ← 22 | 23 → movement has been in the emblematic commercialization and, frankly, stolen legacy of the intellectual and organizing capacity of the founders of the hashtag activism they generated on Twitter. We argue that current social movements and social theory are insufficient in helping to explain the movement from its origins through its spread after the death of Mike Brown and beyond.
We use articulations by Garza as an organizing logic, coupled with a method of hashtag ethnography (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015) to explore the dimensions and applications of what we call digital intersectionality through the use of social media and hashtags in Twitter. In their recently published article on #Ferguson, Bonilla and Rosa (2015) note, “in addition to providing a filing system, hashtags simultaneously function semiotically by marking the intended significance of an utterance.” Notably, they argue that hashtags provide a performative frame that signals the context of a stream of conversation. In addition, the importance of hashtags lies in their ability to group potentially disparate perspectives. For example, tweets supportive of Ferguson protestors, as well as those in opposition who showed support for officer Darren Wilson, might both register sentiment under the hashtag #Ferguson. Before providing examples from the movement we briefly describe extant theorizing on race and why intersectionality provides a useful framework for the interactions and practices in the movement.
THEORIES OF RACE ONLINE
Theorizing about race online expands our understanding of racial representations, of how race is performed and modeled, and of the pedagogical function of digital tools and platforms. Many of the theories and models proposed tend to draw from and extend offline sites of inquiry. Some new media scholars are focused on how the social construct of Whiteness serves as a context for understanding how race and identity are specifically engaged online through the use of critical race theory, critical Whiteness theory, and intersectional theory (Brock, 2009, 2012; Daniels, 2009, 2013; Noble, 2012, 2013, 2014). An early effort to theorize race on the Internet, inspired by critical race theory (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993) but less widely adopted and tested, is Kang’s (2000) cyber-race theory, which now might be characterized as more optimistic and utopian in its hope for transcendent racial experiences online. He argued that the Internet serves as a space where individuals and society might escape or transcend offline patterns of racial discrimination. He noted the primary differences in the ways race functions online, which he theorized as abolition, integration, and transmutation, and he suggested that the technical design of Internet-based platforms in the early years of the design and architectural buildout of the Web could foster the abolition of race by disrupting racial mapping and “promoting racial anonymity.” ← 23 | 24 → Integration, according to Kang, offers the possibility of challenging racial meanings and increasing social interactions with people different from us, much like the offline goals of educational or residential integration. Transmutation, Kang posited, may ultimately lead to racial passing through racial pseudonymity, which could bring about a host of unintended consequences that keep racial Otherization intact. He articulated this model as a question of design and stated that the Internet holds “both redemptive and repressive potential.” A design for redemptive capabilities can potentially usher in changes in ways race is constructed. This is consistent with Dery (1996) who notes that technology is an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression. Though Kang proposed these ideas early in the history of scholarship of race and the Internet, it is still the case that affordances in the technology can help to shape the ways race is performed online, for better and for worse. What is missing, however, is an analysis that incorporates the power structures that privilege Whiteness and foster simultaneously racialized and gendered experiences on the Web, which are marked by difference from the normative White-male, cisgendered landscape.
Since the early days of theorizing race online, the more cogent scholars have applied critical race and critical Whiteness theoretical approaches to online settings. Jessie Daniels’ (2009) canonical work on cyber-racism argues that the default culture of the Internet is racist and protects perpetrators of racial hostilities more than it protects targets of race-based hate. Words online may wound just as they do in offline experiences. Further, Daniels’ (2013) exhaustive review of the literature in 15 years of study of race online suggests that the social construction of Whiteness is underexamined and needs to move to the fore in any meaningful study of race and racism online. Along these lines, other theories suggest a pedagogical function for both the technological tools and user interaction within them. Tynes’ (2007) manuscript suggested that adolescents learn about race through racialized role-taking, or the adoption and enactment of race-related roles. These roles include witnesses, targets, advocates, discussants, sympathizers, and friends. These roles allow adolescents to learn about the cultural practices and belief systems of others as well as about the racial oppression and how it affects the lives of people of color. Similarly, Everett and Watkins (2008) argue that digital spaces can be racialized pedagogical zones that reinforce dominant ideologies about race and that stereotypes are taught, reproduced, and intensified through such practices as game play.
In addition, new media scholars have drawn upon Omi and Winant’s (1994) racial formation theory. Nakamura (2008), for example, argues a digital racial formation theory, which is the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are developed, inhabited, transformed, and potentially distorted. She argues that race online is a process by which racial categories get organized, represented, and in some cases reproduced. She draws directly from Omi and Winant on the idea ← 24 | 25 → of racial projects, which are “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (Omi & Winant, 1994). One example of this type of racial project online, Nakamura notes, is the creation of avatars, which are visual representations that necessarily result in new organizations and distribution. However popular this perspective has become in the field of Internet studies, Daniels (2013) argues that the racial formation theory framework is insufficient and has been an unfortunate theoretical model for the field, as it insufficiently implicates systemic, structural racism, and ultimately locates racism online as a matter of individual, dispersed, erratic behavior.
Though this review of the literature is not exhaustive (for a more extensive review see Daniels, 2013), it is worth noting that theories of race online have failed to capture the intersectional nature of race, gender, class, and other categories and the context within which they are structured by Whiteness as a practice of power. A digital intersectionality theory is needed to fully capture representations, critical praxis, and the changing racial landscape being navigated at what may prove to be the most politically volatile time since the 1960s. As early as 2005, Glaser and Kahn (2005) argued that we were witnessing pre–Civil Rights era race relations online. It has been argued that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the 21st century’s Civil Rights Movement, redefining race and racial structures both online and off.
NETWORKED SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND INTERSECTIONALITY
The work of Manuel Castells (2011, 2015) on networked social movements draws on what he calls a grounded theory of power. He notes that
Power is exercised by means of coercion (the monopoly of violence, legitimate or not, by the control of the state) and/or by the construction of meaning in people’s minds, through mechanisms of symbolic manipulation. Power relations are embedded in the institutions of society, particularly in the state. However, since societies are contradictory and conflictive, where there is power there is also counterpower, which I understand to be the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests. (Castells, 2015, pp. 4–5)
His position on “counterpower,” specifically, has been cogently argued by scholars such as bell hooks, who posits that marginality can not only be a site of deprivation but also one of radical possibility: a site of resistance, creativity, and power (hooks, 1989). In this space, she notes, the oppressed can move in solidarity to erase colonized/colonizer positionalities. These arguments have been made previously in Black feminist scholarship and intersectionality literatures that have not ← 25 | 26 → specifically included the Internet as a site of inquiry. A new generation of Black feminist new media scholars are taking up these concerns and are beginning to articulate a need for digital intersectional theory in their research (Noble, 2012, 2013; Steele, 2014).
Our definition of intersectionality draws on the canonical work of Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, 1991), Patricia Hill Collins (1990, 2000, 2015) and bell hooks (1984, 1990). Echoing “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective (1977, 1982), which argued that gender, race, class, and sexuality are “interlocking,” these scholars posit that oppressions, including those based on the categories of race, gender, and class (among others), are inextricably connected. Intersectionality may take multiple forms that include (1) an analytical strategy, or the ways in which intersectional frameworks “provide new angles of vision on social institutions, practices, social problems, and other social phenomena associated with social inequality”; and (2) critical praxis, or the ways in which social actors use intersectionality for social justice projects (Collins, 2015). We argue that an intersectional lens permeates all aspects of the movement—that the movement originated and is sustained through the intersectional critical praxis of Black women.
Edwards and McCarthy (2004) note that when activists want to inspire collective action, their success is largely based on resources, which include moral, cultural, social-organizational, human, and material resources. Drawing on resource mobilization theory, Eltantawy and Wiest (2011) argue that the availability of resources such as social media and an individual’s efficacy in using these resources contributed to the birth of the January 25 protest, a key event in Egypt’s so-called Facebook Revolution, in which protesters gathered in Tahrir Square to protest corruption, police brutality, and unemployment. In addition, interactivity and speed facilitated the advancement of the movement in ways that traditional methods, such as leaflets, could not. Perhaps one of the most important resources was the intersectional vision of administrators of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, which was inclusive of women, Christians, Muslims, nationals, and expatriates (Ghonim, 2013). It was women and girls who had played a critical role in creating the “alternative news universe” that ultimately set the stage for revolution (Herrera, 2014); a woman who posted the video that galvanized participants for the January 25 protest; and women who risked their lives in public protest alongside their male counterparts both online and off.
We view intersectionality, in the form of both analytic strategy and critical praxis, as a resource grounded in the offline and online subjectivities of participants. Central to the development of this resource are cultural and community strengths of respective movement participants of every race—ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. With respect to African Americans, for example, Robert Hill (1972, 1999), in his key text on the Black family, names strong kinship bonds, religious orientation ← 26 | 27 → (spirituality), and adaptability of family roles among its strengths. He further argues that the adaptability of family roles in Black families is often a response to economic necessity for low-income (and, we would argue, middle-class) families. Moreover, this flexibility in roles includes the sharing of decisions and jobs in the home. These experiences provide Black women with multiple opportunities for leadership in their communities as well as ample space in which to develop an intersectional lens that allows them to think critically and with complexity about issues that affect Black communities as a whole. Though there is considerable variation within African American communities and among women specifically, these experiences may be brought to the digital space and inform the nature of their interactions and involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
INTERSECTIONALITY AS ANALYTIC STRATEGY IN THE #BLACKLIVESMATTER MOVEMENT
Several news articles and documentary films about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its origins have been made and posted on Twitter.3 Erica Totten helped organize an informal teach- and die-in at a Washington, D.C., theater in a mall on December 12, 2014. She and other participants purchased tickets to Chris Rock’s movie but actually went to see Exodus: Gods and Kings. Ten minutes into the film she rose with a bullhorn and announced, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to disrupt your evening.… This film is racist and depicts Africans as slaves and white Europeans as Africans. Egypt is in Africa. This is white supremacist propaganda, and we are shutting it down” (Hafiz, 2014). When asked why Black women were at the forefront of organizing the movement, Totten noted that they were organized, they were good communicators, they didn’t have egos, and they are able to make connections with their “sisters” (other Black women). She further noted, “What happens to them happens to me.” Totten’s co-organizer similarly saw the shutdowns as a personal fight to demand her rights: a fight for her future. When asked why she followed the organizers, a Howard University student mentioned, “I follow them because they are women. They are organized, think things through strategically, and make powerful statements by making controversial and most [of the] time illegal actions like this possible” (Hafiz, 2014). Here, the student suggests being a woman informs the strategic thinking shown in both online and offline organizing—a characteristic, along with their communication and technical skills, that makes them ideal leaders for the movement. The use of the intersectional lens or analytic strategy broadens the movement’s scope, as leaders see their participation and their fight for other Black people as a fight for their own lives. ← 27 | 28 →
This more expansive analytic strategy allows participants to see social problems with greater complexity and to post links that educate fellow protesters about key social issues. At the core of the movement, as Garza (2014) has noted, is a fight against police brutality and what Michelle Alexander (2012) calls “the New Jim Crow,” or the creation of a permanent caste system through the incarceration and disenfranchisement of African Americans. A link to a story posted on Twitter called “8 Horrible Truths About Police Brutality and Racism in America Laid Bare by Ferguson” underscores the fact that participants view race and class as inextricably linked.4 It reads: “The black-white disparity in infant mortality has grown since 1950. Whereas 72.9 percent of whites are homeowners, only 43.5 percent of Blacks are. Blacks constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people incarcerated. According to Pew, white median household wealth is $91,405; Black median household wealth is $6,446—the gap has tripled over the past 25 years. Since 2007, the Black median income has declined 15.8 percent. In contrast, Hispanics’ median income declined 11.8 percent, Asians’ 7.7 percent and Whites’ 6.3 percent.”5
The story notes that these statistics fly in the face of President Obama’s claims that the economy and race relations are improving. Issues within the larger context of police brutality include mass incarceration, the politics of respectability, and representations of African Americans in the media. These issues shape the discourse of the movement by allowing users to advocate in both online and offline spaces on issues that pertain directly to them. Disparate outcomes at the intersection of education and wealth (Johnson, 2006) and a number of other social gauges for African Americans have become contributing factors in the construction of the movement as a call for equity in various aspects in American society. Interconnected structural inequalities have a trickle-down effect on individuals who participate in this movement, as they see the dismantling of not just one but all structural impediments as the key to their liberation.
INTERSECTIONALITY AS CRITICAL PRAXIS
In our understanding of intersectionality as critical praxis, we outline the ways in which the movement’s reflexivity, the ability to counter hegemonic narratives, and self-care are key components of digital intersectionality. By modeling the standard of reflexivity, the movement is able to critique and correct its own narrative and practices. For example, Alicia Garza (2015) wrote a piece for thefeministwire.com that speaks directly to how the erasure of African Americans was performed within the movement. She noted that, as individuals took the movement’s demands to the streets, mainstream media and corporations took up the call. Then adaptations of their work began to crop up—with All Lives Matter, Brown Lives Matter, Migrant Lives Matter, etc. She further noted that presumed allies coopted ← 28 | 29 → the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag for a campaign, failed to credit its origins, and even applauded incarceration. She also wrote:
When you design an event / campaign / etcetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice. It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions. Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy.
We completely expect those who benefit directly and improperly from White supremacy to try and erase our existence. We fight that every day. But when it happens amongst our allies, we are baffled, we are saddened, and we are enraged. And it’s time to have the political conversation about why that’s not okay. (Garza, 2014)
We foreground the words of Garza because she, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi have been rendered virtually invisible as the growth of the movement has moved from online activism to international organizing on behalf of protecting Black lives, often placing Black men as the central subject(s) of care. Even more concerning is the way in which the intellectual and organizational work of Black cisgendered and transgendered women who have been at the forefront of articulating multiple, intersectional calls for social justice had not spurred mass social organizing on behalf of Black women who were and are victims of police murders and extra-judicial killings.6 Kimberly N. Foster, Black feminist blogger and founder of For Harriet, an online blog for women of color, published a story on Thursday, April 23, 2015, titled “No One Showed Up to March for Rekia Boyd Last Night” to underscore concerns over the invisibility of coverage and mass concern for Black women and girls who are also killed by law enforcement.
On May 20, 2015, the African American Policy Forum released a report titled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” This report was accompanied by mass protest across the country. A national day of action was planned (see Figure 1) to specifically focus on the plight of Black women and girls. The report was coauthored by Kimberlé Crenshaw of UCLA and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies—the woman who coined the term intersectionality. Interestingly, more than 25 years later she is still at the forefront of modeling how intersectionality might be lived in policy and practice.
Crenshaw, Ritchie, Anspach, Gilmer, and Harris (2015) assert that social justice organizers have used intersectionality as critical praxis in ways that go beyond the theoretical musings in academia and have used their social positions to combat multiple forms of oppression simultaneously through the embodiment of their work. Crenshaw continues her analysis by directly naming young, poor women of color as chief organizers through their critical praxis of intersectionality. These ← 29 | 30 → organizers have used intersectional praxis as a way to not only correct the norms of the movement but also to intervene in popular historical narratives and stereotypes about African Americans, economic inequality, and racist policies. Countering narratives and renegotiating movement standards through intersectional approaches has already manifested on the national stage.
The intersectional critical praxis and reflexivity of members sparked what appears to be a pivot in the movement. Garza’s (2014) critique of the movement’s heteropatriarchal co-optation, along with Crenshaw’s report, which offered several recommendations for improving the awareness and condition of Black, queer, cis, and transgendered women, has led to an effort to re-center the movement to include all of those at the margins. Much of the focus of the movement has centered Black cisgender men, but Garza notes that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is a specific effort to rebuild a Black liberation movement along intersectional axes, recognizing that cisgender Black men continue to name and claim themselves as the center subject of the movement: ← 30 | 31 →
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement. (Garza, 2014)
Yet because Black women continue to lead the movement, it is reflexive and can engage in self-correctives that consistently negotiate and renegotiate, in ever more complex ways, its mission and the scope of its demands. Planned protests for Black women and girls proved to be successful and, in some cities, had turnouts comparable to those when men are at the center. By offering a reflexive program and a counter to dominant hegemonic narratives, Black women have been able to combat their erasure publicly within the movement.
At the #SayHerName National Day of Protest, Black women were given specific recognition, in large part because of their previous erasure in the mainstream movement. Perhaps the most powerful image was from San Francisco, where protestors stood topless as a symbol of reclamation and resistance against oppressive forces that subjugate Black women’s bodies as sights of exploitation (see Figure 1.2). The protest drew from cultural traditions of their women counterparts in Uganda, Gabon, and South Africa and was an attempt to end the societal fixation on Black women’s bodies except in cases of violence (Desmond-Harris, 2015). They also tapped into their African heritage in their hair and head wraps as well as body/face paint. This connection to African cultures, the advocacy on behalf of Black women, and the acknowledgment of the paradox of invisibility and visibility was said to be healing for the person who posted the image. The significance of healing to the movement and its participants is not to be understated, as the concept of self-care is integral in their praxis, which allows groups or individuals to physically and mentally recuperate from the stress of dealing with oppression and discrimination. Images like those from the protests in San Francisco are powerful, not only through their recognition of Black women’s struggle but also in their counter-discourse to hegemonic narratives. Posing topless with writing on their bodies that directly pertained to the historical stereotypes and oppression placed upon Black women’s bodies is representative of a critical awareness, cultural agency, and a more nuanced understanding of how multiple forms of oppression can be subverted through protest and the visual artifacts that live online potentially in perpetuity.
We have presented images and links that make up a moment-to-moment log of the movement and of efforts to mobilize that are often not seen on cable or other news sites. The representation of images from the movement not seen on television in #BlackLivesMatter also offer a counter-discourse to hegemonic narratives that impede sociopolitical progress for African Americans. Mainstream narratives regarding stereotypes of African American men and women have been historically pervasive, which has led to the movement’s concerted efforts to battle these messages by using social media as a corrective (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). An example of online protest or activism would be the hashtag “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown.” Although this hashtag serves as its own discussion, it still operates under the umbrella of the movement as a whole. This specific hashtag sheds light on the unbalanced portrayal of African American victims in mainstream media, which all too often becomes fixated on troubles in the victim’s past and uses negative imagery to push the narrative of Black criminality. ← 32 | 33 → Participants in this online form of protest post pictures of themselves that would appear to be contradictory, as one picture would be “refined,” such as a picture from a graduation, while the other would be viewed as “problematic,” such as an image of the user drinking and/or smoking, for example. This hashtag campaign on social media sought to challenge mainstream media portrayals of African American men as inherently criminal, by posting an image that would likely be shown on a major news outlet versus a “positive” image that would evoke a more sympathetic reaction (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). It is important to note that this campaign to bring attention to this issue of disparate media representations took place strictly on social media, as the fast-paced nature of social media enables these movements to aggregate and go viral quickly before mainstream media can react (Sharma, 2013). Countering dominant discourses occurs on social media as conversation is intersectional, multidimensional, and less restricted. This enables users to effectively “talk back” and mobilize around topics outside of the view of the mainstream, until they go viral, at which point they gain the desired attention of the media.
As suggested in the BET headline “Nine Ways to Mentally Cope With Racial Injustice” (Terrell, 2014; Figure 1.3) from a link posted on Twitter, self-care is a key aspect of the movement’s intersectional critical praxis. Within this list of coping mechanisms, which includes community engagement (“Give Back”), exercise (“Get Your Sweat On”), and spirituality (“Pray or Meditate”), individuals taking time to care for their specific needs in constructive fashions is presented as important for the health of those participating in the movement. The article further encourages people to allow themselves to cry and feel the emotion from the trauma associated with racial injustice, to “Speak Out!” or get involved in their local fights against injustice, and to not engage bigots. They note, “Self-care is really important when coping with issues like this. One way to protect yourself is to not engage with people who are bigoted or refuse to see our plight as a problem. Let people know that you are not interested in talking and keep it moving. Same applies with social media” (Terrell, 2014). Rather than using their energy responding to racists, the article guides readers toward channeling their energies into their communities. Finally, the article instructs participants to “Love Yourself and Others More.” Despite a climate of rampant degradation of Black life and persistent messages of Black inferiority, they say, “the most radical thing we can do in times like these is to unconditionally love ourselves and each other. We can never allow for the devaluing of our lives to stop us from seeing our greatness, value and infinite potential” (Terrell, 2014). ← 33 | 34 →
While the Civil Rights Movement drew much of its spiritual core and self-care from the Christian church, the #BlackLivesMatter movement members are quick to assert how the present moment contrasts with previous movements for social change. Members both embrace and reject aspects of traditional Christian theology, holding events in churches and inviting clergy to participate in protests, while also denouncing the heteronormative and patriarchal doctrine of the traditional congregations. Reverend Al Sharpton, perhaps the most popular minister alive who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inserted himself onto the Black Lives Matter platform but has at times been disinvited to movement events, for example. Pastors who have been embraced tend to endorse a more inclusive historical-critical biblical perspective. The Reverend Starsky Wilson of the St. John’s United Church of Christ in St. Louis hosted Black Lives Matter Freedom Riders the weekend of ← 34 | 35 → August 30, 2014. In a sermon, he argued that to be the Church is to practice “the politics of Jesus.” He further noted that Jesus was a radical and revolutionary who was concerned about social justice and the need for a movement of not just men but one that affirms the power of the “sisters.” He also articulated a vision of a movement that viewed all people as made in the image and likeness of God.
A similar position has been argued by Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, who recently spoke at the Black Lives Matter conference on how Black queer women are doing the work of God. This is an important aspect of an expanded and inclusive spirituality that meets the needs of movement participants. Spiritual aspects of the movement extend beyond the church and also include a number of African and other spiritual and cultural traditions. Most importantly, participants see love as integral to the movement’s success. Just as in the BET.com article, participants question how love, both of self and others, can be a spiritual practice as they engage in social change efforts. In an interview on the Real News Network, Sekou argued:
My grandmama sang a song. There’s joy that I have. The world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away. It’s this ability to be able to look at the material conditions and call them a lie. And so I think part of it is, what are the ways in which we can love each other through this work? How can we care for each other, right? How can we not reproduce the imperial capacity to shame, to discipline, to punish? So how in our social movements can we love each other in such a way? (“Cornel West, Eddie Conway, & Rev. Sekou,” 2015)
Within this counter-hegemonic theological discourse, self-care through more broad conceptions and practices of spirituality is a key component of intersectionality as critical praxis and how it becomes operational within the movement.
From its earliest articulations, intersectionality has not only been used in scholarly work and teaching but has also been used as analytic strategy and critical praxis directed at social and political intervention (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013; Collins, 2015). For the #BlackLivesMatter movement the intersectional lens informs participants’ ability to think critically and complexly about social problems. It also subsequently influences the nature of demands participants make on government officials, local communities, policy changes, and on themselves. As such, movement participants illustrate the ways that practice can inform theory, as well as how theory informs best practices in community organizing both online and offline (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013).
According to Shirky (2011), access to conversation is the greatest benefit to users of digital media during political protest. When looking at the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this becomes especially true, as protesters have used various ← 35 | 36 → social media platforms to share information, discuss beliefs, and plan protests (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). Twitter specifically grants access to conversation through hashtags that enable users to express their cultural competency, identification with Black culture, and deep understanding of social problems through a racialized lens (Brock, 2012; Florini, 2014; Sharma, 2013). However, users bring not only their racial backgrounds with them online, but they also carry their class, gender, sexuality, religious, and other embodied identities and experiences. These intersecting identities can influence their contribution to the larger discussion, which in turn may have an impact on the larger movement. Through these conversations held online, norms and behaviors can be debated and negotiated through critical communication, not only directed at the systemic entities participants are engaging but with each other as well. In this negotiation of terms, individuals’ intersectional vantage points on topics allow for a fluid exchange of ideas and beliefs that can both propel and/or stunt the movement’s ideological underpinnings.
Scholars, including Clay (2012) and Chun, Lipsitz, and Shin (2013), have noted the role of intersectionality in previous social movements. Studying the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose), an organization created to serve the needs of Asian women employed in low-paid manufacturing and service jobs, Chun and colleagues suggest that the organization’s intersectional optic is a mechanism for the movement. They also note its numerous functions, including exposing how power works in uneven and differentiated ways and expanding their conceptions of and targets of collective struggle. Chun et al. (2013) further argue that AIWA’s constituency’s problems “cannot be addressed by single-axis struggles for national liberation, peace, feminism, class justice, or multilinguality, yet every disempowerment they face reveals a different dimension of how inequalities are created and maintained” (p. 937). Using an intersectional lens and building multiracial, multigenerational campaigns with advocates that sometimes spanned across the country, the organization was able to increase awareness of the plight of Asian women and advocate for change on their behalves.
Similarly, Clay’s (2012) ethnographic work on activism among youth of color in Oakland, California, outlines how youth experiences with racism, classism, sexism, and ageism inform their organizing strategies. Also integrated into these strategies is the use of hip-hop culture to mobilize youth around issues of social injustice, including homophobia and heterosexism. Clay posits that youth activism is like a hip-hop sample where youth draw on movement tools, images, texts, geographic landscapes, popular constructions of urban youth of color, hip-hop culture, and their own experiences. If youth activism in Oakland is a sample, then #BlackLivesMatter is the remix 2.0. The interactivity, speed at which messages can be transmitted, and virality (coupled with video, text, and images) enhance creative power and potential to affect social change. ← 36 | 37 →
Social media therefore becomes a tool for the empowerment of individuals claiming identification with multiple social groups and allows them to positively affirm their unique positioning within society (Lindsey, 2013). The use of hashtags and imagery shows how visual and textual representations of the #BlackLivesMatter movement contribute to the mission of the protests, as participants use themselves as the embodiment of justice. The previously noted hashtag campaign #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is an example of how critical praxis manifests itself online as a part of the larger movement, but it is not the movement in totality. By posting pictures that would seemingly contradict each other, participants show the multiplicity of their identities and the spatial awareness of how these images may evoke particular prejudices within American society (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). Their keen understanding of the complexities of social problems rooted in racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexuality among other categories informs all aspects of the movement and as hooks (1984) notes, participants are able to move their needs to the center from the margin. Twitter as a digital space and the hashtag itself become sites of powers that cannot be understood without intersectional frameworks. Social media is not the movement itself, but it certainly amplifies and clarifies the work of organizers and offers a means for disrupting the silences and erasures.
1. View the article at http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.
2. See interview of Kimberlé Crenshaw at http://www.forharriet.com/2015/02/kimberle-crenshaw-on-black-girls-matter.html.
3. The following is one example that describes efforts by young Black women leaders in the Washington, D.C., area to disrupt White supremacy and racism: http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/articles/2014/12/22/watch-how-women-areleadingtheblacklivesmattermovement.html.
6. See “No One Showed Up to March for Rekia Boyd Last Night” at http://theculture.forharriet.com/2015/04/no-one-showed-up-to-rally-for-rekia.html#ixzz3ZDYWSK00.
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In the summer of 2013, writer and pop-culture analyst Mikki Kendall grew increasingly frustrated watching her friends being viciously attacked online, particularly by a White male academic who identified as a “male feminist.” Kendall’s friends, like her, are women of color engaged in digital activism through social media, particularly Twitter, and through writing in longer form on their own blogs and for online news outlets. Kendall’s friends were being called names, bullied, and threatened by the self-professed male feminist. During a rather public meltdown, the man admitted that he had intentionally “trashed” women of color, posting on Twitter: “I was awful to you because you were in the way” (Kendall, 2013).
The behavior of this one man was hurtful and disappointing, but it was the inaction of prominent White feminist bloggers1 who failed to acknowledge the racist, sexist behavior of one of their frequent contributors that prompted Kendall to create #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.2 Kendall’s hashtag quickly began trending on Twitter and ignited a wide range of discussions about hashtag campaigns as a form of cyberfeminist activism and, more broadly, about social media, feminism, and call-out culture. One journalist, Michelle Goldberg, excoriated Kendall specifically, and women of color more generally, for starting a “toxic Twitter war” that is destructive for feminism (Goldberg, 2014). Another journalist referred to Kendall’s hashtag in ← 41 | 42 → a sideways swipe at the “convulsions of censoriousness” among American liberals online, which he saw as damaging for all of liberalism (Chait, 2015). A third journalist, Jon Ronson, wrote sympathetically about a White woman who lost her PR job because of “one stupid Tweet” (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) that “blew up” her life (Ronson, 2015). Ronson is also the author of a book about being “publicly shamed,” and his focus is on the destructiveness of call-out culture and social media on the lives of otherwise well-intentioned people. While not about White feminism online, Ronson’s account of the “one stupid Tweet” incident completely elided the racism of the woman’s remarks and instead reconfigured her as a victim of those who called her out online, including many of the women of color Kendall was supporting with her hashtag activism. This is precisely what Goldberg argued in her analysis of the “toxicity” online, which she locates within women of color, such as Kendall, and not within dominant White feminism.
What remains unquestioned in these journalistic accounts, and in much of the scholarship to date, is the dominance of White women as architects and defenders of a particular framework of feminism in the digital era. Although a number of scholars have critiqued the first and second waves of feminist movements as rooted in Whiteness (Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982; Truth, 2009; Ware, 1992), there is little existing literature that does lay out a systematic critique of Whiteness in contemporary digital feminist activism. To address this gap in our understanding of White feminism, I examine three case studies of White feminist activism: (1) Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and “Ban Bossy” campaigns, the former tied to her 2013 book of the same name; (2) “One Billion Rising” campaign; and (3) “The Future of Online Feminism,” a report authored by Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin for the #FemFuture project. Through these three case studies I will demonstrate some of the trouble with White feminism.
During the early days of the Internet, some scholars theorized that the emergence of virtual environments and an attendant culture of fantasy would mean an escape from the boundaries of race and the experience of racism. A few imagined that people would go online to escape their embodied racial and gender identities (Nakamura, 2002; Turkle, 1995), and some saw the Internet as a “utopia” where, as the 1990s telecom commercial rendered it, there is “no race, no gender.” The reality that has emerged is quite different. Race and racism persist online, both in ways that are new and unique to the Internet and alongside vestiges of centuries-old forms that reverberate significantly both offline and on (Brock, 2006, 2009; Daniels, 2009, 2013). The reality of the Internet we have today has important implications for understanding Whiteness and feminism. ← 42 | 43 →
The examination of Whiteness in the scholarly literature is well-established (Fine et al., 2004); Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine & Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through social boundaries. A key strategy in maintaining these boundaries involves efforts to define who is, and is not, White. Ample historical evidence demonstrates that the boundaries of Whiteness are malleable across time, place, and social context (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). Another central mechanism of Whiteness is a seeming invisibility, or “unmarked” quality, that allows those within the category “White” to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1988). At the same time, some scholars have noted that Whiteness can also be characterized by a paradoxical “hypervisiblity” (Reddy, 1998). We know that Whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012; Painter, 2010), law (Lopez, 2006; Painter, 2010), social science research methods (Arnesen, 2001; Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our (mis)understanding of U.S. society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 2006; Mills, 1997; Painter, 2010). Much of the writing in the field of Whiteness studies has come from the United States and remains rather myopically focused on the North American context (Bonnett, 2008); however, scholars writing in a transnational, postcolonial framework have begun the work of “re-orienting Whiteness” with a more global lens (Anderson, 2006; Boucher, Carey, & Ellinghaus, 2009).
Those writing in the field of media studies point to British scholar Richard Dyer’s (1988) essay “White” in the film journal Screen as the catalyst for subsequent scholarly considerations of the representational power of Whiteness. Such a reading of the field of Whiteness studies elides the contributions of scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who was writing about Whiteness a century earlier. A number of scholars, from Du Bois onward (e.g., Brock, 2006; Twine & Gallagher, 2008), have been critical observers of Whiteness out of necessity. As bell hooks notes, “Black folks have, from slavery on, shared with one another…knowledge of Whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of White people” (hooks, 1992, p. 165). Still, Dyer’s work, in both the Screen article (1988) and the book-length elaboration of those arguments in White (1997), has been enormously influential in both Whiteness studies and in visual culture studies. Here, too, Dyer follows the path of Du Bois, who used his photo exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle (the 1900 World’s Fair) to address racial inequality through a particular deployment of visual representation (Smith, 2004).
One of the key insights of Whiteness studies is that it is difficult to speak about White pathology because, as Dyer suggests, it falls apart in your hands, or it fades into what is merely “human” (Dyer, 1988, p. 22). Whiteness is a mercurial topic to analyze precisely because it does not inhere in bodies but rather functions to reinforce a system of domination (Nakayama, 2000). The issue is not only ← 43 | 44 → the representation of Whiteness, but what Whiteness is used to do (Projansky & Ono, 1999). The White racial frame (Feagin, 2010) is a key component of how Whiteness gets operationalized in popular culture. Yet Whiteness is not often the focus of critical attention when it comes to discussions of the Internet and race (a notable exception to this is McPherson, 2003), and to date, there is scant research on Whiteness and women online (Daniels, 2009).
The historical antecedents of White feminism are rooted in colonialism. In Beyond the Pale, Ware (1992) examines the ways in which attempts to enlarge the scope of women’s opportunities have historically worked simultaneously to support regimes that restricted such opportunities for people of color. She uses this evidence to make the argument that contemporary feminists’ failure to recognize the function of race in the fashioning of White femininity has a long history. One of Ware’s most enduring contributions is her argument for the political necessity of analyzing Whiteness as an ethnicity. As she observes, “White feminists have managed to avoid dissecting these cultural and racial components of White femininity, although they have become eager to hear what Black women have to say about their racialized and gendered identities” (1992, p. 85). Subsequent research has explained how it is that White feminists “avoid dissecting” White femininity.
Whiteness is crucial in structuring the lived experiences of White women across a variety of contexts. In a qualitative study with White women in California, Frankenberg (1993) found that most White girls had been taught to fear Black men, yet all the women in her small sample said they struggled with trying to situate themselves within or outside of existing structures of racialization. In a study of White women in South London, Byrne (2006) demonstrates how dominant ideas of the “common sense” and “normal” come to be overlaid with racialized notions of Whiteness. In the UK, understanding notions of race among White women is often about understanding silences, because it is regarded as a taboo subject.
However, race is not a taboo subject for all White women, such as those on the far right of the political spectrum. White women on the far right have historically talked about race and continue to do so in the digital era. During the 1920s in the United States, a third of the White native-born women in Indiana belonged to the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (Blee, 2009, p. 125). Blee argues that membership in the WKKK provided White women with an outlet for political participation, social connection, and a sense of belonging and collective importance (p. 128). In the digital era, Stormfront, the global portal for “White pride,” includes a “Ladies Only” discussion board. The women there are openly, explicitly dedicated to discussing the cause of White supremacy while also espousing liberal feminist views. The “ladies” of Stormfront are largely in favor of the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to have an abortion (although they are conflicted about terminating pregnancies that would result in the birth of a White child), and even in favor of some gay rights (as long as they’re still White supremacists). The women in the “Ladies Only” ← 44 | 45 → discussion identify as both White supremacists and as feminists and see no contradiction between these worldviews. This suggests something troubling about liberal feminism. To the extent that liberal feminism articulates a limited vision of gender equality without challenging racial inequality, White feminism is indistinguishable from White supremacy. Without an explicit challenge to racism, White feminism is easily grafted onto White supremacy and becomes a useful ideology with which to argue for equality for White women within a White supremacist context (Daniels, 2009).
In the current multimedia landscape, Whiteness remains an infrequently examined part of feminist digital activism. While there is a growing literature about race and racism in Internet studies (Daniels, 2013), there has not been peer-reviewed academic scholarship to date that critically examines White feminism online. In the section that follows, I take up three case studies of White feminism.
CASE STUDIES OF WHITE FEMINISM
I selected the following case studies for their prominence in American popular culture during 2012–2014. These three cases were also widely discussed among feminists online on blogs and through Twitter. All three of the case studies have strong components of online engagement and digital activism, both by design of their creators and through the comments of feminists and others who are critical of these projects.
THE “LEAN IN” AND “BAN BOSSY” CAMPAIGNS
Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and has recently emerged as a leading spokesperson for a particular kind of feminism. Sandberg has explained that she was encouraged to write Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013) based on her 2010 talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, an online video of which has received more than five million views. Sandberg’s basic message is that there are so few women leaders in politics, government, and corporations because women are limiting themselves. If women can just get out of their own way and “lean in”—by which she means assert themselves in male-dominated offices and boardrooms—then the entire “power structure of the world” will be changed and this will “expand opportunities for all” (Sandberg, 2013). More than a mere self-help book, Lean In is also an online campaign and what Sandberg likes to refer to as “a movement.” Sandberg hopes to inspire women to create their own “Lean In Circles,” or peer support groups, to facilitate “leaning in.” ← 45 | 46 →
Sandberg has conceded that she has only recently begun to identify as a feminist. Her book is her first public declaration of her feminism, but what she articulates is a form of liberal feminism long interwoven with Whiteness, class privilege, colonialism, and heteronormativity (Ahmed, 2006; Collins, 2002; Spelman, 1988; Srivastava, 2005). Sandberg’s answer to her central question—“why there aren’t more women leaders”—is not that there are structural barriers or systematic inequality, but that women need to change. The intended audience for Sandberg’s message is specific and limited: she writes for women in corporate work environments who are heterosexual, married (or planning to marry), cisgender, middle to upper-middle class, and predominantly (though not exclusively) White. Drawing on her experience as an executive at Facebook, and before that at Google, Sandberg instructs her audience on “choosing the right husband” (i.e., one who helps with domestic labor and child care). Searches for the words “lesbian,” “gay,” and “transgender” in the text of Lean In yield no results. Similarly, there are virtually no mentions of African American, Asian American, Native American, or Latina women in the book, nor any discussion of how “leaning in” might be different for women who are not White. Such a narrow conceptualization of who is included in the category of “woman” fits neatly with liberal feminism.
The basic tenets of liberal feminism emphasize equal access to opportunity for women and men. The goal of liberal feminism is for women to attain the same levels of representation, compensation, and power in the public sphere as men. For change to happen, liberal feminists primarily rely on women’s ability to achieve equality through their own individual actions and choices. In the first wave of feminism, this meant advocating for White women’s right to vote; in the second wave, this meant advocating for things like the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, but distancing the movement from the “lavender menace” of lesbians (Frye, 2001). Third wave feminists were more conscientiously intersectional. In her foundational piece, Crenshaw writes: “The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color” (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1252). Sandberg’s version of feminism exemplifies this failure and compounds it by not considering the multiplicity of gender expression or experiences. For Sandberg, the root cause of gender inequality rests with the individual choices women make, and to a lesser extent, society’s beliefs about women, which women then internalize. For there to be “more women leaders,” women need to shake off their temerity, sharpen their elbows, and claim their space at the corporate table. The praxis—the actual work involved that follows from such a perspective—becomes the “motivational work” women must do to and for themselves to fit into the male-dominated corporate structure, not on efforts to change that structure or the economic system upon which it rests.
Given the huge effort of this motivational work, Sandberg says, it is best to start early. Sandberg believes that young girls are being given the wrong messages ← 46 | 47 → in childhood, an idea that is also a familiar tenet of liberal feminism. According to Sandberg, girls with leadership potential are called “bossy,” which is a pejorative in American culture, and they internalize this message. To create change, she envisions a world in which all little girls who were called “bossy” come to see themselves instead as “leaders.” To facilitate this change, Sandberg has now launched a spin-off campaign, in partnership with the Girl Scouts, called “Ban Bossy.” In the illustration for the campaign, a figure of a little girl sits with her head down, playing alone. The large, bold text reads: “Bossy holds girls back” (Girl Scouts of America, 2014). Below that, in a smaller font, the text reads: “Girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem ‘bossy.’” At the bottom, the viewer is directed to visit BanBossy.com. The “twice as likely” claim about the greater concern among girls about seeming “bossy” is a cornerstone for the campaign. This fact is taken from a small subsample (N = 360) of a 2008 study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute; the subsample included those who said they were “not interested” in leadership positions (Girl Scout Research Institute, 2008).
While it is true that 29 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys in the subsample said “I do not want to seem bossy,” this is somewhat misleading in light of the data from the larger sample.3 When looking at the larger sample (N = 2,475 girls, N = 1,514 boys) the data reveal that the lack of interest in leadership is disproportionately a problem among White youth. In fact, the data show that the proportion of youth who think of themselves as leaders is highest among African American girls (75 percent), African American boys (74 percent), and Hispanic girls (72 percent). It is lowest among boys who are White (32 percent) or Asian American (33 percent), and then among White girls (34 percent). Given this breakdown of the sample as a whole, the campaign to “ban bossy” seems to be an effort that would benefit young White girls most, as that is the cohort of girls least likely to see themselves as leaders.
Sandberg has enlisted the support of high-profile women of color to promote the “Ban Bossy” campaign. Some of the promotional posters feature a photo of Sheryl Sandberg, flanked by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Anna Maria Chávez, the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. But the fact that Sandberg has enlisted some prominent women of color to sign on to her campaign does not change the fact that liberal feminism is consistent with White supremacy. As feminist cultural critic bell hooks (2013) writes in her assessment of Lean In,
The call for gender equality in corporate America is undermined by the practice of exclusivity, and usurped by the heteronormative White supremacist bonding of marriage between White women and men. Founded on the principles of White supremacy and structured to maintain it, the rites of passage in the corporate world mirror this aspect of our nation. Let it be stated again and again that race, and more importantly White supremacy, is a taboo subject in the world according to Sandberg. ← 47 | 48 →
In Sandberg’s corporate-themed liberal feminism there is no apparatus—either in theory or in practice—for dealing with race or racism. As long as these are, as bell hooks suggests, a “taboo subject” for liberal feminists, then liberal feminism will continue to be aligned with White supremacy. The focus in Lean In and “Ban Bossy” is on a feminism for women who are White, cisgender, heterosexual, married or about to be, middle or upper-middle class, and working in corporations. Though this is a narrow and exclusive conceptualization of who is a “woman,” this makes no difference for the ideologies and expressions of White feminism.
ONE BILLION RISING (OBR)
Eve Ensler is an American playwright most well known for her play The Vagina Monologues (1998) about rape and sexual violence. Ensler is also a feminist activist who has launched a number of campaigns intended to raise awareness about violence against women, among them the V-Day campaign to stop violence against women. Ensler’s most recent endeavor, One Billion Rising (OBR), is an expansion of the V-Day franchise and intended to reach a broader global audience. As Ensler explains: “We founded V-Day, a global movement to stop such violence 16 years ago, and we have had many victories. But still we have not ended the violence. On February 14, 2013 millions of people rose up and danced in 207 countries with our campaign One Billion Rising” (Ensler, 2013b). Ensler has received numerous awards, including several honorary doctorate degrees, and admirers of her work point to the millions of dollars raised through V-Day events. A supporter of the One Billion Rising project of worldwide dancing praises it as a “good first step” toward how “highlighting a shared problem can encourage the sharing of solutions” (Filipovic, 2013). There is plenty of criticism of Ensler’s work, as well; taken together, these illustrate some of the trouble with White feminism.
There is no account available of why Ensler chose February 14 as the focus for her charitable efforts other than alliteration. The Wikipedia entry for Ensler states that “the ‘V’ in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina.” According to the website for V-Day, “Eve, with a group of women in New York City, established V-Day. Set up as a 501(c)(3) and originally staffed by volunteers, the organization’s seed money came from a star-studded, sold out benefit performance at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, a show that raised $250,000 in a single evening.” At the time of Ensler’s inaugural “star-studded, sold out” event, held in 1998, February 14 was already a signifier for the struggle of Indigenous women. Since 1990, Indigenous and First Nations women in Canada have led marches on February 14 to call attention to the violence against native women. These events, known as the “Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (shared using the hashtag #MMIW), began as a way to commemorate the murder ← 48 | 49 → of an Indigenous woman on Powell Street in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. If Ensler’s V-Day had remained a New York City–based event, or even a U.S.-focused event, this confluence of dates might not have been an issue, but V-Day expanded to Canada. In an “Open Letter to Eve Ensler,” Lauren Chief Elk (2013), a Native American activist, critiqued the organization’s marketing campaign in Canada, writing:
Your organization took a photo of Ashley Callingbull, and used it to promote V-Day Canada and One Billion Rising, without her consent. You then wrote the word “vanishing” on the photo, and implied that Indigenous women are disappearing, and inherently suggested that we are in some type of dire need of your saving. You then said that Indigenous women were V-Day Canada’s “spotlight”. V-Day completely ignored the fact that February 14th is an iconic day for Indigenous women in Canada, and marches, vigils, and rallies had already been happening for decades to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women.
In response, Ensler and a spokesperson for OBR said they did not know that there was a conflict with the date, and then the spokesperson added, “every date in the calendar has importance.” The move into Canada by Ensler’s OBR on a day already commemorated by Indigenous women, using the photo of Ashley Callingbull without permission, and writing “vanishing” on it are forms of theft, appropriation, and erasure of Indigenous women and their activism. Theft, appropriation, and erasure are painful to those whose work is being stolen and whose very existences are being erased. Yet, through the lens of White feminism, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stay focused on Indigenous women’s pain of erasure. As Lauren Chief Elk (2013) goes on to explain in her letter, “When I told you that your White, colonial, feminism is hurting us, you started crying. Eve, you are not the victim here.” Theft, appropriation, and erasure are key strategies of settler colonialism, a disturbingly consistent feature of OBR.
A central activity of OBR events is dancing. As Ensler explains, “It turns out that dancing, as the women of Congo taught me, is a most formidable, liberating and transformative energy” (Ensler, 2013b). However, some Congolese women do not share Ensler’s enthusiasm for dancing as a response to systematic sexual violence. In a meeting of “radical grassroots feminists” that she attended in London, Gyte (2013) described listening to a Congolese woman express anger toward One Billion Rising, using words like “insulting” and “neo-colonial” to describe the campaign. The woman pointed out that it would be difficult to imagine a White, middle-class, educated, American woman (like Ensler) turning up on the scene of some other kind of atrocity to tell survivors to “rise” above the violence they have seen and experienced by dancing—“imagine someone doing that to holocaust survivors” (Gyte, 2013). Ensler has made several trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo and reported for Western audiences on the use of rape as a weapon of war, ← 49 | 50 → which may be useful for raising awareness about systematic sexual violence, but the move to take a Congolese tradition of dance and use it as a campaign strategy for OBR suggests a form of appropriation. This is not an isolated instance.
Following a diagnosis of cancer, Ensler wrote about her experiences in a memoir, In the Body of the World (2013a). The memoir, subtitled A Memoir of Cancer and Connection, is not a typical narrative of disease and recovery, but instead conflates stories of the sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her own experience of illness. In a section of the memoir called “Congo Stigmata,” Ensler writes:
Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and the bowel and had “fistulated” the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them. (p. 41)
Here, Ensler equates her cancer with the systematic sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not because they are similarly situated politically, geographically, or economically, but because she “ended up having the same surgery as many of them.” With the reference to her illness as a “stigmata,” Ensler conjures the symbolism of the Christian tradition, positioning herself either as a Christ figure or a saint.
The memoir also recounts some of Ensler’s travels to Africa and reflections on her vision of the Earth itself, “pillaged and exploited for political and material gain, polluted with its own virulent cancers,” as one reviewer of the book wrote in the New York Times (McNatt, 2013). The confluence of Ensler’s assessment of the Democratic Republic of Congo as “the worst situation I’ve seen of women anywhere in the world” (2007) in terms of experiencing sexual violence; her characterization of herself in a (White) savior through the evocation of stigmata; that she chose Africa as a destination for finding “a second wind” and embracing “a second life”; and naming as the impetus for her OBR campaign her own “destiny to birth the new paradigm” (2013a, pp. 213, 211) together suggest some of the deep trouble with White feminism.
The White feminism of the OBR campaign is rooted in what Toni Morrison (1992) refers to as “sycophancy of White identity” in which White writers use Africa as a means to contemplate their own terror and desire (p. 19). When such critiques are levied at Ensler’s work, often by women of color, many White feminists come to her defense to argue that she is “doing good work” and thus should be released from any obligation to respond to such criticism, as happened recently (Romano, 2015). When such controversies erupt, they are dismissed as the result of disgruntled, envious, or “angry” women of color who are “using” social media to “attack” well-meaning White feminists (Goldberg, 2014). Such a misreading of the situation derails any sustained critique of the architecture of White feminism, ← 50 | 51 → such as OBR, or its leading figures, like Ensler. But what of the work that has been produced with the millions of dollars raised from V-Day events and OBR?
The kinds of change brought about through Ensler’s activism further highlight the trouble with White feminism. In describing what change looks like as a result of OBR, Ensler (2013b) writes:
In Guatemala, Marsha Lopez, part of the V-Day movement since 2001, says the most important result of OBR was the creation of a law for the criminalisation of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18.
Through speaking for and through Marsha Lopez of Guatemala, Ensler identifies “criminalization of perpetrators” as the greatest achievement of OBR. Such an approach to systematic sexual violence, which relies primarily on engagement by the State, does not acknowledge—and indeed cannot conceptualize—the ways in which the State is an agent of sexual violence, nor does it acknowledge the ways in which the State enacts violence against some men. The latter is what Bernstein refers to as carceral feminism, with incarceration as the underlying paradigm for justice (Bernstein, 2014, p. 70). The focus on incarceration as a solution to gender inequalities is both insufficient to address the problems of systematic sexual violence (across differences of race, national context, and gender identity) and shifts the focus to another system of oppression that in the United States consumes the bodies of Black and Brown men. To be sure, the carceral paradigm of justice is part of the trouble with the White feminism of Ensler’s One Billion Rising.
The Future of Online Feminism
Digital activism is the most important advance in feminism in 50 years, but it is in crisis and unsustainable. This is the central message of a report released in April 2013 by the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). The report, called The Future of Online Feminism (using the hashtag #FemFuture), was written by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti, both involved at different times with the prominent feminist blog Feministing.com. While less widely known than the work of Sandberg or Ensler, the report by Martin and Valenti seems to encapsulate a set of debates about digital activism; as with Sandberg and Ensler, the report illustrates some of the trouble with White feminism.
Martin and Valenti, currently the co-principals of a communications consulting firm, approached BCRW about doing a report on the “online revolution” in feminism. A key observation of the report is that “many have called feminist blogs the 21st century version of consciousness raising” (Martin & Valenti, 2013, p. 3). The 34-page report sets out an overview of what the authors call “online feminism,” by which they mean blogs and online petitions in support of feminist issues. ← 51 | 52 → The report was informed by a one-day “convening” of online feminists in June 2012, but it is authored by Martin and Valenti and contains their vision. While they recognize that the emergence of digital technologies has been a boon to feminist causes, Martin and Valenti contend that online feminism is at “a crisis point” because feminist bloggers are not getting paid for their activism, thus making such activism “unsustainable.” But, as the BCRW’s introduction to the report explains, “Martin and Valenti had a compelling vision to make the landscape of feminist writers and activists online stronger” and they proposed doing this through a variety of tactics (Martin & Valenti, 2013, p. 2).
When it was released, there was an immediate negative reaction to the report, which was voiced largely, but not exclusively, by women of color (Johnson, 2013; Loza, 2014). Many objected to the closed-ended nature of the report, which was released in Portable Document Format (PDF), which does not allow for commenting, an ironic choice for a report about the power of the Internet for engaging wide audiences in feminist causes. #FemFuture, created by the authors to publicize the report, instead quickly became a mechanism for focused criticism.
Some critics took issue with Martin and Valenti’s historical account of online feminism. In describing the emergence of feminists’ use of the Internet to share stories, raise awareness, and organize collective actions, the authors of the report assert that “[the feminist Internet’s] creation was largely accidental…. Women were quietly creating spaces for themselves, all the while not realizing they were helping to build the next frontier of the feminist movement” (Martin & Valenti, 2013, p. 6). Veronica Arreola, who created and maintains the blog Viva La Feminista, responded to the report with wide-ranging critique, particularly this latter finding. Specifically, she points to her extensive feminist online organizing from the mid-1990s to the present and observes, “None of this was an accident” (Arreola, 2013). Arreola’s piece goes on to attribute this mistake to the fact that “this call to action read to me as a young feminist document” that “plays into the stereotype that no one over 30 is online.” She then questions who might lead in online feminism.
There is a tension in the report, enlarged in the criticisms that followed, between the document’s authorship by two White women and the racially diverse 2012 gathering that informed the report. Many of the criticisms of the report saw the invitation-only convening of “a core group of trailblazing feminists working online” as cliquish, if not elitist. Martin and Valenti write that “what transpired was no less than historic,” but it is not clear what was historic about the gathering. Although the convening included a racially diverse group of feminists engaged online—a fact mentioned often to defend the report as inclusive—the document ultimately contains the vision of Martin and Valenti. The authors suggest the possibility of intersectionality when they write that theirs is “boundary-crossing work—cross-generational, cross-class, cross-race, cross just about every line that ← 52 | 53 → still divides us both within and outside of the feminist movement” (Martin & Valenti, 2013, p. 4). This is the only mention of race, generation, or class in the text. However, the report does name a number of women of color who were included, without their permission and without invitations to the convening, as exemplars of online feminism. For many observers, the process of developing, writing, and releasing the report was one that centered elite White women’s experiences while using the presence of women of color—at the convening and in textual examples—to avoid that insinuation. As Susana Loza (2014) observes, “The production of the #FemFuture report is emblematic of the White liberal feminist approach to its perceived exclusivity: symbolic multiculturalism.”
The trouble with the White feminism of the report is rooted in the ideas, if not quite theories, that inform it. Martin and Valenti write that they were inspired to create a “feminist version” of something called “collective impact,” a model for social change developed by nonprofit consultants John Kania and Mark Kramer. The central concept that Martin and Valenti take from this model is that the key to large-scale social change is convening power and agenda setting. What make these effective, according to Kania and Kramer (2011), is a “shared vision for change, one that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.” The formidable challenge in trying to create a feminist version of the Kania and Kramer model is finding a “shared vision” among feminists that includes a “common understanding of the problem.” It may be that Martin and Valenti believed that they had arrived at this based on the convening of 21 “trailblazing” feminists, but they did not—and, with such a small group, indeed could not, however diverse the group or well-intentioned the organizers. Instead, Martin and Valenti proceeded with the “convening power” and “agenda setting” without the shared vision and this, in many ways, illustrates some of the trouble with White feminism.
The crisis that the report identifies among feminist online activists is primarily an economic one, with affective peril a close second. It is not surprising, then, that the solutions Martin and Valenti offer include a wide range of tactics and strategies to make feminist blogging economically lucrative and more emotionally satisfying. Some of the proposed solutions include sponsoring a “Feminist Business Boot Camp” (a weeklong opportunity to learn about business and financial structures and examine social business case studies), “Corporate Partnerships” (not every corporation’s mission and operations would fit within the ethical and political framework that many online feminists demand of our partners), and “Self-Care & Solidarity Retreats” (order to reconnect with renewed purpose and clarity). The proposed solutions in the report are a combination of economic empowerment and emotional uplift, with an ambitious overall goal: “We must create a new culture of work, a vibrant and valued feminist economy that could resolve an issue that’s existed for waves before us” (Martin & Valenti, 2013, p. 23). ← 53 | 54 →
In many ways, what Martin and Valenti are proposing is a well-trod path in the world of women’s blogging conferences, most notably the BlogHer franchise. At these blogging conferences, which began in 2005 to highlight the work of women bloggers, thousands of women, predominantly White, come together looking for emotional support and for ways to “monetize”—make money from—their blogs. Although not explicitly a form of feminist organizing, there is a kind of women’s empowerment ethos to these conferences. Reporters from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have covered the BlogHer conferences, but the Whiteness of women’s blogging conferences is rarely remarked on by the mainstream media. However, the racial composition of these conferences is set in relief when contrasted with the Blogalicious conference, developed and attended by African American women; there is also stark difference in sponsorship between the two conferences. Research on sponsorship at these conferences from 2007–2009 found that there were consistently more than 40 sponsors at BlogHer, many of them corporations such as GM, which provided cars for attendees, and some of the top tech firms, while there were fewer than 10 sponsors at Blogalicious, and many of these were small or single proprietor businesses (Daniels, 2011). The top women bloggers who are touted as financial success stories at BlogHer are almost always White (e.g., Heather Armstrong, a well-known “mommy blogger,” is a millionaire), while women of color bloggers talk about the struggle to attract sponsorship for their blogs. This stark difference speaks to the racialized political economy in which White women earn more than African American, Native American, and Latina women; this includes income earned from doing work online, such as blogging for feminist causes. What Martin and Valenti miss in their proposed “new culture of work, a vibrant and valued feminist economy” is the way that race still matters in the economy. In contrast to some in the “waves that came before,” who might have been critical of the idea of feminism joined seamlessly with capitalism, the Martin and Valenti report, like the women’s blogging conferences, embraces the idea of a corporate-sponsored feminism. And this fits very neatly with White feminism.
There are a number of challenges with discussing White feminism. For women of color, the initial challenge is simply being heard, as they are frequently ignored. Once their voices have registered, they risk being bullied and verbally abused (or worse). Most likely they will be called “angry,” or in some cases, accused of starting a “war” (Goldberg, 2014). These misreadings of critique as attack cause some White women to further retreat from engaging about race and may lead to their excluding women of color from feminist organizing to avoid even the ← 54 | 55 → possibility of criticism. For White women like myself, speaking out about White feminism is to risk hurt feelings and the loss of connection with other White women—and the opportunities that come with that. Even as I was writing this piece, I could not keep from my mind the White women I know who might be upset by my writing this. To speak about White feminism, then, is to speak against a social order.
When Mikki Kendall’s hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was trending, many White feminists reporting feeling hurt, attacked, wounded, or simply left out of the conversation (Van Deven, 2013). In many ways, the reaction to challenges to White feminism causes “unhappiness,” which, as Sara Ahmed (2010) explains, can be a good thing:
To be willing to go against a social order, which is protected as a moral order, a happiness order is to be willing to cause unhappiness, even if unhappiness is not your cause. To be willing to cause unhappiness might be about how we live an individual life (not to choose “the right path” is readable as giving up the happiness that is presumed to follow that path)…. To be willing to cause unhappiness can also be how we immerse ourselves in collective struggle, as we work with and through others who share our points of alienation. Those who are unseated by the tables of happiness can find each other.
As I read it, Ahmed’s is a hopeful analysis for those who seek to challenge White feminism. For those who are willing to cause unhappiness by challenging White feminism, we can find each other as we work together and share our alienation from it.
The era of digital activism presents new opportunities for digital feminism; at the same time the intersectional Internet makes challenging hegemonic White feminism easier and more effective. Twitter, in particular, is changing the landscape of feminism. Loza (2014) notes the proliferation of hashtags created by feminists of color with intersectional themes and observes “these hashtags are a direct indictment of the parochial vision of online feminism articulated in the #FemFuture report.”
Mikki Kendall agrees: “I do know that Twitter is changing everything. Now, people are forced to hear us and women of color no longer need the platform of White feminism because they have their own microphones” (qtd. in Vasquez, 2013). If the goal is a sustained critique of White feminism, then we have to see Twitter as a key tool in that effort.
To sustain a challenge to White feminism, we have to become more adept at critically examining Whiteness. As it is elsewhere in the sociopolitical landscape, when race is addressed in and by feminist blogs, the subject is nearly always raised by a person of color (de la Peña, 2010, p. 926). Challenging White feminism means, at the very least, bringing up race and recognizing that White people have race. To go further, we must understand the ways that constructing and protecting ← 55 | 56 → Whiteness has been a core feature in the rise of the popular Internet (de la Peña, 2010, p. 936), and we must join this with a dissection of how White feminism has benefitted from this technological development.
In conclusion, I discussed three case studies of White feminism that were widely circulated in popular culture in recent years. The focus in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the “Ban Bossy” campaign is on women and girls doing the motivational work necessary to assert themselves in the workplace and think of themselves as leaders from an early age. While Sandberg admits she is new to feminism, her ideas are in sync with the tenets of liberal feminism. Sandberg’s vision of the world is one in which all the women are White, cisgender, heterosexual, married or about to be, middle or upper-middle class, and working in corporations. In other words, they are like her. Sandberg’s experiences as a woman become the stand-in for all women’s experiences, and this is some of the trouble with White feminism. Although Sandberg includes some prominent women of color in her promotional materials for “Ban Bossy,” her brand of liberal feminism does nothing to challenge White supremacy, but instead is quite consistent with it.
The V-Day and One Billion Rising campaigns created by playwright Eve Ensler have raised millions of dollars and much awareness about sexual violence, yet they have been criticized for theft, erasure, and neocolonial practices with regard to Indigenous and Native women. Her conflation of her own cancer with the experience of survivors of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo and her use of the phrase “Congo Stigmata” to describe her illness point to the problematic White savior rhetoric and politics within Ensler’s work. The policy emphasis of One Billion Rising on the “incarceration of perpetrators” completely elides the way that the State is implicated in systemic violence, including sexual violence. The focus on carceral justice is a key part of the trouble with White feminism.
The BCRW report, The Future of Online Feminism, repeats some of the old trouble with White feminism from previous waves and presents some new ones. The report’s authors, Martin and Valenti, published a report that was supposedly based on a shared vision of what the future of online feminism might look like, but they based it mostly on their own experiences as White feminists and in consultation with a gathering of 21 racially diverse feminist bloggers. The report met with immediate and heated criticism on the hashtag #FemFuture, much of it for the thoroughly closed way the report was developed, written, and released, which is anathema to those used to the Open Web. Their lack of technological transparency and accountability is a new kind of trouble with White feminism. Martin and Valenti proposed a set of economic and affective strategies to bring about a new, ← 56 | 57 → creative, feminist economy, but they proposed these without taking into account the way race matters in the political economy, a very old kind of trouble with White feminism.
Taken together, Sandberg’s Lean In and “Ban Bossy,” Eve Ensler’s V-Day and OBR, and The Future of Online Feminism report reveal some of the dominance of White women as architects and defenders of a framework of feminism in the digital era.
Challenging White feminism in favor of an intersectional feminism that centers the experiences of Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, queer, disabled, and trans women is to speak against a social order. To challenge White feminism is also to risk causing unhappiness, but this is a risk we must take so that we can find each other in our resistance to it.
1. Kendall named Jill Filipovic, Jessica Coen, Jessica Valenti, and Amanda Marcotte, in particular. They have written (or founded) popular feminist sites such as Feministing, Jezebel, and Pandagon.
2. For the uninitiated, a hashtag is merely a word or phrase with a # symbol in front of it. It is a way to have a conversation around a topic on Twitter; if it catches on, the hashtag is said to be “trending,” and appears on a sidebar that attracts even more attention to it.
3. For the subsample used for the statistic in the promotional material for the campaign, the data on race are not reported but they are for the full sample.
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