This week’s readings featured perhaps the most worried over group at any given point in history: youth. More specifically, youth “growing up” on the Internet and growing up with the rapid advancement of digital technologies, a reality that has prompted some theorists to term my generation and Generation Z “digital natives.” As dana boyd astutely points out, however, utopian dreams of the Internet ushering in a new era of human relations seems to leave behind the differential experiences of youth’s online interactions (boyd 22).
Thus, instead of asking whether growing up on the Internet has radically changed today’s youth, three more productive questions that we can address towards youth and the Internet seem to be: 1) In what ways do digital technologies provide a medium through which existing social realities manifest? 2) How do these new(ish) structures provide openings for underrepresented youth, often youth of color, to combat structural oppression and express their own realities? 3) In a community that prides itself on openness and lack of regulation, how can the structural inequalities emerging through digital technologies be remedied?
Byrne offers a unique case study for the first question through her investigation of online ethnic communities on AsianAvenue.com, BlackPlanet.com, and MiGente.com from 1999 to 2006. Finding that members of these communities often rejected essentialized notions of Asian-ness, blackness, or Latino-ness imposed by those external to their communities, much of the activity that occurred in these forum also revolved around self-definition and self-policing of the “true” characteristics of these identity formations (Byrne 30). Though I had never heard of any of these platforms until reading this article, this observation rings true for the online ethnic communities I have been a part of on Facebook, which since the 2006-2007 time period that boyd highlighted as a critical separation period when white people took to Facebook while people of color tended to stick with MySpace, has become slightly more inclusive.
The two Facebook groups I have experience with in particular are Asians Not Brainwashed by the Media and Global Asians for Action and Social Change. The second group was created in reaction to sexist, racist, and generally intolerant Asian men, often Chinese nationals, who have come to dominate the Asians Not Brainwashed by the Media group (ANBM) which has over 3,000 members and was started six years ago as a forum for members of the Asian diaspora to discuss and critique media depictions of our communities. Below I’ve included an interaction I had on ANBM that illustrates the mess that this group has become:
Thus, even more specifically than Byrne perhaps had the opportunity to go into with her article, ANBM demonstrates the sort of policing of identity and community of duty that is specifically gendered and shames Asian women who choose to date white men as unintelligent race traitors.
Beyond the implosion of ethnic community that I have seen occur in this setting, the readings do offer examples of more positive examples where the possibilities of digital technology have not failed completely. Sandoval and Latorre’s article on Judy Baca’s work with youth of color expressing themselves through technologies familiar to them offer an important example of educator activists doing it right and bridging the gap between utopian dreams of online empowerment and students’ realities.
I am more skeptical of Taborn’s vision for empowering youth of color to move into greater ownership of digital technology, however. Though he rightly identifies the erasure of people of color’s role in developing technology as playing a part in youth of color having fewer role models in STEM fields, the listing of potential heroes that dominated the article leaves little room to discuss ways in which these fields present barriers to women and people of color who choose this way. It’s not just that the education system manages expectations differently for youth of color and that Michael Jordan is a bigger name than Mark Dean, but that these fields in and of themselves have cultures toxic to underrepresented minorities.
Furthermore, grounding this conversation in the tired “we need to catch up with China” rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of earlier forms of anti-Asian racism ala 19th century Yellow Peril propaganda as seen below:
Compare this image to this news article from 2011, where the narrative has shifted from immorality and corruption to “oh shit they might be doing capitalism better than us”:
Oooo scary Chinese people. Of course, this is not to say that this argument plays no purpose in the context of advocacy for supporting youth of color in STEM fields. The argument that the whole of the United States and thus the white majority will incur harm if it doesn’t “build human capital” in people of color is often necessary to get power players to support policies and programs that put this country closer to equal opportunity.
However, using the looming behemoth of China to galvanize support for youth of color perpetuates the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes that confront Asian Americans in the country, which I am not here for. I am also not here for those who can only understand equal opportunity and valuing youth of color in the context of cost and benefit analyses of global economic domination.
But, as the title states, it’s complicated. The reality of the Internet is that systems of oppression structure interactions within and ownership of online spaces just as they do “in real life.” The strategic arguments that must be deployed to get youth of color the resources they need to succeed in the tech industry and gain access to traditionally white male spaces may be problematic. At the same time, however, the possibilities made available by the Internet do provide a new set of tools that can be leveraged to amplify voices that have historically been silenced and shine a light on structures that must be dismantled. And that’s a silver lining I can believe in.
boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Byrne, Dara N. 2008. “The future of (the) race: identity and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 15-38.
Kix, Paul. 30 April 2011. “China’s Economic Takeover: The World’s Next Superpower by 2016.” Daily Beast.
Yellow Peril Propaganda Image. knowledgeequalsblackpower.tumblr.com/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2014 via Google Images.
Sandoval, Chela and Guisela Latorre. 2008. “Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 81-108.
Taborn, Tyrone D. 2008. “Separating race from technology : finding tomorrow’s IT progress in the past.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 39-59.