Uneven Ground and the Problem of Identity-Building Online

The readings from Learning Race and Ethnicity and It’s Complicated together dismantle the utopian internet myth of an online space governed by its own unique “conditions,” entered “without privilege or prejudice,” and experienced “without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Quite on the contrary, Byrne, Taborn, and Boyd in particular expose the complexities of the internet experience and give special attention to communities of youth and racial and ethnic minorities. Their work not only proves that the conditions of the real world are reflected in online life, but that, ironically, the internet can serve as a soundboard and virtual reinforcer of long-held beliefs, bigotries, and behaviors witnessed in the physical world. Much like the cyborg body discussed in class, the internet is an extension and exploration of a human self in the same way that a superpower can at once modify yet limit a sci-fi character. Boyd argues that although the internet equips people with new powers of persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability, it also “reinforces old existing connections. It does enable new types of access to information, but people’s experiences of that access are uneven at best” (Boyd 11 and 155). It this idea of uneven ground that struck me most about living and growing up online.



Image from: http://blogs.birmingham.k12.mi.us/fazzolaragilmoreblog/2014/02/03/watsons-does-fair-always-mean-equal/


The uneven ground starts before we enter and engage the internet, but it is then exaggerated in haphazard and hurtful interactions. Taborn looks at myths around black adoption of technology and dispels the notion that black students don’t like math (they often report higher than average enjoyment of the subject) and that they fail to adopt new tools as fast as whites. She argues that the STEM divide begins with socio-historical inaccuracies, most notably that minority figures have been left out of the history of technology and black students left without role models who look like them. Taborn explains that “contemporary media images and history take on critical roles in shaping [black youth’s] relationship to science and technology” just as white American culture has long been shaped by the notion that it comes from “an inventive people” (Taborn 40). As white and black children approach online experiences and technological problems (one without role models, the other reinforced by the idea of belonging), they begin from uneven backgrounds which then grant them unequal levels of comfort and ownership in the internet and its tools. Similarly, Boyd writes of interactions with two young girls from LA’s gang- and violence-ridden neighborhoods and finds that well before they reached the classroom and began their social media experiences they had learned “the racial organization” of their schools and dangerous realities of their neighborhoods. But when prodded to react to unwelcome or unsafe physical and social environments, the girls replied that “that’s just the unwritten code” and “that’s just what happens” (Boyd 155-156). As Professor Martin often argues, even remaining neutral and accepting “the unwritten code” is a political act.



Peter Steiner, New Yorker 1993


Uneven ground is also not simply a condition one enters the internet in – it’s also reinforced and reproduced through online exchanges that uphold the status quo and draw boundaries around race and identity. Byrne examines Community Connect Inc.’s suite of ethnoracial community sites and finds the “underlying assumption in the rhetoric that there are essential properties to one’s racial or ethnic identity” (Byrne 29). She describes how in the Asian and Latino communities, there is an emphasis on native language as an identifier, while in the black community blackness has a positive relationship with “blood” and skin tone. These identifiers have the dual and confusing effect of both creating community and shared identity but also enforcing limitations on who gets to share in that identity and, consequently, whose voice is most valid. Latinas who can’t speak Spanish are perceived as being less connected to their heritage, and light skinned or politically conservative blacks are suggested to be approximating levels of whiteness that make the rest of the black community feel  less comfortable (Byrne 27-29).



^ What does this even mean?? And why can you get it printed on mugs and t-shirts??


The idea of self-perpetuated stereotyping has interested me my entire life. Despite being ¾ black myself, I often feel like an outsider to black social life in a way that makes me concerned about the uneven ground the internet perpetuates within niche ethnic communities. By virtue of my lighter skin tone and suburban upbringing I sometimes find I’m implicitly labeling myself as “too white” to participate in black email groups or online forums. I worry that I’ll expose myself as being too unexperienced in the dominant narrative of black sociality — a narrative constructed first by the white, status-quo and then reimagined and sometimes reinforced by the black community itself. And although I used to share Boyd’s interviewees’ sentiments that it’s “just the way” it is, I’ve recently begun to look for ways to advocate for more inclusive definitions of experience too.


Discussion Questions:

1. Byrne discusses John Rawl’s philosophy of consensus, which requires that  participants “strip themselves of their private interests” in order to participate in public life. Byrne argues, however, that communication networks have created a forum for social action that doesn’t require the abandonment of private interests. How do you see this debate playing out in experience?

2. What are some ways we can use the internet to level the uneven social and technological ground discussed in this week’s reading?

3. Byrne mentions the idea of “hush harbors,” or quasi-unmonitored public spaces (think: black barbershop). What are some of the “hush harbors” on Harvard’s campus? And how do they go about identity-building?




Works Cited:

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.


Taborn, Tyrone D. 2008. “Separating race from technology : finding tomorrow’s IT progress in the past.” InLearning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.39-59.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s