As I was looking through the course catalogue at the start of this semester, this course immediately jumped out to me. This course was perfect for my social studies focus field on “Representations of African-Americans in the Media.” Additionally, this course stood out to me because it promised to take me through the historical structures that shaped technological and racial discourse today. Now, as I reflect on the semester, I have come away with so much than what is listed on the courses’ syllabus.
This reflective essay assignment kind of allows me to come full-circle to the start of my semester. Our first assignment for this course was to write a digital autobiography that required me to trace my journey alongside technology and look back on how technology has shaped my upbringing. While that first assignment required me to reflect backwards on how the Internet and technology have impacted my development until now, this assignment allows me to think back on this course and how it fits in with my life long journey thinking about the implications of race in technology.
Now I would like to talk about how the units in this course that were the most formative. Even though all of the units in this course were incredibly helpful to my understanding of race and formations of technology, there are particular units in this course that really expanded my view on what racism is and what ‘counts’ as technology.
I think my favorite unit hands down was “Slavery and Capitalism.” This unit really helped me broaden my definition of what constituted technology. In our modern era of computers, phones, the Internet, apps, etc., I only thought of technology in terms of digital tools. This unit reminded me of a technology class I took in sixth grade. My teacher told us, “Technology is anything that is designed to simplify human life.” Since the “Slavery and Capitalism” unit, my sixth grade teacher’s definition has become my working definition of technology.
The “Slavery and Capitalism” unit also taught me that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are always social and political constraints on how and who uses technology. The technologies we use are always colored by a complicated history based in capitalist structures. The Seth Rockman reading “The Future of the Civil War Era Studies” and the Darla Thompson dissertation “The Materiality of Slavery” really drove home these points.
What I found most intriguing was how American students are socialized to believe that capitalism is a 20th century phenomenon, and not something that has been occurring since the beginning of slavery. The tales of the slave collars in the Thompson reading also moved me. Never did I think about technology as a means to subordinate an entire race of people. I was able to draw connections between the controls of the collars in the era of slavery to today’s technologies of control.
In addition to expanding my definition of technology, this unit also helped me realize the important role technology can play in reparations for slavery. Professor Vince Brown’s work on digitizing the narratives of slaves and providing interactive tools to tell stories that would have otherwise gone unheard was incredibly moving.
I think the most eye-opening unit was “Ownership, Privacy, and Information.” Throughout all of the readings and the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, my jaw was always slightly agape, There is a wealth of information collected on you, even if you don’t have a social media website. The data collection that is mundane today would have been fodder for a dystopian novel thirty years ago. This unit caused me to think critically about the disparities that exist in technological literacy. There is a huge gap in the knowledge and resources that everyday people, much less people of color or economically disadvantaged people, have to battle behemoth social media agencies. It is also concerning how little regulation there is to defend the privacy rights of citizens. The government has access to so much personal data that could be damaging to the lives of average citizens.
The units that challenged the most on how I think about my identity the most were “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality.” As a black woman from rural Georgia with Caribbean parentage, I always had a hard time thinking about my own blackness in relation to these sometimes-monolithic definitions of blackness. I really enjoyed Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black. This comedic memoir and social commentary really resonated with me. I also enjoyed the Andre Brock reading on Black Twitter. Brock really got at my own thinking: why do people always want to study what black people do, but at the same time if people do not study ‘blackness’ then there is no dialogue to encourage action that makes social structures that benefits black people.
Both pieces reminded me of the idea of black people being ‘unicorns.’ I always remember growing up how impressed people were with me—not always by my personality or skills. Instead they were impressed that me—a black girl with a ‘ghetto’ name—was as smart and capable as I am. I was definitely always the unicorn of my friends in high school. I also realized that being the resident black person in many settings is a huge responsibility that I did not choose to bear. The “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality” units pushed me to think about how I use social media and other story telling tools to add more diversity to the conversations of blackness. I have a unique voice because of all the identities I possess—very few, if anyone else, can provide the perspective I offer.
Overall, this course has been incredibly meaningful to me. As an aspiring journalist, this course gave me tools and strategies that will help me do a better job of telling the stories of people. This course also made me more thoughtful about what structures impact how and when particular individuals make the news. Going forward, I am going to be more cognizant about how to present news through graphics, long-form articles, and smaller packages that are more reader friendly.
In my time at Harvard, I don’t I have every interacted with a professor or teaching fellow as much as I have talked with Carla and Kera. Even though all of my classes won’t be small seminars, I am now more inclined to reach out to my professors and talk to them about my interests. I only have four years as an undergraduate at Harvard, so I need to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge surrounding me. I have also never spoken up as much as I have in this course. Being brave enough to put your ideas forward is incredibly important to enhancing not only your own learning, but also the learning of everyone else in the room.
For the rest of my time at Harvard and for the rest of my life, I would like to challenge myself to the following: 1) Always write, 2) Always speak up, and 3) Always treat people as people.
Brock, André. 2012. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56 (4): 529–49.
Thurston, Baratunde. 2012. How to Be Black. New York, NY: Harper. (selections)
Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.
Rockman, Seth. 2012. “The Future of Civil War Era Studies: Slavery and Capitalism.” Journal of the Civil War Era. http://journalofthecivilwarera.com/forum-the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies/the-future-of-civilwar-era-studies-slavery-and-capitalism/.
Thompson, Darla J. 2014. “The Materiality of Slavery.” In Circuits of Containment: Iron Collars, Incarceration and the Infrastructure of Slavery. Cornell University dissertation, pp. 1-57.