Complicity in Processes of Oppression — And Why Everyone is at Fault for the Status of Gaming

My little brother is 12 years old and, for years, has loved the online gaming world much to my parents’ dismay. My mother and father were never big fans of “distractions” like television, chat rooms, or unlimited texting but they were especially concerned about gaming. Their complaints were unlike most parents – it was not the gratuitous violence, disturbing or dystopian topics that irked them most, but rather the homogeneity and whiteness widely constructed and reinforced through games that heroified white men. They were also aware that many of these games included chat rooms and live action discussion, and so they worried that my brother would be exposed to mature language and bullying in a space that they could not knowledgably monitor or navigate. Their worst fears came true one afternoon when they received a phone call from my brother’s summer camp counselors. My brother, a black boy and only age 8 at the time, had been going around camp calling other (white) children “niggers.” That night he explained to my parents that he (clearly) had no idea what the word meant, but that “lots of people had been saying it online.”

My project will explore racism and sexism in the gaming world. I will ask who bears the brunt of responsibility for cyber-prejudice – the gamers who often engage in racist, exclusionary, and misogynistic discussion, or the developers and advertisers who first constructed fantasies that promoted the identities and preferences of white, straight men while making invisible the perspectives of alternative players? I will also look at how marginalized subgroups of gamers are coping with and reacting to hostility in gaming. By and large, the corporate gaming world resists responsibility for the behavior of its consumers and remains disinterested in promoting alternative gaming experiences. Responses from the marginalized span a wide range – in the wake of the recent #GamerGate controversy, many have begun publicly advocating for the corporate and structural dismantling of prejudice, while others have taken a vigilante approach, resisting or fighting back against individual experiences of intolerance. I examine the corporate side of the debate by looking in depth at the recent Intel scandal, and then I examine individual-level responses by looking at the activities of marginalized gaming communities. I find that what is missing from much of the mainstream debate about gaming is an understanding of how an industry and its participants cooperate in a feedback system. Although both sides acknowledge the existence of prejudice, they are hesitant to admit that the relationship between the developers, their products, and the consumers is, in fact, a core part of the process of status quo reinforcement.

racistgamer

Popular memes like this one are indicative of the pervasive presence of intolerance in gaming. They illustrate both how distinguishable and how limiting the mainstream gamer identity is perceived to be – in few words and images, this meme argues that “young, white, male, and aggressive” are the traits that resonate most with the gaming world. (Original Source/Creator Unknown)

There is relatively little academic research around racism and sexism in online gaming, but what is available tends to either explore the corporate and structural problems with gaming or the experiences of the marginalized. Peck, Ketchum, and Embrick in Racism and Sexism in the Gaming World analyze the product advertisements in two major gaming magazines, PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World and find that the quality of representation of women and minorities is far lower than that of white males. They “found minorities were generally limited to stereotypical roles or excluded,” “women were typically depicted in sexualized roles” and that “no significant gains have been made” in the past two decades of gaming advertising For example, they report finding only one black and female character represented in all of their advertisements from last 20 years.[1] The authors seem to suggest that the gaming industry and advertising, through careful selection of its characters and the roles and characteristics ascribed to them, is maintaining a culture of white male preference. In the dissertation Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live Kishonna Gray discusses the experiences of women of color on Xbox Live and how their confrontations with racialized sexism lead to the creation of self-segregated communities of online gamers.[2] The communities she interviews either retreat into alternative gaming clans like the “Militant Misses,” “Puerto Reekan Killaz,” or “Conscious Daughters” for support, or actively protest prejudice by disrupting game flow with “player-killings” and other forms of resistance that mimic sit ins. For Gray’s interviewees, who remain fans of gaming despite experiences of discrimination, resisting bigotry in gaming involves day-to-day efforts to either protect themselves or take vigilante action against individual players. For Peck, Ketchum, and Embrick, intolerance is inherent to the game’s design and graphics and, therefore, resistance requires structural critique of the industry culture and its marketing tactics.

cityofheroes

The multiplayer game City of Heroes was well-known for being dominated by heroic white men and sexualized and accessorized women

Though the structural and vigilante responses appear to be opposing tactics, Lisa Nakamura in Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital successfully combines industry and individual responsibilities.[3] Her article is a response to a white male journalist’s attempt at explaining white privilege with gaming and difficulty setting metaphors and argues that such metaphors are deceptive, as they hide the processes of oppression that are actively produced in games and contributed to by their players’ participation. Additionally, gaming metaphors seem to remove culpability from the white male – the game (and the real and fantasy worlds it represents) is seemingly fixed and the players nothing more than participants, and so while he can acknowledge the injustice, he is falsely assured that he is not responsible for its perpetuation. Nakamura reveals the compatibilities between the industry-level and vigilante or individual-style responses and how crucial it is to be aware of the ways intolerance is perpetuated at both levels. There is prejudice first inherent to the game design, but complicity and exacerbation by players is what allows it to thrive. These processes of oppression operate like feedback loops which cement prejudice at all stages of game design and play. It is the notion of shared culpability that drives my project.

The production of intolerance embedded in the relationship between the gaming industry and its consumers is exemplified by the case of Intel’s reaction to #GamerGate. In late August of 2014, the internet exploded with debate around the #GamerGate hashtag. GamerGate encompasses a range of discussions ranging from sexism and racism in game narratives and by individual gamers, ethics in gaming journalism, and the purpose of gaming as a form of entertainment. Central to the raging social media debate is whether or not the creators and developers of games are responsible for the culture and behaviors borne out of the fantasy entertainment form, and if alternative or indie gamers have a place in a conversation that is dominated by the white, straight males the industry has historically catered to.[4] Intel, a technology company which produces chips for the gaming industry, landed at the center of the debate when the gaming world asked them to pick a side. Intel’s resistance to acknowledging their relationship to their consumers’ behavior illustrated the industry’s ignorance (or complete indifference toward) to the varied processes Nakamura outlines.

GamerGate began with the breakup of indie game developer, Zoe Quinn, best known for her game Depression Quest, a non-traditional gameplay designed to simulate life with depression, and her boyfriend, programmer Eron Gjoni. The relationship ended dramatically and Gjoni took to the internet to publish a series of harsh posts about their relationship, including a post which accused Quinn of cheating on him with an influential writer for the Kotaku gaming publication. Gjoni suggested that Quinn had cheated on him to gain publicity and that other non-traditional game developers were similarly undermining gaming journalism. Although Kotaku investigated and found no wrongdoing, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit users distributed Quinn’s personal information throughout the gaming community and issued threats of rape, attack, and stalking to ridicule her.[5]

A walkthrough of Zoe Quinn’s famous non-traditional game Depression Quest, which simulates the experience and understanding of depression

One 4chan user wrote of Quinn: “Next time she shows up at a [industry] conference we […] give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal […] a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”[7]

Though GamerGaters maintain that their complaints are purely about ethics in gaming journalism, analyses have shown that most of the tweets carrying the hashtag are directed toward women. Zoe Quinn received 14 times the outraged tweets of the male journalist she had been accused of cheating with.[6] In addition, two feminist gaming critics who have not been accused of ethics violations, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian, have been bombarded with more tweets erned about the journalists’ actions, and preoccupied instead by resisting alternative and female perspectives on gaming culture. The data suggests that gamers were less concerned about the journalists’ actions, and preoccupied instead by resisting alternative and female perspectives on gaming culture.

brandwatch

A Tweet comparison by Brandwatch that shows the disproportionate volume of #GamerGate related tweets directed at various female journalists and developers

Anita Sarkeesian, a popular feminist critic of all media forms and host of YouTube show and blog Feminist Frequency, released a video during Quinn’s controversy which resulted in her own intense targeting and harassment. Sarkeesian planned to speak at Utah State University in October of 2014 until she received notice that a man wrote to the school threatening to shoot her. He warned, “I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols… there are plenty of feminists on campus who won’t be able to defend themselves.”[8] The incoming threats were so specific that Sarkeesian feared for her life and went into hiding.

anita

Vox Media screenshot of Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube show Feminist Frequency

Intel’s culpability was questioned after Gamastura, a popular gaming publication and an advertising partner of Intel, published a piece by freelance gaming writer and consultant Leigh Alexander entitled “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.” Alexander criticized the gamers who had harassed Quinn and Sarkeesian, lamented the “high-octane masculinity” perpetuated in gaming, and asked the industry to assume responsibility and quit catering to mainstream perspectives. She argued, “when you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”[9] In different words, Alexander touches on the notion of industry – individual feedback; she explains that not only did the gaming industry fail to create games that would promote a positive culture for their consumers, but that the industry was complicit in what “spawned” afterwards by continuing to cater to its problematic audience.

“‘Game culture’ as we know it is kind of embarrassing—it’s not even culture.” – Leigh Alexander

meantweets

Screenshots of misogynistic Tweets sent to Anita Sarkeesian at the start of the #GamerGate controversy

GamerGaters, enraged by Alexander’s piece, called on Gamasutra’s advertisers to cancel their campaigns in solidarity with the core consumer base. Intel was bombarded with service support emails and calls from GamerGaters demanding they cease business with Gamasutra, and social media sites filled with lists of sites GamerGaters should ban in solidarity.[10]

Intel removed their advertising campaigns from Gamasutra. GamerGaters rejoiced and publicly released an email they received from Intel in response to their concerns. The email (read below) read, “our ads were not reflective of supporting certain article stances… we have since decided to pull our current ad campaign off Gamasutra.” Intel spokesman, Bill Calder, added in an interview that Intel “[takes] feedback from our customers very seriously, especially as it related to relevant content and ad placements.”[11] Gamasutra confirmed the canceled partnership via Twitter and acknowledged Alexander’s controversial Op-Ed.[12] Intel, in effect, had decided that “relevant content” (to use their own terms) did not include alternative, feminist perspectives. Their separation from Gamasutra very literally implied they did not “support [Alexander’s article] stance,” or the assertion that the industry should be mindful of and discourage the behavior of its fans. Paradoxically, the industry’s claim that it was not liable for gaming culture is at odds with their swift and resolute efforts to demonstrate to their consumers that they would uphold that very kind of content. And Intel’s case was hardly unique – In the same period, Mercedes-Benz and Adobe also dissociated from outlets that had published work by journalists concerned about the culture of gaming.

intelemail

Intel’s customer service email reply to #GamerGate complaints regarding Alexander’s Op-Ed was shared around the Web

 

Gawker editor Max Read stated that reactions like Intel’s “[demonstrate] not that those brands stand against something…but that they stand for nothing.”[13] To fail to so much as comment on or discourage the harassment in their corporate statements is not to remain neutral – at best, it shows a complete ignorance of the relationship between developers, products, and their consumers, and at worst, it is a sign of active disregard for the minority experience. Although Intel eventually released an apology promising that it did not support the harassment of women, it was too late. Intel, as a highly regarded chip manufacturer in the gaming community, serves as an authoritative voice for the corporate world’s perspective. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, their mishandling of GamerGate and dissociation from minority consumer perspectives reaffirmed the status quo.

While public debate has focused heavily on the actions of high profile developers, journalists, and industry players, marginalized gamers have often privately taken it upon themselves to combat individual incidents of bigotry in gaming. Although their efforts show an obvious acknowledgement of the prejudice inherent to the games, they, too, seem to ignore the way the industry and its consumers collude in processes of oppression. Many online communities and forums for marginalized gamers use militaristic or combative language in their discussion and opposition to individual gamers and gaming cohorts like GamerGate.

One of the self-segregating gaming communities Gray explores in her work is called the “Militant Misses” (MM), a group of black women who take “a militant approach in ensuring all of their members [are] are adequately trained” to fight in the games Gears of War and Modern Warfare.[14] The Militant Misses exemplify the combative attitude toward individual experiences of prejudice in gaming. Their space was explicitly “created as practice grounds to prepare fighting males” who teased them, and as an identity through which to separate themselves from women who “sucked.” Group conversations suggest the Militant Misses care more about proving their worth and novelty to males than about critiquing the industry’s culture. The following Xbox conversation illustrates their attitudes:

UReady4War2: Now mzmygrane, when you gon join our clan? I see you

getting better?

 

Mzmygrane: Nah I’m good. I remember playing wit yall one time and yall

got mad at me cuz I couldn’t get no kills.

 

UReady4War2: (Laughing) Well you got yo game up now, so you don’t

have to worry about that.

 

Mzmygrane: But that’s what I’ve been trying to ask you. Why is that so

important to yall?

 

UReady4War2: Because we won’t be taken seriously – duh.

 

Mzmygrane: Taken seriously by who?

 

UReady4War2: Dudes.

 

Mzmygrane: Why is that so important to you? Do you feel you need a man

to confirm who you are?

 

UReady4War2: Hell naw.

 

Mzmygrane: Then what is it. Explain it to me. Your entire thought

process. Why yall practice so much. Why you so mean to the girls? Why

yall won’t play other girl clans?

 

UReady4War2: Ok ok ok chill. Everytime I talk to you, you always

bringing up how women aint taken seriously. You always bring up all that

racist and sexist shit. But you know they only bring that up when they aint

got nothing else to talk about. Seriously, kiki, if you pay attention to when

men do all that shit talking to yall, its because yall pissed them off by

sucking (begins laughing). Nah I’m just joking, kinda. But we aint had no

dudes talk shit to us like that in a long time. They still talk shit, but they

be mad that we just whooped dey ass in the game. We make them mad.

They don’t make us mad anymore.

 

Mzmygrane: But why are you so hard on women who just want to play for

fun – like me?

 

UReady4War2: Because there is a solution. There’s a way to not

experience all that negative shit. Just get better at the game. Why

wouldn’t you do that?

 

Mzmygrane: Because I shouldn’t have to. Guys don’t have this burden.

We do. And you are putting it back on us to deal with the burden. We’re

not the problem. They are.

 

UReady4War2: Fair enough. Just be ready to still be called bitch

(laughing).

UReady4War2, a member of MM, tries to convince “Mzmygrane” that getting better at gaming is the best way to avoid the humiliation and “negative shit” they get from men. As a means of protecting themselves, MM even excludes other female gamers out of fear that they “won’t be taken seriously.” Despite having been hurt by harassment and marginalization from males, UReady4War2 seeks to replicate those exclusionary practices. Paradoxically, MM combats inequalities in gaming by actually reinforcing them – the onus is on unskilled women to prove themselves in order to escape harassment by men. Although the very existence of the group is proof of their acknowledgement of the prejudice inherent to gaming, they ignore the processes of industry – consumer oppression and remain strangely complicit in them.

Although the popular Tumblr “Fuck NO Video Games” (FNVG) is far less militaristic than MM, it, too, focuses more on self-protection strategies than industry and structural criticism. FNVG devotes a great deal of its posts to protecting its readers against mistreatment online and to refuting the arguments of GamerGaters and bigots. Though it self-describes as “an independent blog keeping you up-to-date on toxic behavior and offensive content (sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and more) in the games industry,” its postings focus not on combating corporate players like Intel, but individual consumers groups. A recent post reads:

“Posters from 4chan’s /pol/ board are planning to flood trans-specific Tumblr tags with transphobic abuse, slurs, and gore to trigger suicidal ideation. Everyone should exercise extreme caution when browsing these tags:

transgender

transphobia

transmisogyny

trans

gender non-conforming

It’s possible that this flooding will extend into other related tags, and that abusers will attempt to harass people more directly. You may want to consider disabling anonymous asks and submissions, shoring up your security, and taking steps to mitigate doxxing.

Take care of yourselves, everyone.”

This community warning is similar to the kind of self-segregated activities described in Krishonna Gray’s work. The readers of FNVG combat prejudice by creating a semi-private space where they can issue communal advisories and “exercise extreme caution.” Language like “exercise caution” and “take care of yourselves” implies that the marginalized readers of the Tumblr see themselves as participating in a gaming community that carries the ever-present threat of harm and harassment directed at their identities. But their responses do not include opting-out of the community or boycotting the industry, they are concentrated on efforts to protect themselves. This approach has obvious practical and cathartic benefits, but also fundamentally misses the big, two-sided picture: prejudice in gaming is produced and reproduced at the corporate and individual level.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 9.09.31 AM

This is a screenshot of FNVG’s peer Tumblr “Why I Need Diverse Games.” The Tumblr’s icon uses the symbol of black power to communicate its alternative, underground identity and symbolize its protestations

Another blog example is The Bigot Gamer, a site devoted to outing gaming bigots by asking followers to record their experiences and send them to the site. Videos of racist, sexist, and homophobic interactions are categorized and shared and the player names of the perpetrators exposed. The Bigot Gamer calls itself “a social experiment” to prove “bigotry is alive and thriving… when people think they are anonymous.” On the surface, the Bigot Gamer, like MM, seems to engage in self-affirming action to resist intolerance. However, the strategy of the public expose appears to replicate the exact kind of aggressive, degrading behavior of The Bigot Gamer’s own adversaries. “Embarrassed? Personally, we hope so” the site says in its About Me section. In addition, The Bigot Gamer overtly asserts its disinterest in a thorough examination of the gaming culture: “we are not trying to stop discrimination in the gaming world. We’re just trying to expose it in easy, click-able links.” Though, again, forums like this one likely provide their followers and fans with a safe and therapeutic space, they ultimately do little to dismantle the processes of oppression endemic to gaming.

The Bigot Gamer’s blog and YouTube channel use short clips and recordings of gaming experiences to out intolerant gamers. Though many of its followers find solidarity and support in the exposes, the tactic ultimately resembles the kinds of humiliating behaviors that stereotypically problematic gamers engage in. 

My examination of industry and individual-level understandings of prejudice in gaming shows that an inability to recognize the various colluding and complicit forces in the community is what defers earnest action by companies like Intel and prevents gamers from comprehensively resisting their circumstances. Recognition of the active and self-perpetuating processes of oppression outlined by Nakamura is missing from much of the typical discussion about gaming, and even the most militantly opposed to the inequalities have failed to protest it effectively. The companies and developers as well as their consumers lack an understanding of how an industry and its participants cooperate in a feedback system. Although both sides acknowledge the existence of prejudice, they are hesitant to admit to or to challenge the fact that the relationship between the developers, their products, and the consumers forms a system of status quo reinforcement. Perhaps the gaming debate should graduate from he-said-she-said, good versus evil, and condemnatory discourse and examine critically the culpability of all of its community members.

[1] “Racism and Sexism in the Gaming World: Reinforcing or Changing Stereotypes in Computer Games?” Journal of Media and Communication Studies 3 (2011): 212-20.Academic Journals. Web.

[2] Gray, Kishonna. “Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live.” Diss. ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2011. Print.

[3] Nakamura, Lisa. (2012) Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital. Ada: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 1.

[4] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[5] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[6] Wofford, Taylor. “Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows.” Newsweek. Newsweek LLC, 25 Oct. 2014. Web.

[7] Pearl, Mike. “Zoe Quinn Told Us What Being Targeted by Every Troll in the World Feels Like.” VICE. Vice Media Inc, 12 Sept. 2014. Web.

[8] Dahl, Julia. “”Gamergate,” Guns and Threats against Women Collide in Utah.”CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 17 Oct. 2014. Web.

[9] Alexander, Leigh. “‘Gamers’ Don’t Have to Be Your Audience. ‘Gamers’ Are Over.” Gamasutra. UBM TECH, 28 Aug. 2014. Web.

[10] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[11] Wingfield, Nick. “Intel Pulls Ads From Site After ‘Gamergate’ Boycott.” New York Times Bits Blog. The New York Times Company, 2 Oct. 2014. Web.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kantrowitz, Alex. “How Brands Should React to Gamergate: Don’t.” Advertising Age Digital RSS. Advertising Age, 24 Oct. 2014. Web.

[14] Gray, Kishonna. “Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live.” Diss. ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2011. Print.

/r9k/: the Sibling of /b/ and how it works

I am going to lay out a case study on /r9k/, a board on the forum website 4chan. This study will apply first a brief overview of the foundational writings in Internet culture, and then an overview of how meatspace environmental design influences culture. After another brief interlude of Internet community theory, I will explore how the culture of /r9k/ is shaped by many of the forces identified by the aforementioned authors, drawing from my own ethnographic experience working in /r9k/. I will use the issue of race as the main specific focus of my discussion, although this work could well address issues such as gender and class if the scope were expanded. /r9k/ is a rich environment, and so for practical purposes, I am forced to selected from a cornucopia. I do not at all mean to deny the importance of intersectional evaluations, but that the complications and values in examining one intersection component shine light as to the potential for examining the community in full, accounting for all cultural components. My intention is to use the case study and the theory I do draw on to argue that the formation of online communities is neither purely the result of preëxisting, offline preferences; nor is it exclusively the result of technological determinism, the design wholly controlling the nature of the community. Both of these avenues are of shared importance to the formation of networked cultures.

/r9k/ mostly goes about minding their business, in the particular corner of the Internet they inhabit. Dwarfed on 4chan, it’s host website, by its bigger and more famous older sibling /b/; it’s never gets press. At least, not like the New York Times, CNN, Time and an endless string of other publications and channels that report on 4chan’s doing, which in all accuracy, refers to /b/’s doings. However, it is this insular privacy that makes /r9k/ so perfect for investigation. In some ways it’s perhaps the closest we can get to an uncontacted Amazonian tribe on the Internet. It’s there, people who share its basic geographic region (other 4chan boards) go there and know it, but the larger world hasn’t walked into the clearing. It’s low-key.

/r9k/ lacks the mass, gawking press around cultural items such as cosplay and hentei, which may not originate on 4chan but have a strong representation across the various boards. And it is that where the crux of my interest comes to play. What is /r9k/? It’s simple principle: OC [original content] only (in theory, at least) is supposed to keep it focused on content. This isn’t to say it’s devoid of memes—or even circulates them at a lower rate than elsewhere—or that other boards post OC slower than /r9k/, just that this is the jumping-off point. When compared to /pol/ for politics, /cgl/ for cosplay and EGL, /r9k/ is pretty ill-defined at origin. Even /b/ as “random” is explicit: anything. I believe this design-based culture is a very important thing to think about. The Robot 9000 algorithm—that filters out repeat content and stops it from posting, thus keeping it limited to OC—is what truly sets /r9k/ apart, and emphasizes how numerous other design features of 4chan craft its culture.{1}

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 4.20.38 AM

In 1996, during what was still the relatively nascent Internet, John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation published his now-famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. His rhetoric was echoing many of the same themes as the The Conscious of a Hacker (also known as the Hacker Manifesto) published a decade earlier in 1986, which states a fundamental ethos for hackers, “my crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like” (1986). However there is a careful nuance in what separates Barlow from The Mentor, for he writes that “we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” Barlow’s world is one crafted; The Mentor’s is undiscovered country. Barlow discusses the “global social space we are building” while The Mentor says that “we explore”.

This paradigm shift in the conceptualization of the Internet hasn’t been replaced yet. From Twitter and Facebook, to the comments on the New York Times, the Net is about creation. This exists in deep contrast to push back against Barlow’s other points regarding peacefulness, acceptance, and that cyberspace is “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but is not where bodies live” (1996). It would be utterly ignorant to say that racism and sexism, grounded by definition in the existence of bodies, does not exist in great force on the Internet. It is all too easy to write Barlow off as well-intentioned, but ultimately privileged and worst of all, old. His, it is said, was an Internet not at all like are own for it lacked in great quantity the visual culture that has come to define the Internet of today.

But to assert that is to ignore his first point. The Internet was built, and so it was the technology that has come to shape our developed style of use of it. But we defined what limits it would put on us. A feedback loop so technological determinism is neither true nor false in this case. The visual Internet we have today is the product of our own design; we built the Internet to reflect the visual culture of the offline. 4chan is specifically built around this design choice against a highly visual impulse. The hacker ethos is fundamental to the code of 4chan. moot [no capital letters in the same] launched 4chan by copying the code and anglicizing it from popular Japanese website 2chan, also the namesake of 4chan. It is a design aesthetic guided by simplicity and ease of use, content above appearance (Coleman 2013). The act of hacker coding is speech, and so imbeds in it both by mere existence and by design functionality the politics of the creator (Coleman 2013). Coleman’s arguments about hacker culture work in concert with Winner’s theory on object politics. As he writes “technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven in the condition of modern politics” (1980:122). His example of a utility company building a power line serves well: “important controversies can remain [even after general approval] with respect to the placement of its route and the design of its towers” (Winner 1980:127). Cultures clearly influence design choices.

Accompanying this is a look at design choices being responsible for culture. As a brief example of what I mean, there is a sort of game played across 4chan that appropriates a built-in feature for a second purpose to approximate a coin flip or a 1-10 pseudo-random number generator. Each post includes the attribution to the now-famous “Anonymous”, the date and time of the post, and the post number. The post number counts all time posting for each particular board, across all threads on that board. Thus with activity across many threads in the board, it becomes impossible to predict exactly what number a post will be. People can effectively use this to flip a coin by using odd/even and pick 1-10 based on this same principle. Many games can be played with this, such as this Magic 8-Ball like game whose rules are included below; “dubs” refers to the two last digits being the same number. The design is shaping the culture, completing the circle. moot brought with him whatever politics and values he had learned from 2chan and embedded them in the design of 4chan, this in turn has bred and developed a new culture, and once learned future designs by those familiar with it reflect it.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 10.09.10 AM

The most famous example of how identity has responded to platform design is the previously references “Anonymous”. This name accompanies (almost) all posts made on 4chan. It acts not as a name so much as a collective identity; the hacktivist organization Anonymous that took their name from this 4chan design feature reference this in their unofficial slogan: We are anonymous. (This is rooted deeply in traditional Internet culture, the last line of The Mentor’s “Conscience of a Hacker” reads “You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… [Ellipsis in original] After all, we’re all alike.”) The two exceptions to this lack of identity take the form of ID’s on /b/ and tripcode. /b/ assigns an ID to each poster, persistent throughout a thread, but varied across threads. One can tell if they are conversing with the same person within a thread, but cannot tell if that person is the same person they are talking with across two threads. This design choice is unique to /b/ and is due to provide some order to the immensely fast-flowing chaos. Across all boards 4chan also offers a tripcode service. A tripcode is a hash of a chosen word or string of characters input when posting, thus providing some echo of fixed identity. However, these trip inputs are often simple to guess and they cannot be counted on to signal a reliable identity.

This general lack of persistent identity is critical to the formulation of 4chan culture at-large and thus /r9k/. As Jesse Daniels lays out, “new social movements are […] less formal, consisting of loosely organized social networks” (2009:49). In discussing Internet forum communities and forum-based social movements, Daniels also lays out a parallel breakdown of users who are either active or passive (known online as a ‘lurker’) (2009:50). And most of the Internet operates by this principle, posts made on registered

Passive(guests or visitors) Active(registered users)
supportive lurkers innovators, creators, and early adopters
       ”       “ sustaining members
curiosity-seeking lurkers supportive members
oppositional lurkers oppositional members

accounts are often also accompanies by the number of posts that account has made. Posters establish seniority and credibility this way. Interacting with a high post-count user, once is more likely to expect a response, and likely a thoughtful one. Many posts signals commitment to the community and a willingness to put in the time to contribute deeply to the conversation.

But /r9k/ is designed not to have this feature. When people claim the identity of “Robot” there is no verified difference between the most active, who would otherwise clearly fall into the “innovators, creators, and early adopters” box and a “curiosity-seeking lurker”. The opposite could also apply. Many threads are directed towards lurkers, asking them why they choose only to lurk, and for how long they have been lurking. Frequently, respondents to these posts will claim to have been lurking for a number of years, not just a short few days or weeks. In this dynamic, social signaling becomes particularly important. One must rely on linguistic signs, robbed of visual indicators of in-grouping.

/r9k/ is a board “focusing on experiences of social awkwardness, confusion and relationships at school or with family” (Knuttila 2011). These stories are often told by posters claiming to be male, and where Knuttila writes “relationships” it might be more appropriate to write lack of relationships. There is a strong sexual dynamic to a large portion of /r9k/’s content and terms such as KV (kissing virgin) and Chad (the named personification of the stereotypical ‘fraternity’, sexual active, alpha male). And while a reliance on language isn’t unique, it must be emphasized in /r9k/ due to the lack of personal images.{2} There is a long running joke on 4chan (as well as broadly across the Internet) about supposed Rule of the Internet, the most famous being ‘rule 34: There is porn of it, no exceptions.’ Likely the second best-known rule has a variable number but is always articulated thusly: ‘There are no girls on the Internet.’ (An extended corollary law follows the line that “On the the Internet all girls and guys and all children are FBI agents.”) While this rule is not taken literally, it is used as a rule of thumb; in a space where people can’t be seen online, the assumption is that they’re male.

I believe that this design, one conspiring against persistent identity, has worked to create a more tolerating community, but not wholly on its own. There is validation also in more recent theory—theory best defined in pushback to certain reading of Barlow. That people do not abandon their prejudices and preconceptions when going online, but look for communities that share in their interests: that the online is just an extension of the offline in many cases. Performance on a website such as Facebook is not unique when compared to offline social performance, but merely takes on an exaggerated form by offering more control and more ability for revision. The end goal, of presenting a certain enactment of personality is the same in all worlds.

The manifestation of offline lives is obvious in /r9k/: (a lack of) romantic-sexual relations revolves around the offline world. But people also bring in other opinions and concerns; race especially holds an important place in discussions of romance on /r9k/. What does it mean to be a racist, or to say racist things, in a world without race? Nobody sees each other on /r9k/. The tolerating feature of /r9k/ is that to pick a fight over a racist comment, when one admits to a racial preference in dating or friendship, is to pick a fight not with a racist but with racism itself. In the anonymizing, collectivizing, and aggregating platform of 4chan, an argument isn’t solo combat. You speak with however many voices back you up. If you’re ignorant of whether or not one or twenty people agree with you, it becomes meaningless to even try and differentiate your own arguments from the other concurrent voices. Nobody is writing in response to you specifically and the arguments you have laid out across multiple comments. One cannot write in response to any other single string of writing. Confronting racism on /r9k/ becomes the personification of acceptance, while the varied posts and comments defending racial preferences becomes a personified force of racism. Because racism is presented and confronted on /r9k/ it might seem contradictory to also say that it is a “tolerating” space, but it is because of the depersonalized nature of it that it is. No one-poster is guilty of it. It is pointless to even try an ostracize a poster. If they identify as a Robot before they identify as a racist, than the Anonymous identity and the Robot identity must be inclusive of them as a component of collective consciousness. One is able to melt back into the shadows to resume a faceless collective identity—nobody knows if another users chooses to jump around in activity level, like the rungs on Daniels’ forum user categorization.

In the following screenshot of a thread on /r9k/ several design features can be seen to be at play in a discussion of misogyny on the board. First, the OP is only named “Anonymous”, just as everybody else. The following voices, all largely concurring with each other, are inseparable in anything but post. There is no verification that these voices are actually different, and so the sensation of reading seems to becomes one of volume, the strength of numbers. Additionally, while posters can respond to previous comment, the thread isn’t broken down as it is on other websites like Reddit or comments on newspapers such as the Crimson. Everything all runs together into a single spill of words; there is no meaningful marking of asides or parsing. Its simple design scheme also is unlikely to attract a more style-conscious membership, it might be reasonable to argue that it runs counter to modern tendencies towards “user-centered design” in currently in vogue (Oudshoorn et.al 2004:30). Oudshoorn notes a shift from a design philosophy of an idealistic “everybody” to reliance on experimentation, a more scientific approach to user-friendly design as one of “key concepts that shaped […] design” (Oudshoorn et al. 2004:39). As 4chan self evidently lacks the experimental design philosophy (the coloring and layout and design hasn’t changed since launch) it embodies an antagonistic approach to the other concept of design for a preconceived everybody. It appears to rely on an approach of a design specifically for nobody. By making a site as unfriendly to modern taste as possible, it attracts a crowd for whom taste is of no concern—only as The Mentor put it, “judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like”.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 4.24.18 PM

The tolerating nature ends at the end of the group identity. One of the other boards on 4chan is /pol/, the political board. The main directory page of 4chan names it “politically incorrect”. /r9k/’s reputation is that of sad, lonely individuals who are often blamed for their own social failures. /pol/’s reputation is not only that of horrific racism, but open white pride and white identity nationalism. /pol/ is home to both the far left, Communists and neo-Stalinists, and the far-right, who frequently invoke Nazi symbols and shed any coded language. As the louder voice, the far-right members of /pol/ are responsible for constructing its reputation. Members of /pol/ may refer to themselves as /pol/acks, equivelent to Robot for /r9k/ or /b/tard for /b/; they are frequently referred to by non-/pol/members as stormfags, a reference to their supposed cross-over with the user base of Stormfront, the largest white pride website on the Internet, known to the Southern Poverty Law Center as a website that “acts to nurture budding killers and give them moral support”. While active in posting racist ‘infograms’ abusing practices of selective image presentation and data manipulation and misrepresentation alongside outright invention of statistics, /pol/ users have not been known to actively promote violence in the same way as Stormfront.{4}

However, /pol/ was known for its intense and immeasurable racism and for organizing ‘raids’ where /pol/acks would go to other interest boards on 4chan and post content usually reserved for /pol/. These brief cases of spreading the intolerant culture of /pol/ won them no friends, even on /r9k/. /r9k/ manifested racism in a manner tied to personal narratives of dating and relationships, not as aggressive and militant hatespeech. On Sunday, December 7, 2014 moot announced that /pol/ would be closing, for the second time as the current incarnation has itself been a recreation of a previously deleted /pol/.{5}

Following this announcement there has been a great migration to other boards, amounting to a prolonged raid on the entirety of the rest of 4chan. /r9k/ has responded aggressively, attempting to drown out comments on any /pol/-style threads with comments demanding that they leave and take their hate speech with them.

The Robot identity, for all its flaws, is defined by its own virtual space. Its values have been crafted by the designed environment—perhaps as much by the fact that the most assertively racist had another space, /pol/ to congregate that kept them mostly away from /r9k/ as any of the particular design features of /r9k/ itself. In the geographic region of cyberspace made up of the large-forum website, 4chan and Reddit in particular, the specific features of /r9k/ set its identity as much apart and as well integrated as any state is alongside other countries of its continent and region. Community can be engineered, and the online world is ripe for manipulation and management. People may not be a blank slate when they connect to the Internet, but Internet is as a malleable to the programmer as the cityscape to the architect.

Footnotes:
{1} The Robot 9000 is both the namesake of /r9k/, short of Robot 9001 (itself a reference to popular Internet meme ‘over 9000‘) and those who claim an identity as a regular user or at least fellow traveler of /r9k/ go by the name ‘robot’, with the derivative ‘fembot’ used to refer specifically to females on /r9k/.

{2} Actually, /r9k/ is full of images. 4chan is, after all, an image board. With each new thread, the OP must include a picture—the text is optional. Subsequent responses are text and/or an image, however. While images can be posted, and while it is not unheard of, or even completely uncommon for them to be selfies or other personal photographs, the overwhelming majority are not. The platform design that has so many built-in anonymizing features has bred a culture where posting selfies is discouraged, as it would seem to defeat the point of using 4chan. For this reason also, users who post using tripcodes are often mocked and abused.{3} Attempting to establish a persistent identity is looked down upon. It might be anti-culture to try to be an individual on 4chan, but fundamentally the culture is reflecting values embedded in the technology and it becomes anti-platform. Indeed, the outing of an individual’s offline data is a feared event known as ‘doxxing’. The release of this information can result in anything form a massive ordering of pizza delivery to their home address, to death threats and harassment. It is also in part the fear of doxxing that serves to keep the community anonymous. The response to these anonymizing forces is the collectivizing force of group identity building in re-embodiment via a common form. Two generic faces, Pepe, a frog; and Wojak, a human face serve this purpose. There are literally thousands of redrawings, alterations, and reinterpretations of the basic Pepe image and the basic Wojak image. These derivative works place Pepe and Wojak into all sorts of expressive moods and imagined activities from existential sadness to cocaine use to comics enacting childish narratives revolving around crude fecal jokes, enabling users to express any conceivable urge. When there is a gap, a new one is created. There is no limit, and they are ever proliferating.

{3} The term tripfag is used to refer to posters who use tripcode, with the perjorative focus lying on the trip- half of the word. 4chan, across all boards, has turned -fag into a suffix that makes as a term into an identifying term. Noobs or newbies anywhere else on the Internet are referred to as newfags, old time 4chan users are oldfags. Another of the many -fags is for LGBTQ-identified individuals: gayfags. It is a term that can be both used with prejudice in the writing of a homophobe, or merely as an alternative group identifying term to LGBTQ. Words ending in -fag are not universally negative; many people proudly claim the title of oldfag and demonyms such as Australian have been replaced by Ausfag. Instead, one must be well versed in circumstantial usage and signalling to know if a particular word is negative or if its case-based use is. Tripfag can occasionally be just the term for one who uses tripcode, but is more often than not an insult because tripcode is looked down on. Within the confines of 4chan, the use of -fag has to be carefully evaluated—if one is looking for community standards, the word “faggot” is used exclusively in the pejorative way that both “fag” and “faggot” are offline.

{4} 4chan and its founder and head moderator moot have enforced an incredibly permissive view of free speech. The tendency is only to remove content that would get the website in trouble as a whole and potential force a closure, such as the distribution of child pornography. It was only after hefty legal threats that 4chan began responding to DMCA requests in response to the recent celebrity nude photo leak. Almost no other discussion is censored or limited.

{5} /pol/ has yet to be formally deleted as of writing. Instead, the design features of /pol/ have been destroyed so as to destroy a community while leaving the theoretical physical space intact. Visiting /pol/ now plays an unmutable loop of an audioclip discussing the sexual fetish of cuckolding; each post is now topped by a scrolling trigger warning, and captcha has been removed, effectively allowing spam and any throttling of post speed. Word filters have also been installed, changing certain words to others in the final post, obscuring meanings and when combined with the other changes, making posting almost pointless.

Bibliography

Barlow, John Perry
1996            A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Online: Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Coleman, Gabriella E.
2013            Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Daniels, Jesse
2009            Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights

Hatewatch Staff
2014            SPLC Report: Nearly 100 Murdered by Stormfront Users. Hatewatch. April 17, 2014.

Knuttila, Lee
2011            User unknown: 4chan, anonymity and contingency. First Monday 16(10):n.p.

Mentor, The
1986            The Conscience of a Hacker. Phrack 1(7):n.p.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, Els Rommes, and Marcelle Stienstra
2004            Configuring the User as Everybody” Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communitcation Techonologies. Science, Technology, & Human Values 29(1):30-63.

Winner, Langdon
1980            Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109(1):121-136.

Screenshots are not cited due to the impossibility of sourcing them. For screenshots of threads, the only available bibliographic information is contained within them: date and time of posting. For the rules of the rolling game, that image was pulled from 4chan on Sunday, December 7, 2014. It is impossible to attribute to an author and it can only be noted that it was found on 4chan, on /r9k/.

Politics of Representation: an in depth look at philanthropic organizations working abroad

“Teach all the time, even sometimes with your words.”  This is a quote I received in my first yoga teacher training in June of 2013 and I have taken it with me throughout my journey ever since.  In April of 2014, I found myself in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, doing none other than teaching yoga.  I was there to spread the practice—the practice that had given me strength in my weakest moments, the practice that empowered me to live into my greatest version of myself, the practice that eased my daily trivial worries.  I could not have been more excited.  We were on a 14-day journey with over 100 participants from over 21 different, mostly African, nations. One night, early on in the training, I was sitting with a participant, and we were trying to get to know each other.  He was telling me about his family and how he grew up amongst his brothers and cousins.  He told me about an organization he was a part of, Free the Children, and how he felt so fortunate to have been selected to be an integral part of it.  He explained how this organization reached out to him in their attempt to have youth empower youth and that his skill set and ability to teach yoga afforded him this opportunity as an agent of change, which he took, traveling across the country, speaking to youth and holding yoga sessions.  Through his words and tangible passion for the organization, it was clear that this very ability to serve was what was filling him up and driving him.   Fracie Ostrower notes that “Philanthropy grows out of a donor’s sense of identity” (Ostrower, 6), which suggests that people give to causes they are passionate about.  People give because they believe they have something that can and should be shared.  People give because they have something to give.  In the participant’s case, he had a learned skill set and a practice that had changed his life.  And with that, he gave back.

In this post, I will explore the practice of philanthropy through the lens of the nonprofit organization, Africa Yoga Project (AYP), which will serve as a case study for charitable organizations doing work abroad in general.  Philanthropy abroad is an extremely complex issue with many layers as to correctness and overall helpfulness.  My aim in this study is to break apart just a few of the layers, speaking to the complexities and offer potential ways to alleviate common issues. I will mainly focus on the ways in which these organizations garner support and the politics of representation.  I will also touch on how misrepresentation often invokes misaligned intentions and needs between organizations and the people they are serving.  As a participant in AYP and philanthropy more broadly, I have a definite shared responsibility in all of the critiques and arguments that ensue in this post regarding participation in and intentions of philanthropic organizations.  It is a collective responsibility to question the philanthropic standards by which we often blindly follow as a means to “get involved.”  My intention for this post, therefore, is to draw to light on some of these conundrums as I see them to open conversation around how we collectively can do better.

I want to focus on philanthropic organizations abroad that aim to control and reform the communities in which they work.  This control and “fixing” comes in different forms and the necessity to fix is rooted back to the colonial times in Africa, placing the “burden” on colonists to change the ways of life in Africa. In his book Global Shadows, James Ferguson talks about how the continent of Africa is spoken of, “in terms of crisis: as a place of failure and seemingly insurmountable problems, as a moral challenge to the international community” (Ferguson, 2).  Often the true social realities within Africa are overlooked as Africa’s place in the contemporary world is glossed over as seemingly helpless.  The outpour of “support” or “help” can often further marginalize populations as they seek to “make claims of membership within a global community” (Ferguson, 3).  There is this idea that aid is often the disease for which it aims to cure. Thinking back to the idea of needing to have in order to give and considering that power dynamics and domination stems from one group being seen as lesser or inferior, it is interesting to think about how organizations with intentions to help often inadvertently subjugate people even further.

The Africa Yoga Project organization was founded in 2007 in one of the poorest parts of Nairobi, Kenya.  The mission rests on these three questions: Could yoga positively transform lives across race, nationality, age, gender and economic status? Would yoga be valued when offered at no cost to the student? Can people who are struggling to survive, who live in an unstable environment, and who have little food to eat, utilize yoga to transform their perception of their lives and their sense of what is possible for the future? In the past seven years, AYP has trained and currently employs nearly 100 yoga teachers, mainly in Kenya, but spreading across the continent. Teachers are required to teach free outreach classes—a lot of teachers teach in the communities they grew up in or in orphanages, prisons, hospitals, or other places.  More than 350 outreach classes are taught each week, reaching over 6,000 locals.

From AYP sources and promotional material, it seems that most of the AYP teachers come from a troubled youth plagued by drugs, theft, and gang related violence. Part of the narrative AYP creates around the participants is that they feel as though yoga has served as an outlet for them, in a sense empowering them to live a life much bigger than the one they were living or the one they saw themselves deserving of.  As referenced in the participant’s story at the beginning of my paper, gaining the skill set and ability to teach yoga opened doors for these at-risk youth and gave them sustainable jobs and opportunity within their communities.  Many note that they now see themselves and are seen by others as leaders and teachers.

Many NGOs that work abroad and specifically in parts of Africa enter into a region with a purpose.  They aim to alleviate specific hardships some of which include disease, hunger, sanitation, war, unrest, and the likes.  With most of these NGOs, their purpose maintains a sense of urgency or emergency—it is a necessity or at least a seeming necessity from an outsider’s perspective.  Emergency draws participation—people want their time, money, and efforts to have tangible effects.  Looking at Africa Yoga Project as a case study provides an interesting dimension to this, as AYP is an NGO that provides a service with seemingly little sense of emergency.  Relatively speaking and from surface value, there are much larger fixes necessary in Nairobi than what is provided through the practice of yoga.  Thus, igniting enthusiasm and support behind this, aside from Westerners who actively participate in the practice of yoga, is difficult.  AYP does a really interesting job spreading the word and garnering support.  They use social media—Facebook and Instagram—as well as their website to share updates.  Another big way they garner support is through special highlights by other organizations or news sources.  Articles have been written on them and numerous videos have been made made, documenting the projects and outreach the organization is spearheading.  They have been featured on CNN, BBC News, NPR, CBS, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, and various television news networks.  These sources provide insight to outsiders about the work and lives of participants, however, often, participants are misrepresented.

One video of Africa Yoga Project that has been spread to represent the organization and ignite involvement is titled Practice: Change the Africa Yoga Project Story. From the tone and imagery of the video, it seems like the intended audience is current and potential supports of the organization.  The video begins with somewhat solemn, tribal music playing, as the scene is set.  The first image we see is a pan of a walk through the slums of Nairobi—there are shacks, wild goats and dogs eating from the mountains of trash, children in awe of the camera and assumingly the person behind the lens, people sleeping in the trash piles as children dig through them, and ragged laundry hanging on lines.  Almost two minutes pass before any words are spoken (or really any person is shown in detail) and the first words spoken are, “No water,” as a young man fails to fill up his bucket from the faucet.  For a video promoting yoga in Kenya, this introduction seems a bit out of place.  The entire video is 7 minutes and 48 seconds, so a two plus minute introduction seems excessive and leaves the question of what purpose this video is serving—is it in fact promoting yoga in Kenya or is it extenuating a feeling of helplessness, desperation, and savageness in Nairobi?

The video then moves to a classroom setting, panning to the learning visuals on the walls.  It seems like the aspects of the classroom and environment with the starkest difference from what the intended viewer is used to seeing are highlighted and reiterated over and over again.  The classroom has dirt floors, old desks, and walls made of scraps of aluminum.  The paintings on the walls are incredibly primitive with things like colors and pictures of household items and animals with the English name written beneath.  It also seems like the people in the video who come from AYP and the people behind the lens are treated as celebrities.  The kids surround them, in a sense begging for attention.  There is a distinct hierarchy established—like the reference to the participant at the beginning of the paper, in order to share a skill, one must have a skill.  In order to give, one must have.

This idea of a hierarchy and a sense of having something that another does not draws an interesting parallel to representation in general and the idea of privilege.  Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta write in their article, #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, that photography is in fact a tool of power.  They write:

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community.  Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa” (Kascak and Dasgupta).

Without providing much tangible help, outsiders often leave with a feeling of having done something.  There is often a feeling of “box checked off, hands clean, my work here is done” that accompanies voluntourism—a new, controversial idea of traveling to third world countries to “give back” for a week. Kascak and Dasgupta reference the “feeling” of engagement that so often plagues philanthropic work—photography and documentation can serve as a crutch to portray a story that the representer or “hero” wants spread, which is often at the expense of the representer or misaligned with the true outcome.

At the very start of the AYP video, the camera is following a white man on his assumed first visit to the slums of Nairobi.  It is interesting to think about how this leaves the intended audience—assumingly white Western supporters—feeling. I thought it was interesting that there was a white man walking, clearly not from there, and he was being filmed as he stepped through other people’s homes.  He was leaving his mark in this community and “helping.”  Then all of a sudden, the man disappears from the video.  The controversy around voluntourism and really global aid in general is that outsiders come in, experience what they experience and help where they help, and then they leave.   The poverty and the issues persist, yet the outsider walks away with this video and photographic proof that he indeed was there, experienced it, and helped.

white man copy 2

Screenshot of man walking through slums

 

This also brings up racial divides. Specifically speaking to many parts of Africa and certainly Kenya, the white man is an anomaly. Automatically, he is seen as different and as an outsider, often creating intrigue around background and status from locals. Stemming from colonial times, the white man entered regions with a seeming “fix-it” mentality, possessing something that the other did not. There is an often-noted engrained mentality that the white person, or “muzungu” as the Kenyans would say, has something to give and a sense of privilege to be able to give—a seeming hallmark of the skin color. This was apparent in the April teacher training—on the last day of training, the American participants left gifts for the Kenyans (things like yoga clothes, mats and other props). This was not an exchange of goods, but rather almost an expected charitable gift. Interestingly throughout the training, participants were encouraged to see the similarities amongst each other, following the idea that everyone was more similar than different. Yet, by the end of the training, privilege and a distinct heirarchy appeared from both sides—the Kenyans held an expectation as the Americans fulfilled it.

Returning to representation through media, images captured abroad often come in two forms: either as depictions of someone different from oneself, capturing the sense of wonder that accompanies differences or the unknown, or as the outsider as the focal point of the image.  Both seem to be problematic.  First, an outsider capturing an image highlights what he/she feels is most important—in the AYP video, maybe for the first two minutes, this was an image of trash-ridden streets and abject poverty.  Second, an outsider as the focal point of the image, as in Kascak and Dasgupta’s reference, depicts the outsider as the “hero/star in a story about ‘suffering Africa.’”  Kascak and Dasgupta write, “Capturing this image and posting it on the Internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community, but rather as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer” (Kascak and Dasgupta, 1). It is pivotal to understand the represented in the context of his/her own life and own local world, and often a picture or video misses that as it is taken out of that local context and put into the worlds of others.  Arthur Kleinman writes extensively on the commodification of suffering.  He stresses how suffering, though sometimes collective in nature, is an individualized experience based on the local moral world of the individual—this is based on gender, age, class, ethnicity, subjectivity and many other factors. Generalizing suffering into a “representative” image, video or advertisement is extremely problematic, especially if the representer is an outsider to the local moral world that he or she is representing.

The issue with this type of representation is that the voices of the locals are lost through distorted, generalized representations that are used to garner attention and support rather than portray the true story of the individual. Kleinman writes about suffering at a distance:

This globalization of suffering is one of the more troubling signs of the cultural transformations of the current era: troubling because experience is being used as a commodity, and through this cultural representation of suffering, experience is being remade, thinned out, and distorted (Kleinman, 2).

The AYP video, as it begins panning through scenes of trash and poverty and continues as a “narrative” of the journey of specific AYP teachers, is told through the eyes of the person behind the lens.  It portrays the represented as the representer feels they should be seen.   On the realm of representation, it is important to recognize how limited an outsider’s view is on the real life of the people they are representing on social media and the likes, and yet how big of an impact their photograph or video can make on others who are even more removed.  It becomes a source of information and a truth for other outsiders.  When representation is skewed, this can become especially problematic because people do not know any better.

screenshot from end of video copy

Screenshot from end of video

 

As the AYP video continues, teachers appear, showing raw pain and emotion as they tell their stories. About two thirds of the way through the video, the entire energy shifts to one of hope and possibility. There is dancing and laughing. There is meditation and yoga practice. There is music and acrobatics. This last third of the video, in my opinion, is a true representation of Africa Yoga Project. Even in the slums of Kibera, the kids were smiling and expressing their gratitude and joy for our time together in outreach through the April teacher training. Having experienced first-hand the beauty in the work that AYP is doing, the video as a whole seems misrepresentative because of the beginning portion. Hopelessness and need were the furthest things from defining characteristics of the people of Nairobi and the communities that AYP reached, yet as an outsider, the overall image, aside from the last two minutes of the video, is one of just that. One must question what exactly is the intention for representing this community in this way. Is this a representation for the sake of accurately portraying these people and the work of the organization? Or is this video being used to invoke a response from supporters? And are these two questions mutually exclusive—is there a way to accurately represent a community and a people and simultaneously gain support from outsiders? Why do organizations like AYP feel the need to conform to a method of representation (or misrepresentation) that may in fact further subjugate the people they are aiming to help?

This brings up another big point on representation and the role of the outsider as a perpetrator of what they are representing.  Returning to the scenes in the AYP video of kids playing and sleeping in the piles of trash, or when the young man says no water as he tries to get water from the spout, what role does the person filming all of this play?  Why is he/she sitting there documenting instead of helping?  I spoke in a previous blog post to Kevin Carter’s photograph of a child peeled over, naked, unprotected and starving, in the middle of a desert, with a vulture seemingly about to attack her which gained a lot of public attention.  Kevin Carter, a white man from New York City who was visiting South Sudan for a short period of time, spent over 20 minutes trying to capture this “perfect” photo, and it paid off—he won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for his work. These awards are a seeming problem within themselves, as he is awarded at the expense of another’s suffering. However it is important to recognize the role of the representer as a perpetrator of the injustice he/she witnessed.  Kleinman quotes Carter as he spoke of his work photographing injustice, “You are making a visual here.  But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’  But it is time to work.  Deal with the rest later….” (Kleinman, 6).  The inhumanity that often accompanies shock-invoking representation is concerning. The focal point of the image or video becomes just that—a focal point or a prop in a larger story of heroism on the part of the outsider—losing all sense of humanity. When a human is seen solely as an object or a prop, it is easy to neglect their voice and story, diminishing their story and complexities and leading to troubling misrepresentations.

Africa Yoga Project has released many videos documenting and raising awareness around the work they are doing.  Most of these videos highlight a specific AYP teacher and their story—how they got there, the obstacles they have encountered, and the likes.  What is interesting is that these videos span from over seven years ago to just this year, and yet in so many of them the same story is told.  There is a seeming collapse of time as a familiar story is told of initial helplessness and hardship to eventually finding yoga and standing in power.  It is important to consider whether or not that exact story is still central to the represented person’s life, to the point where that story becomes their most defining and illuminating one—at least in the sense that this is what the audience of these videos is seeing over and over again. The representer has the power to portray the represented in whatever light he or she feels fitting.  Stressing the negative aspects of one’s life may invoke a human emotional instinct to want to help or to want to know more—the “shock factor”—but at the same time, the story that is told through the videos or photographs is often the only exposure the outsider will get to the life of the insider.  The acts of violence that plagued their previous years of life are following them as they are now defined by these stories.  They become what Kleinman terms them, “trauma stories.” These trauma stories are glorified and then used as a commodity, as a means of exchange both in emotion like pity and monetary support.  For an organization that rests on themes of empowerment and elevation, a persistent portrayal of AYP teachers in the light of a sufferer or victim seems to inhibit any progress that is made by the program from an outsider’s perspective.

This brings up the idea of the “suffering other.”  Kascak and Dasgupta write, “Images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people” (Kascak and Dasgupta, 1). Even just one photograph of suffering creates a negative projection on an entire community—one person’s suffering is a communal failing and even further, a negation of the progress a community has made. Ferguson writes in Global Shadows, “As Achille Mbembe puts it, ‘Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world’” (Ferguson, 2). Africa as a continent is described by its absences and failings. It is seen as so vastly different from the Western world, so dark in comparison, and so needy of fixing and light. This characterization of “failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability” simply justifies colonialist ideals of endless help needed from outside the local setting (Kleinman, 7). Representing a suffering other gives power to the stereotypes that already exist about the “darkness” of the African continent—this becomes more and more problematic as people are misrepresented and stereotypes are needlessly perpetuated on false grounds.

As people are misrepresented, supporters give to a cause that is often not of the highest priority on the ground. When the local moral worlds of people being served are forgotten, the context into which the aid is provided is skewed. While the shocking atrocities that are represented in the media often garner increased attention and support, on a moral level and in relation to progress, they are problematic. In order to break this cycle and still gain support, cultural relevance as well as a respect of the local voices must be accounted for. There are limits to configuring social suffering as an economic indicator, commodifying the trauma stories heard so often. Suffering is an individualized experience—no two people feel the same reaction in their bodies and minds to the same atrocities. Thus, it is unjust and simply false to generalize suffering or even needs into one cookie cutter model of representation and fixing.

So much of this world currently relies on immediacy—immediacy in information, immediacy in action, immediacy in result. As our world continues to connect on more and more levels through globalization, human experience and thus human experience of suffering thins out. Stereotyping suffering through generalized representations (read: every person on the continent of Africa needs our help) puts people into categories, helping us to explain a complex world through oversimplification—giving us “answers” and quick fixes. However, most of these questions do not in fact have answers, or at least not direct ones. So many aspects factor into the experience of suffering, and there is no one answer or solution to a problem. Dambisa Moyo speaks directly to this in her book, Dead Aid, as she states that with more than a trillion dollars filtered into different parts of Africa, these countries have “been trapped in a vicious circle of corruption, market distortion and further poverty—and thus the ‘need’ for more aid” (Moyo, xix). Blind aid—the type of aid that so often floods into places with misrepresented people—is ineffective. It is ineffective because inaccurate, generalized representations often lead to inaccurate use of resources. It is thus important to recognize the individuality that accompanies suffering. It is also then important to recognize the individuality and specificity required to alleviate this suffering.

Other AYP videos:

 

Works Cited

“Africa Yoga Project Reflection.” Online interview. 22 Oct. 2014.

Baynton, Douglas C. The New Disability History. New York: New York UP, n.d. Print.

Ferguson, James. Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order. Duke University  Press, 2006.

Feuerstein, Georg. “A Short History of Yoga.” SwamiJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

James, Erica Caple. “The political economy of ‘trauma’in Haiti in the democratic era of     insecurity.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28.2 (2004): 127-149.

Kahn, Carrie. “As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?” Goats            and Soda. Npr, 31 July 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Kascak, Lauren, and Sayantani Dasgupta. “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of        Global Voluntourism.” Pacific Standard. The Science of Society, 19 June 2014.  Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. “The appeal of experience; the dismay of images:   cultural appropriations of suffering in our times.” Daedalus (1996): 1-23.

Moyo, Dambisa. Dead aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for        Africa. Macmillan, 2009.

O’Brien, Anne. “Charity and philanthropy.” Sydney Journal 1.3 (2008).

Ostrower, Francie. Why the wealthy give: The culture of elite philanthropy. Princeton         University Press, 1997.

Practice: Change The Africa Yoga Project Story. Dir. Dylan Trivette. Africa Yoga              Project. Vimeo, 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

 

Trying to Understand Ferguson (or a lack of it) on Facebook

In the days after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, Twitter exploded with news from protesters and journalists gassed, harassed and arrested by heavily armed police. Included in these tweets were complaints about the lack of reaction and Ferguson news on Facebook. Because I went to college in St. Louis, I have a number of St. Louis Facebook friends. I saw Ferguson posts in my Facebook timeline (though nothing compared to my Twitter feed), but only from the people who often express strong opinions on Facebook or who are involved in activism. Both my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed echoed my sadness and anger at the shooting of another unarmed, black teenager and at the police reaction to the protests. I knew other opinions existed, but I didn’t see them in my curated social media circles. When I encountered a white St. Louis resident’s (who is not a Facebook friend) indifference and annoyance with the protests in person, I started to wonder — were other St. Louis friends posting about Ferguson?

I started scouring friends’ timelines to see if and what people were posting. I saw a lot of posts about the ALS ice bucket challenge, and occasionally, a Ferguson post. Were people quiet on Facebook because they were unsure what to say, what they felt, or because talking about race is divisive? Were they waiting to learn more? Did they not care? In “The Trivial Pursuits of Mass Audiences Using Social Media,” Douglas A. Ferguson says, “People on Facebook are expected to be upbeat… people are positive or they choose to say nothing at all.”[1] Is this what was happening?

Protesters marched in St. Louis on October 11th as part of Ferguson October - http://www.democracynow.org/2014/10/13/thousands_march_in_ferguson_for_police

Protesters marched in St. Louis on October 11th as part of Ferguson October

To better understand why some people post about potentially controversial events like Ferguson on Facebook while others do not, I conducted a survey of St. Louis residents. The survey asked about how they engaged with the events in Ferguson, whether they posted about Ferguson, and why or why not. After reviewing data from 56 St. Louis area residents, I found a majority of participants had posted, “liked,” or commented on Ferguson; most of those who did not said it was because they do not share political opinions on Facebook. Research shows that Facebook’s algorithm tends toward more positive items in the newsfeed[2] and that people are less likely to voice an opinion if they think it will be unpopular[3]. I argue that both Facebook’s algorithm and the “spiral of silence” influenced the visibility of Ferguson-related posts on news feeds and that while many followed the Ferguson news and discussed the events in real life, those comfortable posting about Ferguson on Facebook tended to be more politically active in their lives offline; those less comfortable posting about it are hesitant to engage in arguments on social media; and in both cases, people’s existing biases and social networks guide their interaction on social media.[4]

Survey results

Map of where survey participants live. Multiple responses from the same neighborhood not shown.

Map of where survey participants live. Multiple responses from the same neighborhood not shown.

The survey was open to responses between October 31st and November 16th, in the three-month period between Michael Brown’s shooting and the announcement that the grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson. The survey was posted to Facebook and Twitter multiple times, and it was shared by others (11 times on Facebook, four times on Twitter). I posted it on Tumblr once and emailed it to friends in St. Louis and friends elsewhere with connections to the area. After removing one duplicated response and one response from someone living outside the St. Louis area, the survey pool comprised 56 participants. Of these 56, 51 listed Facebook as their preferred social media, four listed Twitter, and one person preferred Tumblr.

Forty-eight people identified as white, three as Asian, two as black, and one each as American Indian/Alaska Native and white, mixed-race Asian and white, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander and white (the survey allowed participants to select more than one category and included a write-in “Other” section). Identity2The majority of participants were between the ages of 25 and 44, with 29 respondents in the 25-34 range and 12 in the 35-44 range. Per a 2012 Pew Research study, Facebook appeals especially to women ages 18-29; Twitter to adults 18-29 and to African-Americans[5] (“almost a quarter of all black Internet users are on Twitter,” says Soraya Nadia McDonald, writing for the Washington Post[6]). I am white, between 25-34, and my Facebook friends are predominately white. The survey received the most attention on Facebook and appears to have been largely forwarded by college friends, so this breakdown is unsurprising.ages

The survey asked participants how they engaged with the events in Ferguson; whether Ferguson appeared in their social media feeds in August; how frequently and for how long Ferguson appeared in their feeds compared to the ALS ice bucket challenge, the death of actor Robin Williams, and news on Ebola; which of these four news items participants shared, liked or commented on; whether they’d posted about Ferguson in their timelines and the nature of those posts; and whether they’d liked or favorited others’ posts about Ferguson, and the nature of those posts. Fifty-four people said Ferguson appeared in their social media timelines in August; however, the two who said it did not said Ferguson appeared “a few times a day” in a follow-up question. Fifty-five people gave responses regarding their engagement with Ferguson: 21 said they followed the news and discussed Ferguson offline; 13 said they followed the news and discussed Ferguson on and offline; 14 said they followed news, discussed Ferguson on and offline, and attended protests, donated to or volunteered in the community. The remaining six listed a mix of engagement ranging from “not at all” to protesting without participating in online conversations.

When comparing Ferguson to the other news events (ALS ice bucket challenge, the death of actor Robin Williams, and Ebola) that appeared in participants’ timelines, 37 of 56 participants said the ALS ice bucket challenge appeared constantly (11 said it appeared several times a day, 7 a few times, and one person said it never appeared). Thirty-six of 55 respondents (one person did not give a response) said Ferguson appeared constantly, 14 said several times a day, and five said a few times a day. But when looking at how long events appeared in social media feeds, Ferguson remained the longest — 43 people said this item continued to appear in their timeline at the time of the survey, while 26 people said the ice bucket challenge appeared for a month (34 people said Robin Williams’ death appeared for a week, and 30 said Ebola was still in their timeline).

When asked whether they’d posted about Ferguson on social media, 31 people said they had. Twenty of those said their posts expressed support for the protestors or concern with the police reaction; five people said they shared news and/or more neutral, “pro-St. Louis” items; the remaining seven posts included two in support of the police, two stating that not all the facts were known, one “humorous photo,” and one response to racists posts. Of the 25 people who said they did not post about Ferguson, 13 specifically said they do not post political or sensitive topics on social media, because they don’t want to engage in discussions online, and in one case, because of family pressure (a family member is a police officer). A few more people (35) said they liked or favorited posts about Ferguson (18 supporting protestors, seven promoting non-violence and anti-racism, three news items, and seven “other,” including police support). Nineteen people said they had not liked others’ Ferguson posts, and again, the dominant reason was because they don’t share political opinions or get into arguments on social media.

Finally, I looked at how people’s engagement with Ferguson compared to their participation in the discussion online. Of the 31 people who said they posted about Ferguson (supporting either side), 14 said they attended protests, donated to, or volunteered in the community. The other 17 engaged with Ferguson via conversations and following the news. Nineteen others engaged with Ferguson events by following the news and offline conversations, but didn’t post about it on social media; six of those 19 did like some Ferguson-related posts.

Facebook Wants You to be Happy

Certain aspects of these results are expected, like the tiny lead of the ALS ice bucket story over Ferguson stories; others are more surprising. On August 20th, using data from SimpleReach, a social media analytics company that partners with about 1,000 publishers (including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Time[7]), John McDermott reported the number of Facebook referrals for Ferguson stories compared to referrals for the ice bucket challenge: “Stories about Ferguson and/or Michael Brown published since Aug. 7 have generated fewer Facebook referrals on average (256) than stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge (2,106). Ice bucket stories also receive a greater number of Facebook interactions — likes, shares, comments — on average (796) than Ferguson stories (518)”[8]. Fifty-five percent of survey participants report posting about Ferguson on social media, but when looking at my Facebook timeline in August, 50% of the posts were not about Ferguson. I am not connected to all the survey participants on social media, so I would not see all their posts. Additionally, the survey did not ask when participants had posted about Ferguson, only whether they had. Nonetheless, it is worth considering the role of Facebook’s algorithm in what Ferguson stories appeared in timelines. McDermott quotes Jill Sherman, group director of social and content strategy at DigitasLBi, a marketing agency: “Facebook’s algorithm ‘may actually hinder the ability to surface breaking-news stories.’”[9] While Facebook users may have posted about Ferguson, the less-controversial stories were the ones showing more often in news feeds. On August 18th, Casey Johnston at ArsTechnica suggested this happens on purpose: Facebook’s controversial news feed manipulation study revealed, on a very small scale, that showing users more positive content encourages them to create positive content, resulting in a happier, reassuring Facebook experience.”[10] Brian Barrett at Gizmodo explains further why fun and feel-good items like ice buckets are more likely to appear than contentious topics. “Facebook’s objective is to connect you to people; the more connected you feel, the longer you stay on the site. The longer you stay on the site, the more ads you see. The more ads you see, the more likely it is that you may accidentally click one. That’s why we don’t see incendiary topics…in our feeds.” [11] Facebook is not a news site. It makes money through ads. [12] The algorithm may show some news-related posts, but not a racially-charged, controversial subject like Ferguson. Says Johnston: “History shows that political events on Facebook can play well, so long as the majority of population is going to fall on the same side: the story of the Boston Marathon bombers played big on Facebook because it was unifying, but arguments about their race and religion, not so much.”[13] Per the 31 survey respondents, people posted about Ferguson on Facebook, but the predominance of ALS ice bucket challenge posts shows the site’s algorithmic filtering at work.

Getting into dumb Facebook fights with people from high school… or not

Algorithm or no, controversial subjects won’t appear in a Facebook timeline if they don’t exist. In their introduction to their findings on “Social Media and the Spiral of Silence,” Hampton, Lee, et. al explain Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence, which proposes that people avoid speaking out about policy issues if they perceive their opinion to be in the minority.[14] For this study, the Pew researchers looked at people’s opinions about National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosing the American government’s surveillance of citizens’ phone and email records. “In both offline and online settings, people said they were more willing to share their views on the Snowden-NSA revelations if they thought their audience agreed with them.”[15] Thirteen survey participants specified that they did not post about Ferguson because they refrain from political posts on social media. Their comments included, “In my personal experience, expressing political opinions on social media almost always leads to feelings of negativity;” “…I wouldn’t want to get into a dumb Facebook argument with someone I knew from high school”; and “…I don’t discuss political opinions on social media, because it is to no avail.” My survey did not ask participants if they believed most of their Facebook friends shared their politics; however, as the average number of friends among adult Facebook users is 338[16], and the average Facebook user has met all but maybe 7% of those friends[17], one can likely predict the reactions to a Facebook post and whether or not those reactions will be negative. Furthermore, Johnston refers to study findings that say “…because Facebook friend networks are often composed of ‘weak ties’ where the threshold for friending someone is low, users were often negatively surprised to see their acquaintances express political opinions different from their own.”[18] If witnessing backlash on Facebook discourages people from posting about their political beliefs, experiencing it personally must be even more disheartening, assuring that future status updates will likely be neutral or positive. As mentioned, those are the posts Facebook has incentive to show users, to keep them happy and on the site.

While reluctance to engage in Facebook debates is one reason people refrain from posting political opinions, it’s important to consider other factors, like frequency and use. Some people rarely post to Facebook at all; others use it daily, but specifically for work reasons (publicizing events, for example). It may be that offline is the best way for some to discuss and process controversial events — away from the view of their entire social network. “By definition, engagement is the act of doing. But Dahlgren argues that engagement is also the act of “not doing” when the element of free will is introduced. In short, willfully choosing not to engage is engagement in itself when it is an individual’s choice,” says Rhon Teruelle [19]. By choosing not to engage on social media, some may choose to keep peace within an offline social circle (work, family), but may also be bringing about change directly through conversation or action in other offline contexts. For example, one participant said his engagement included teaching at the Ferguson library when schools were closed; volunteering with the clean up effort; working at a food pantry; delivering food items; and attending a protest. It did not include posting on social media. It can be easy to forget that life happens offline when people don’t broadcast every event and feeling on social media.

Because I saw a few Facebook updates in early August, I assumed only certain St. Louis friends were discussing Ferguson. It’s clearer now that Facebook’s algorithm was involved with this (and as Zeynep Tufecki suggests, it’s possible the algorithm changed as more eyes turned to Ferguson, pushing related posts into timelines[20]) and that people are more likely to post political opinions if they think their online network shares their view. If those refraining from sharing political opinions do so because they suspect pushback from their network, perhaps those comfortable posting political updates also recognize their social media circles reflect their beliefs and know political assertions will only get “likes.” Additionally, says Taewoo Nam, “citizens who engage in political activity via offline modes are more likely to participate in online political activity.”[21] Of the 31 survey respondents who said they posted on social media about Ferguson, 14 said they participated in protests, volunteered, or donated to the community. Eleven people from the original survey pool responded to a follow-up question asking if they considered themselves politically active. Two of the 11 were counted in the 14 who attended a protest — they considered themselves fairly politically active. Seven considered themselves minimally to somewhat politically active. These seven engaged with Ferguson events mainly by following the news and conversing in real life; only one out of seven posted about Ferguson on social media. Nam also says, “those who are not politically active offline could also use the internet for political involvement and participation,” and that “offline inactive people generally tend to be inactive online, but their likelihood to participate in online politics rises significantly if they use the internet more frequently.”[22] While 20 survey respondents engaged with the events in Ferguson mainly through the news and conversation offline, six of those did “like” or favorite others’ posts on the subject. This can be a way to show support for a cause without drawing the negative attention from those who disagree.

Part of the inspiration for this project was to explore whether the mass and social media St. Louis residents follow influenced their opinions on Ferguson. Reading through responses, I discarded this idea, realizing that people come to social media with their beliefs and social circles already in place. Those social circles mirror people’s own gender, race, and values. In It’s Complicated, an examination of teens’ use of social media, author danah boyd says, “when teens’ experiences are shaped by racism and misogyny, this becomes visible online.”[23] This applies both to teens and adults online. White people do not like to discuss race, as confirmed by Jessie Daniels, quoting Delgado and Stefancic and Rasmussen et al: “The longing and desperation to avoid having to ‘think about, look at, or talk about racial differences,’ is endemic to contemporary whiteness.”[24] But with an event like Ferguson, the discussion of race is necessary and inevitable, and people say things online that they would not in real life. In a piece on support for Darren Wilson, Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis writer, says, “Social media is one of the few spaces in St. Louis not subject to segregation. This raucous online debate often stands in contrast to what area residents are unwilling to say to each other in public.”[25] One survey participant’s response bears witness to this behavior: “People seem a lot more bold when behind a computer.” This seems to be especially true on social media, and why not? If we think our friends share our beliefs, we can be ourselves. Though I saw little to no hateful or racist comments in my timeline, I see this as the manifestation of real life social circles reproducing themselves online — a personal example of what Claire Cain Miller calls “tamping down diversity of opinion.”[26] Says Ethan Zuckerman: “…many white American Facebook users likely have few or no African-American Facebook friends. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Facebook – it’s a broader reflection of American demographics and patterns of homophily, the tendency of “birds of a feather” to flock together.”[27] The Atlantic online confirms this, noting that 75 percent of white Americans have white-only social networks, which is higher than the racial homogeneity of black Americans and Hispanic Americans (65 and 46 percent, respectively[28]). For those with racially diverse friend networks, there may still be uniformity in politics and values. Our beliefs are fed back to us as we scroll through our timelines. I went to a liberal arts college in St. Louis and am interested in social justice. Most of my St. Louis Facebook friends commenting and sharing about Ferguson went to school with me. As I “like” items, Facebook seems to show me more of the same (either more people have started commenting on Ferguson since August, or I trained my news feed by sharing and liking enough Ferguson-related posts); this is multiplied across the online population and its differing opinions. If Facebook’s algorithmic filtering fails to hide controversial posts, or a “weak tie” starts an argument, users can always choose to hide or unfriend someone, perpetuating the lack of diverse opinions.

How, then, do we move forward, if we’re operating on social media with a narrow scope of perspective, and when an algorithm may hide the opinions of those with whom we disagree? Although our online social networks resemble our real-life connections, as Kendzior suggested, there may be less segregation online than in our day-to-day lives. It can be easy to get caught up in social media, spend hours on Facebook, start thinking of your friends as enlightened, engaged, racist, ignorant, or disconnected and then start unfriending or muting people. But to combat the shrinking of opinions, it may be best to keep those connections, as evidence that others — people we know (and maybe like) — do think differently, and possibly even engage with those who disagree with us. While commenting back and forth on Facebook may not change opinions, sharing articles and information may result in someone finding an item that would otherwise not have crossed her radar. It can lead to conversation offline, which was mentioned by all but six survey participants as a way they engaged with Ferguson events. Facebook is a handy tool for finding friends and old acquaintances, sharing information, and organizing events; but for honest discussion of difficult topics, real life conversation with friends and family may be the most realistic way to bring about meaningful change.

Footnotes

[1] Ferguson, Douglas A. “The Trivial Pursuits of Mass Audiences Using Social Media: A Content Analysis of Facebook Wall Posts by Fans of Top-Trending Television Programs.” In Social Media: Usage and Impact, edited by Hana S. Noor Al-Deen and John Allen Hendricks, 307. Lexington Books, 2012.

[2] Johnston, Casey. “Facebook’s Route to Becoming a Reassurance Machine.” Ars Technica, 8–18, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/08/how-facebook-might-fix-its-trivial-viral-content-glut/.

[3] Miller, Claire Cain. “How Social Media Silences Debate.” The New York Times, August 26, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/upshot/how-social-media-silences-debate.html.

[4] boyd, danah. It’s Complicated : The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, 2014.

[5] Duggan, Maeve, and Joanna Brenner. “The Demographics of Social Media Users — 2012.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/02/14/the-demographics-of-social-media-users-2012/.

[6] McDonald, Soraya Nadia. “Black Twitter: A Virtual Community Ready to Hashtag out a Response to Cultural Issues.” The Washington Post, January 20, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-twitter-a-virtual-community-ready-to-hashtag-out-a-response-to-cultural-issues/2014/01/20/41ddacf6-7ec5-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html.

[7] SimpleReach. “Featured Partners.” Accessed 3 December 2014. http://www.simplereach.com.

[8] McDermott, John. “Why Facebook Is for Ice Buckets, Twitter Is for Ferguson.” Digiday. Accessed November 13, 2014. http://digiday.com/platforms/facbeook-twitter-ferguson/.

[9] ibid.

[10] Johnston, Casey. “Facebook’s Route to Becoming a Reassurance Machine.”

[11] Barrett, Brian. “Facebook’s Rose-Colored News Feed.” Gizmodo, August 19, 2014. http://gizmodo.com/facebooks-rose-colored-news-feed-1623931209.

[12] Tsukayama, Hayley. “Facebook IPO: How Does Facebook Make Its Money?” The Washington Post, February 1, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/facebook-ipo-how-does-facebook-make-its-money/2012/02/01/gIQAL03yiQ_story.html.

[13] Johnston, Casey. “Facebook’s Route to Becoming a Reassurance Machine.”

[14] Hampton, Keith, Lee Rainie, Weixu Lu, Maria Dwyer, Inyoung Shin, and Kristen Purcell. “Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence.’” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Accessed November 13, 2014. http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/.

[15] ibid.

[16] Smith, Aaron. “6 New Facts about Facebook.” Pew Research Center, February 3, 2014. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/03/6-new-facts-about-facebook/.

[17] Hampton, Keith, Lauren Sessions Goulet, Lee Rainie, and Kristen Purcell. “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Accessed December 4, 2014. http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/06/16/social-networking-sites-and-our-lives/.

[18] “Facebook’s Route to Becoming a Reassurance Machine.”

[19] Teruelle, Rhon. “Social Media and Youth Activism.” In Social Media: Usage and Impact, 201–17, 2012.

[20] Tufekci, Zeynep. “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: — The Message.” Medium, August 14, 2014. https://medium.com/message/ferguson-is-also-a-net-neutrality-issue-6d2f3db51eb0.

[21] Nam, Taewoo. “Dual Effects of the Internet on Political Activism: Reinforcing and Mobilizing.” Government Information Quarterly, Government Information Networks, 29, Supplement 1 (January 2012): S90–S97. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2011.08.010.

[22] ibid.

[23] boyd, danah. It’s Complicated : The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

[24] Daniels, Jessie. “Race and Racism in Internet Studies: A Review and Critique.” New Media & Society 15, no. 5 (2013): 695–719.

[25] Kendzior, Sarah, and Umar Lee. “‘I Am Darren Wilson:’ St. Louis and the Geography of Fear.” Quartz, October 21, 2014. http://qz.com/284383/i-am-darren-wilson-st-louis-and-the-geography-of-fear/.

[26] Miller, Claire Cain. “How Social Media Silences Debate.” The New York Times, August 26, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/upshot/how-social-media-silences-debate.html.

[27] Zuckerman, Ethan. “Self-Segregation on Social Networks and the Implications for the Ferguson, MO Story | … My Heart’s in Accra.” Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/08/27/self-segregation-on-social-networks-and-the-implications-for-the-ferguson-mo-story/.

[28] Jones, Robert P. “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson.” The Atlantic, August 21, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/self-segregation-why-its-hard-for-whites-to-understand-ferguson/378928/.

Additional Resources

Lee, Newton. Facebook Nation : Total Information Awareness. New York, NY: Springer, 2013.

Mercea, Dan. “Probing the Implications of Facebook Use for the Organizational Form of Social Movement Organizations.” Information, Communication & Society 16, no. 8 (October 2013): 1306–27. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2013.770050.

Neuman, Scott. “Ferguson Timeline: Grief, Anger And Tension.” NPR.org. Accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/24/364103735/ferguson-timeline-grief-anger-and-tension.

Pew Research Center. “Stark Racial Divisions in Reactions to Ferguson Police Shooting.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, August 14, 2014. http://www.people-press.org/2014/08/18/stark-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-ferguson-police-shooting/.

Sullivan, Gail. “How Facebook and Twitter Control What You See about Ferguson.” The Washington Post, August 19, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/19/how-facebook-and-twitter-control-what-you-see-about-ferguson/.

Woods, Janee. “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson.” Quartz. Accessed November 30, 2014. http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/.

Zuckerman, Ethan. “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.” Zuckerman, April 2014. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/78899.

“Whitewashing” in Mass Media: Exploring Colorism and the Damaging Effects of Beauty Hierarchies

Mass media is incredibly pervasive in our society. Constant and readily available, it consumes our everyday lives. Arguably the most powerful source of information in this day-in-age, the media bombards our society with notions of good versus bad, desirable versus undesirable, acceptable versus unacceptable. These types of discourses are particularly evident and distressing in modern media’s deep-seated racial bias in its portrayal of African American women. More specifically, the obvious Eurocentric ideals in most of popular media render only African American women who have been constructed to fit these ideals as beautiful, causing an entire group of African American women to be deemed invisible, unacceptable, and unworthy of the media’s attention.

While we can only speculate the intentions of the media, these particular patterns of racial bias constantly emerge. In this paper, I will explore the history behind the very strict set of ideals that decree only certain African American women “beautiful”, and how the media’s perpetuation of these standards are consumed by and of African Americans, causing some disconnect in the African American community between those women who fit more into the Eurocentric ideal and those who do not. While there is no doubt that the dominant culture excludes certain African American women from their realm of beauty, the ultimate internalization of Westernized standards of beauty by other African Americans causes certain women of darker skin and coarse, “kinky” hair to feel ostracized even by their own race.

In order to attain a complete understanding of this complex issue, we must first asses one of its fundamental components: the history that created the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color that exist outside of and within certain African American communities. Discrimination based on skin tone within a racial group, known as Colorism, is one of the many legacies from American slavery (Stephens & Few 253). The racism that occurs amongst African Americans as a people is arguably a direct backlash of slavery, concerning the division of the two kinds of slaves: “house Negroes”, who worked in the master’s house and “Field Negroes”, who performed the manual labor outside. This separation was enacted based on the slave trader’s beliefs that darker skin inherently meant better labor, whereas lighter-skinned Blacks were thought to be better suited for more intelligent tasks and lighter labor (Kerr 273). Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of enslaved Black women who worked domestically were of lighter complexion, as often times these women were raped by their masters who saw lighter-skinned Black women as more handsome and delicate (Kerr 273; Baptist 1621). In D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke’s documentary film Dark Girls, one woman states that during this point in history “we as a people were so disenfranchised that we adopted some of that… a lot of that” (Dark Girls). This marginalization that began with slavery has continued amongst both the wider population and other African Americans. Eventually, “European scientists began to categorize the appearance of Blacks in the New World, including hair and skin tone” that was dominated by fair skinned and straight haired people (Thompson 833). Once black beauty was juxtaposed with White beauty, a socially stratified hierarchy began to take shape, placing darker-skinned, “naturally” coarse-haired African Americans at the bottom.

As scholars Dionne Stephens and April Few examine, this hierarchy created by the ecopolitical institution of American slavery has evidently continued to the psyche of contemporary African Americans (Stephens & Few 258). Traditionally, those who posses skin color or hair that more closely resembled that of Caucasian Americans were/are more likely to be given higher status in American society. This internalization of such standards is made clear by studies like the Clark Doll test, conducted in the 1930s by African American psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark. The Clark Doll test was conducted by asking African American children to express certain preferences for black or white dolls, with questions such as “which doll is the dumb doll?” and “which doll is the ugly doll?”, while the only difference between the set of dolls was the color of their skin. The majority of the African American children who took this test selected white dolls for the positive attributes, and the black dolls for the negative (Bernstein 197). This internalization of what the larger society sees as good, acceptable, and beautiful is demonstrated through this test, which has been replicated numerous times, even in recent years. It is clear, therefore, that “African American children learn about the significance of skin tone when and if they see people treated better or worse based upon having lighter or darker skin” (Stephens & Few 253). This internalization of “good” versus “bad” skin tone based off of Westernized ideals is problematic, as it marginalizes an entire group of African Americans. As one girl in Kiri Davis’ documentary film A Girl Like Me states, “Since I was younger I also considered being lighter as a form of beauty or… more beautiful than being dark skinned, so I used to think of myself as being ugly because I was dark skinned” (A Girl Like Me). The pain experienced in some individuals’ present has everything to do with this collective past (Rooks 281). Today, these deep-rooted forms of Colorism directly translate into modern day notions of African American beauty both beyond and within Black communities. In our society, more specifically, the media’s perpetuation of these historical standards through its portrayal of African American women continues to be consumed by and of the larger society.

 

Media images shape our conceptions of race by constantly bombarding us with strict, Eurocentric standards of beauty. The mainstream definition of beauty “consistently includes immutable qualities found far less frequently among populations of African descent” (Sekayi 469). The image of Black beauty in popular culture reflects the ideals of typical Westernized beauty, giving this narrow definition a race-based measurement for what is considered “good” and “bad”. As scholar Dia Sekayi highlights, “when black women were (and are) presented, they typically met (meet) Eurocentric ideals in terms of… skin color and hair texture” (Sekayi 469). Though famous, beautiful African American women like Halle Berry, Beyonce, Oprah, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Tyra Banks and many others have achieved high-status in American culture, media representations of these women display images that have become increasingly “whitewashed” over time. As one 21 year old, African-American woman on Harvard’s campus (who shall remain anonymous) stated in an interview I conducted with her: “I’d like to see different kinds of black people represented in the media. It’s always a light skinned woman who has a certain look – they basically try to make her look white in any way possible”.

Tyra

The two main characteristics, as scholars have found, that are increasingly “whitewashed” by popular media are African American women’s hair and skin tone. Famous African American women such as those described above are typically featured in the media with lighter-colored, straighter hair, lighter makeup, and sometimes even digitally altered skin tones. A clear example of the media whitewashing images of African American women is seen in Beyonce’s 2008 L’Oreal ad campaign.

Beyonce

This image of Beyonce has clearly been Caucasianized, as she is pictured with long, straight blonde hair and a skin tone many shades lighter than her natural tone. Tying back to the roots of such alterations, “these two characteristics have historically been used as measure of social, political, and economic worth for African Americans” (Stephens & Few 257). Such ideals are incredibly oppressive for a large number of African American women, as they see such alterations done and are indirectly told that their natural self is not acceptable. The more Westernized African American women look, the more beautiful they are to be considered. More so than ever, African American women are confronted with these very strict, Eurocentric images of African American beauty presented in mainstream media.

To complicate this issue a bit, I examined three sources that challenged these Eurocentric standards of beauty that are so prevalent in the mass media: A blog called Beauty Redefined, and Ebony and Essence magazines. The blog Beauty Redefined, though highlighting many of the major points of this issue, I believe cannot be seen as a major complication to or compelling force against the dynamics at play between the media and black women. As a one-time, one-read blog post, this article (though presenting worthy information and could possibly serve as an empowering read for women of color) does not stand as a significant challenge to the enormous amount of power and prevalence of mainstream media. Ebony and Essence, on the other hand, represent black media that was created by and for African Americans (Essence being specifically targeted towards African American women), and serve as a continuous source of information. The subversive work within these magazines often does work against America’s larger culture of whitewashed standards by highlighting issues, personalities and interests specific to African Americans in a positive/self-affirming manner. These sources directly seek to empower African Americans. Relating specifically to African American women and beauty ideals, Essence magazine solidifies this notion by nature of having a more varied section for female hair – including Natural, Relaxed, Transitioning, Wigs/Weaves, Celeb Look, and Street Style. The very existence of these sections serves as a better representation of the realities for African American women than mainstream media almost ever poses.

However, to complicate these ideas of subversion even further, psychologist Maya Gordon examines that, “several scholars have argued that the beauty ideal presented by Black media and promoted in the Black community is just as narrow as the mainstream ideal” (Gordon 246). This argument does not seek to delegitimize the amazing work done by these sources, but rather addresses the idea that even if African American women do not ascribe to or identify with mainstream media ideals, a very strict set of ideals is still present in certain African American media. Ultimately, many African American women in the United States are never fully “protected” from White Western norms of beauty, as seemingly “Black subjectivity has no existence without comparison to White (mainstream) culture” (Hesse-Biber et. al 709; Thompson 855). An illustration of this Western-influenced bias existing within African American beauty standards can be seen upon looking at Essence Magazine’s (a monthly magazine for African American women that covers fashion, lifestyle and beauty) “40th Anniversary 40 Most Beautiful Covers” piece. Out of the forty covers that this feature highlighted as the “Most Beautiful” in the history of Essence Magazine, only one presents a very dark-skinned African American woman – model Alek Wek – and her picture is displayed in black and white.

Essence

This is a clear-cut example of the sort of racially biased trends that consistently emerge, even within specifically targeted African American media. Despite the few exceptions made for “exotic” women, “the image of Black beauty in popular Black magazines gives the impression that Black… is only beautiful when it is altered” or somehow fits typical Western ideals (Sekayi 469; Thompson 847). It is shown, therefore, that in nearly every facet of media, African American women are told to strive for this nearly unattainable ideal. This pervasiveness of generally one specific type of African American beauty “impacts African American women, because it is often not [their] image that becomes the vision and standard of beauty” (Thompson 849).

Upon examining these standards of beauty that are presented for African American women, it is important to now address how these public and media images influence the personal identities of many African American women. This unspoken, yet ubiquitous hierarchy among people of color results in serious consequences for some African American women with darker skin and “natural Black” hair. As Gordon points out, many Black girls “use images of Black women as their source of comparison” (Gordon 247). While one might guess that this source of comparison would be less damaging than comparing to White women, the racial bias that similarly emerges in the prevailing images of African American women in the media can still be incredibly problematic to many African American women. Studies have shown that “exposure to idealized images of other women and, more specifically, African American women had an impact on Black women who reported being less satisfied with their bodies” (Frisby 342). In Dia Sekayi’s research on the effects of the Eurocentric standard of beauty on African American women, an overwhelming majority, 72.8%, expressed discomfort with the way the media defines beauty for Black women (Sekayi 474). This is detrimental, as these media portrayals leave a large group of African American women who don’t fit these ideals to feel undesirable, unwanted or unattractive. The images of famous African American woman who have been constructed – usually through either physical or digital alteration – to fit Westernized ideals produce the controversial question of why being “just black” isn’t good enough. Or, more specifically, why certain types of “black” are better than others. There are many personal costs of beauty standards that define dark skin and “natural Black” hair as inherently and automatically problematic.

Halle

The large majority of African American women “accept the Eurocentric standard as reality and understand that whether or not they embrace it as their own, they will be judged according to it” (Sekayi 474). This can be incredibly destructive to African American women who do not fit the typical image of “beauty” endorsed by the larger culture.   While body image is molded by both external and internal sources of validation, these two sources often go hand-in-hand (Stephens & Few 253). As one woman in the documentary film Dark Girls states “when you live so many years with people having certain judgments relative to your skin tone, you start to believe it” (Dark Girls). Other people’s beliefs about beauty affect many women’s view of themselves, as normative standards are used to evaluate one’s own level of attractiveness. The influence of Westernized African American media images is so great, that these standards have significant sociocultural affects not only on notions of physical attractiveness, but also on many African American women’s courtship, self-esteem, and identity. In Stephens and Few’s study on fifteen African American adolescents (seven boys and eight girls), 100% of the male participants chose the image of the Westernized African American woman (displaying long, straight hair and lighter skin) as the most beautiful and desirable image, while none of them said that the image of the Afrocentric woman (displaying darker skin and coarse hair) as beautiful or desirable (Stephens & Few 255-256). Certain phrases such as “color struck” and “bleaching syndrome” have been used to indicate “preference among some African Americans for lighter skinned mates as a means to ‘lighten up’ the family and achieve social status” (Stephens & Few 253).

African American women acknowledge that the dominant standard of beauty is Eurocentric, as one African American girl in A Girl Like Me states, “there are standards that are imposed upon us like, um, you know… you’re pretty, you’re prettier if you’re light-skinned” and another girl states how “you have to have straight hair, relaxed hair” (A Girl Like Me). These Eurocentric standards of beauty have become so internalized within the dominant society and the African American culture that even women who don’t fit these ideals but potentially have positive body image might have difficulties in finding a partner or feeling connected to certain Black communities. As one girl explains, “I felt like there was not any attention towards me because of maybe my skin color or because my hair was kinky” (A Girl Like Me). These notions based off of skin color and hair type leave many African American women feeling unaccepted, unattractive and unwanted, even by their own race, leaving many with problematic self-esteem issues.

Gabourey

While many women acknowledge their discomfort with the way the media defines beauty for Black women, many of them will still take drastic measures in attempts to align their appearance with these set beauty ideals. Hair treatments like weaves, relaxers and permanent chemical straighteners have become a normative part of Black beauty. As scholar Cheryl Thompson points out, covering up “natural tress and damaging [one’s] real hair for the sake of a desired ‘look’ should not be taken lightly” (854). Such hair practices can have serious negative affects on both the women’s natural-born hair and their self-image, feeling they must continuously use these practices in order to look beautiful. Although hair straightening practices are “tantamount to torture, Black women continue this practice because a ‘real’ woman has long straight hair, while short nappy hair is relegated to something children have or those women – according to mainstream and Black beauty standards – who may be deemed less attractive” (Thompson 848). Similarly, some African American women with very dark skin use skin bleaching creams or treatments in attempts to lighten their skin tone. As one women states, “I can remember being in the bathtub, asking my mom to put bleach in the water, so that my skin would be lighter, and so that I could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as loveable” (Dark Girls). The fact that some women feel pushed to such extremes to alter their appearance demonstrates the serious threats that our society’s internalization of strict standards of beauty poses.

Beyonce2

Black women are unique in that they are asked not just to strive to attain mainstream standards of beauty, but to have such standards completely override their natural being (Thompson 854). Media message emphasize an incredibly rigid set of ideals that are so pervasive it is virtually impossible for women to avoid them. Many studies have been conducted to reveal the dangerous effects of such media images on many African American women’s self-esteem, particularly darker-skinned women with naturally coarse or “kinky” hair. While it is important to recognize that “women with low levels of body esteem did report lowered self-satisfaction with body esteem when exposed to physically attractive images of African American models”, it is crucial to recognize where the notion of what makes African American models “attractive” comes from (Frisby 323). The long history of a racial hierarchy began from the marginalization that certain African Americans faced during the period of slavery, and the separation of house versus field laborers. Since this period in history, Westernized ideals have become so internalized not only by the dominant society, but also by a large majority of the African American community itself. The subsequent negative effects on and practices taken up by many African American women who do not fit these standards of beauty are frightening. The perpetuation of media exhibiting images of almost exclusively one type of African American women (and even then whitewashing these images) is highly problematic. As a different 22 year old, African American woman on Harvard’s campus illuminates, “I feel like black women’s representation in the media usually falls into three categories. One is the white-washed, thin, light-skinned black female with European features and white, middle class values. The other would be the loud, dark skinned, larger woman who lives in Harlem and has a drug problem – this woman is never portrayed as a figure of beauty, though. The last one is the ‘exotic’-looking, hyper-sexualized woman from Africa. I think maintaining these stereotypes of black women and portraying black culture as a monolithic entity in general has negative externalities on both the black community and society as a whole”. Essentially, interventions that resist and deconstruct exclusive Westernized notions of beauty must be conveyed through popular culture with African American female role models who fall outside of the “typical” notions of beauty. Though the internalization of these standards of beauty runs deep, steps must be taken in order to de-stigmatize and include all forms of African American beauty that have historically been ostracized from the realm of beauty in nearly every facet of society.

 

Works Cited

A Girl Like Me. Dir. Kiri Davis.   2005. Film.

Baptist, Edward E. “”Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape,           Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” The American Historical Review 106.5 (2001): 1619-650. Print.

Bernstein, Robin. “The Scripts of Black Dolls”. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print.

Dark Girls. Dirs. Bill Duke, D. Channsin Berry. Urban Winter Entertainment and Duke Media Production, 2011.

Frisby, Cynthia M. “Does Race Matter? Effects of Idealized Images on African   American Women’s Perceptions of Body Esteem.” Journal of Black Studies, 34. 3 (Jan., 2004): 323-347. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Gordon, Maya K. “Media Contributions To African American Girls’ Focus On Beauty And Appearance: Exploring The Consequences Of Sexual Objectification.” Psychology Of Women Quarterly 32.3 (2008): 245-256. Women’s Studies International. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Kerr, Audrey Elisa. “The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism.” The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism, and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2006. Print.

Sekayi, Dia. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the   Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro  Education, Vol. 72, No. 4, Commercialism in the Lives of Children and Youth of Color: Education and Other Socialization Contexts  (2003): 467-477. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Stephens, Dionne P. “The Effects of Images of African American Women in Hip  Hop on Early Adolescents’ Attitudes Toward Physical Attractiveness and Interpersonal Relationships.” Sex Roles (2007) 56:251–264. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Thompson, Cheryl. “Black Women, Beauty, And Hair As A Matter Of Being.” Women’s Studies 38.8 (2009): 831-856. Women’s Studies International. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

Redrafting African American History through Social Media

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 led many citizens to believe the United States had entered a post-racial society in which African Americans were no longer subject to white prejudice and discrimination. Yet the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner confirm the persistence of unbridled racism in contemporary America. These unpunished abuses of power summon the image of Radio Raheem being choked to death in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the memory of fourteen year-old Emmett Till, whose body was mutilated with barbed wire and thrown into the Tallahatchie River along with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan.

The crimes committed against these individuals are among the most visceral manifestations of racism imaginable. Although well intentioned, the hailing of a post-racial America demonstrates that whites in the United States are still incapable of perceiving and thus, denouncing the daily discrimination that African Americans endure on a daily basis. This is especially true for milder, though equally disturbing, forms of racism. High schools across the country, for instance, continue to utilize textbooks that underreport and whitewash the historical role of African Americans. The worst offenders are often privatized Christian schools in southern states. In Louisiana, in particular, some charter schools rely on Bob Jones University Press textbooks to teach the history of racial politics. Students are tested on their ability to assimilate the following information:

 Few slaveholders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common…the majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well.

The [Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. The Klan’s targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.

Despite the racist motive of such textbooks, America’s public curriculum is arguably the worst offender in preserving black history. Most Americans, for instance, are familiar with the horrors of slavery and the KKK and would publicly condemn the textbooks being used in Louisiana’s private Christian schools. That is unsurprising given that most Americans attended schools that sought to communicate an unbiased interpretation of history. Public schools and, as a result, the masses are powerless, however, in policing accurate historicism if something was omitted from the historical narrative altogether.

1

Throughout history, white supremacists have made a conscious effort to remove the achievements and efforts of black leaders from the national consciousness in an effort to both dismiss the African Americans of that time and to dictate how historical events were retold to subsequent generations. As a result, many African Americans were never honored for their actions. This form of whitewashing, then, has a far greater potential for disempowering minorities than the blatant distorting of common knowledge events. Today, most well educated people would argue, for instance, that Abraham Lincoln, and his mostly white Union Army, was largely responsible for abolishing slavery in the United States. In reality, however, blacks living along the Eastern seaboard participated in a series of “Gullah Wars” for over a century that helped precipitate the abolishment of slavery:

One such Gullah War occurred in Florida during the 1830’s and was led by an extraordinary group of black men named Abraham, John Caesar, and John Horse. Yet rather than acknowledge the true nature of the event, the conflict was termed the Second Seminole War. Most newspapers from that time attempted to portray the conflict as a Native American war due a very rational fear of inspiring widespread, regional slave unrest. In addition, by minimizing the participation of plantation slaves, and instead claiming that Indians kidnapped runaways, white plantation owners could seek restitution from the U.S. government for war damages. The war ultimately involved more than three hundred slaves and nearly a thousand Black Indians.

It is difficult to believe that an event as important as the Florida Gullah War is still not being taught in American schools today. It is equally difficult to assign blame to any modern entity centuries after African Americans were deliberately removed from the historical record. On one hand, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education is absolved from any blame associated with the discriminatory processes that whitewashed American history because it was not created until 1979. On the other hand, however, the public must now hold the department accountable for revising the inherited version of events.

2

Social media is quickly becoming the preferred means of expressing discontent with the current curriculum. In some cases, social media is replacing the regulatory role of the U.S. Department of Education altogether and inserting itself as the primary repository of African American history. Applications like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, in particular, are now being utilized to disseminate vast quantities of information to the wider public. Given the increasingly growing presence of African Americans on these social media applications, the strategy could potentially alter popular perception of blacks in U.S. history. Online community forums, though far less prominent, are also striving to accomplish the same goal.

3

With its constant activism in revising African American history and policing modern attempts to distort the role of blacks, the Twitter account @BlackCognizance merits individual analysis. Founded in November 2011 with the tagline “Once you have been awakened from mental slavery, it’s hard to go back to sleep,” the account now has nearly eight thousand tweets and over sixteen thousand followers. Moreover, its creators are also responsible for the Instagram account BlackHistory, which has nearly twenty-five thousand followers. Both accounts seek to demonstrate that “there is more to [black] history than Egypt and slavery.” The Twitter account also provides African American users with a platform to voice educational injustices—facilitating a grassroots cultural renaissance.

4

A recent trending topic on the account focused on boycotting the upcoming film “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which features an almost all-white cast. Director Ridley Scott, for instance, chose to portray Moses and Rhamses with actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. Twitter followers such as @Dr_Asrat, featured above, and @Sharifkadir protested, “Hollywood could have easily funded Afar people who closely resembled Egyptians to star in Exodus #BoycottExodusMovie.” As a result, other, more traditional outlets, such as ThinkProgress, which carry millions of daily viewers, have joined the movement online. Likewise, Sojourners, a progressive monthly publication of Christian social justice, has decried the film for whitewashing Middle Eastern and African history:

When retelling a Biblical story, the effects of whitewashing are amplified. In the case of the movies Noah and Exodus, whitewashing continues a well-established practice of white sacralization through religious indoctrination. Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered.

5

The amplifying power of social media in revising the historical record, as illustrated in the case of #BoycottExodusMovie, must not be understated. Yet, unsurprisingly, academic research on the topic is almost nonexistent. In order to determine the effectiveness of social media in disseminating minority-based history in the United States, I designed a survey study that was conducted on five college campuses around the country. The survey was distributed through former high school friends who are now attending school at each location.

6

At each school, the survey study was designed to target members of different backgrounds in order to capture the diversity found on social media. At the same time, however, the survey controlled for self-selection bias through an online randomization process. In order to do this, my friends obtained a student roster at each school through their class year’s Facebook page. A computer program selected fifteen names at random which my friends later emailed me. I subsequently messaged each individual through Facebook and asked him or her if they would be willing to participate in the study. If not, the randomization process was once again conducted in order to arrive at a total fifteen willing participants per school. The schools were also chosen based on geographic location in order to control for regional variations in the data.

The use of Facebook in the survey study ensured that I could easily contact potential participants and that I was reaching people who were actively engaged with social media. Out of the seventy-five college students surveyed, for instance, more than 80% reported an online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The inclusion of different cultural backgrounds, moreover, allowed the study to create benchmarks with which to compare black educational social media accounts. The study was able to gauge, for instance, whether black accounts like @BlackCognizance were truly the most engaged with revisionist historicism or whether this was simply an illusion caused through the overrepresentation of African Americans on Twitter.

7

In attempting to conduct the study, I was particularly worried that the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner would skew the results to show a temporary anomaly in the amount of people following black social media accounts, such as @YesWeRise. After speaking to African American participants in the study, however, I realized this fear was unfounded. Once people start following these accounts, they explained to me, they generally become long-term users. The study, therefore, represents accurate demographic trends despite a turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere. Below, I have included the racial breakdown of the students who participated in the survey by school:

In the Southeast region, I surveyed 4 African Americans, 5 Hispanics, and 6 Caucasians at the University of Miami.

In the Southwest region, I surveyed 4 African Americans, 2 Hispanics, and 9 Caucasians at the University of Texas.

In the West region, I surveyed 5 African Americans, 6 Hispanics, and 4 Caucasians at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the Midwest region, I surveyed 5 African Americans, 4 Hispanics, and 6 Caucasians at the University of Michigan.

In the Northwest region, I surveyed 7 African Americans, 1 Hispanic, and 7 Caucasians at the University of Oregon.

In total, I surveyed 25 African Americans, 18 Hispanics, and 32 Caucasians across the country—for a total of 75 students. The presence of Caucasians, which make up nearly half of the data set, may initially seem contrary to the aims of the study. In reality, however, the population breakdown of the survey follows that of the larger student population at each of the schools in the study—a welcomed byproduct of eliminating self-selection bias. Additionally, the presence of white students enabled the study to gauge the penetration of minority-based social media accounts in the larger population, outside African American and Hispanic communities.

Among African American students, nearly 65% reported following some form of black history on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Within that group 80% reported Twitter as their primary source of historical information. On the other hand, only 40% of Hispanic students reported some form of engagement with Latino history on social media. Again, Twitter dominated the competition—claiming 75% of all Hispanics who actively sought to read such information online.

Within the white surveyed population, less than 20% of students reported following any form of social media associated with American history. Within that group of students, half said they followed minority-based cultural accounts in order to obtain a more expansive version of historical events. Within the group of students who were not associated with historical social media accounts, only one was able to name an African American or Hispanic focused Twitter or Instagram account.

Within the 35% of African Americans and 60% of Hispanics who claimed to not follow any forms of minority-based social media accounts, an overwhelming proportion (80% of African Americans and 75% of Hispanics) claimed they had never heard of accounts like @BlackCognizance or @LatinoHistory, but planned on following them as a result of the survey.

I also showed all non-participating students a wide variety of tweets in order to better understand why some accounts were more successful than others in drawing in new members. Students were not necessarily attracted to the most radical retellings of history. Instead, they were interested in reading novel accounts grounded in fact. This is unsurprising because the second-most cited reason for not following these accounts in the first place was an inherent distrust for information found on the Internet. Below, I have listed the three most popular tweets in order. Whether through an image or link, all three tweets provide users with varying degrees of authenticity:

9

11

12

In the case of the third tweet, for instance, users are redirected to an educational segment featuring Rick Steves, a well-respected American author and television personality. The video segment informs users:

The story of Granada is all about the Islamic Moors. In the year 711, these North African Muslims crossed the straits of Gilbratar and quickly conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula. For over 700 years, Spain was a predominantly Muslim society living under Muslim rule. For two centuries, until 1492, Alhambra reigned as the capital of Grenada. While the rest of Europe slumbered through much of the Middle Ages, the Moorish civilization was wide awake. The math necessary to construct this palace would have dazzled Europeans at that age. The Moors made great gains in engineering, medicine, and even classical Greek studies. In fact, some of the great thinking of Ancient Greece had been forgotten by Europe but was absorbed into Africa and actually given back to Europe via scholars here in Spain.

These Twitter accounts thus provide an authentic and verifiable version of events that is rarely if ever portrayed from an Afro-centric point of view in classrooms. The survey revealed that this process of investigative, multimedia learning is not only highly informative, but something that college students enjoy doing in their free time. The engaging presentation of information, moreover, helps explain why African American accounts are more popular than their Hispanic counterparts, which for the most part tend to only include static text.

15

In addition, the survey revealed that despite the overall popularity of African American accounts, the people utilizing them as educational instruments are also overwhelming black. In other words the burden of revising whitewashed American textbooks is disproportionally falling on the blacks that are producing and consuming this type of revisionist work. One caveat, however, concerns my inability to incorporate Native American online accounts and students into the study—something that may or may not displace African Americans as the distinguished leader of this online movement.

17

In order for this movement to succeed, however, the public must, as mentioned earlier, hold American institutions accountable for what is being taught in public schools. At a certain point, the online community must transition from an information gathering entity to a politically active constituency, willing to exert pressure on the government. My interest in this topic stems from my own research on the Gullah Wars, which I am writing about in a thesis entitled “Restless Liberty: Territorial East Florida’s Maroon Haven and the Largest Slave Rebellion in US History, 1835-1836.” As I read through military documents detailing the lives of slaves in Florida throughout the antebellum period, I grew increasingly frustrated that few people outside of Harvard would learn about this crucial part of African American history. Consequently, I decided to reach out to one of the curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open next year. I talked about what I was researching and how I hoped to someday turn it into a book. In the meantime, I explained that there were certain things the museum could incorporate into their exhibits to rectify historical inaccuracies. Among other things, I explained that the Underground Railroad flowed not only to the northern border of the United States with Canada, but also to the south where slaves were able escape to the Bahamas via Florida.

20

Six months later, the Smithsonian Museum posted the following message alongside the photo included above:

The Underground Railroad, the secret system that ferried thousands of enslaved people from bondage to freedom, had stops in cities across a wide expanse of our country – and some of the “stations” were in places that were not in a direct line from a slave state to a free one.

“While primary attention is given to the drama of slave escapes to the free states of the North and to Canada, there was also a flow of runaways into Spanish Florida and into Spanish Mexico and the subsequent Mexican Republic,” notes the National Park Service.

Whatever path an enslaved person took for their escape – wagons, boats, river crossings – they often found their way to hiding places within private homes, churches and barns. Helping them along were abolitionists, including free blacks and others sympathetic to their plight who risked fines and imprisonment for aiding them.

Look for upcoming posts about cities such as Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York – all known for their efforts to help enslaved persons become free men and women. Check out this link to see various routes of the Underground Railroad: http://1.usa.gov/1y4FCM4

This is only one small example of how an individual can exert pressure on a larger institution to help reunite people with their ancestors’ pasts. Going forward, I have maintained my relationship with the Smithsonian and hope to establish a temporary exhibit demonstrating the importance of the Gullah Wars in precipitating the abolishment of the domestic slave trade in the United States. I am confident that in the future other individuals will demand a redrafting of African American history too. I would not be surprised to see social media play a crucial role in that effort.

Works Cited

“#BoycottExodusMovie.” Twitter. Dr_Asrat. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/Dr_Asrat/status/541711660134985728

“BlackCognizance.” Twitter. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/blackcognizance

“BlackHistory.” Instagram. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. http://instagram.com/blackhistory

“Black History: John Horse And The Black Seminoles.” YouTube. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TT2TthezYU

Brock, Andre. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media: 529-49. Print.

“Crushing White Supremacy (Part 3: The Gullah Wars).” YouTube. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoNTDABXBxU

Dawson, Michael C., and Lawrence D. Bobo. 2009. One year later and the myth of a post-racial society. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 6(2): 247–249.

“Do The Right Thing: Radio Raheem’s Death.” YouTube. Phillip Branch. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGM5x1qQUOI

Ho, Pauline. “Twitter Post.” Twitter. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://twitter.com/paulineptho/status/523667354207932416

“King Henry VII and WWI.” Twitter. BlackPresence. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/blackpresence

“Largest Slave Rebellion.” Cocoa Lounge. 13 May 2013. Web. http://www.cocoalounge.org/viewthread.php?tid=61299&page=2

McLean, Nick. “Black Men and Depression, Part 2: PTSD.” Yes, We Rise. BlogSpot. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://yeswerise.blogspot.com/

Potter, Woodburne. The War in Florida. 1836. Reprint, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966.

“Ridley Scott on Exodus.” PageSay. ScreenRant. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://pagesay.com/ridley-scott-says-exodus-gods-and-kings-is-his-biggest-epic-yet/

“Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.” The Underground Railroad. Google. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://plus.google.com/u/0/116010930245123207334/posts

“Teaching African History.” Twitter. Racialicious. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/racialicious/status/540525431892750337

“The Alhambra.” Black History Heroes. Twitter. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/historyheroes

“The Murder of Emmett Till.” The American Experience. PBS. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/

United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996

United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

“United States History For Christian Schools.” Amazon. Web. http://www.amazon.com/United-States-History-Christian-Schools/dp/1591664241