Finding My Way with Words: A Journey Alongside the Internet (part 2)

As I was looking through the course catalogue at the start of this semester, this course immediately jumped out to me. This course was perfect for my social studies focus field on “Representations of African-Americans in the Media.” Additionally, this course stood out to me because it promised to take me through the historical structures that shaped technological and racial discourse today. Now, as I reflect on the semester, I have come away with so much than what is listed on the courses’ syllabus.

This reflective essay assignment kind of allows me to come full-circle to the start of my semester. Our first assignment for this course was to write a digital autobiography that required me to trace my journey alongside technology and look back on how technology has shaped my upbringing. While that first assignment required me to reflect backwards on how the Internet and technology have impacted my development until now, this assignment allows me to think back on this course and how it fits in with my life long journey thinking about the implications of race in technology.

Now I would like to talk about how the units in this course that were the most formative. Even though all of the units in this course were incredibly helpful to my understanding of race and formations of technology, there are particular units in this course that really expanded my view on what racism is and what ‘counts’ as technology.

I think my favorite unit hands down was “Slavery and Capitalism.” This unit really helped me broaden my definition of what constituted technology. In our modern era of computers, phones, the Internet, apps, etc., I only thought of technology in terms of digital tools. This unit reminded me of a technology class I took in sixth grade. My teacher told us, “Technology is anything that is designed to simplify human life.” Since the “Slavery and Capitalism” unit, my sixth grade teacher’s definition has become my working definition of technology.

The “Slavery and Capitalism” unit also taught me that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are always social and political constraints on how and who uses technology. The technologies we use are always colored by a complicated history based in capitalist structures. The Seth Rockman reading “The Future of the Civil War Era Studies” and the Darla Thompson dissertation “The Materiality of Slavery” really drove home these points.

SLAVE

What I found most intriguing was how American students are socialized to believe that capitalism is a 20th century phenomenon, and not something that has been occurring since the beginning of slavery. The tales of the slave collars in the Thompson reading also moved me. Never did I think about technology as a means to subordinate an entire race of people. I was able to draw connections between the controls of the collars in the era of slavery to today’s technologies of control.

In addition to expanding my definition of technology, this unit also helped me realize the important role technology can play in reparations for slavery. Professor Vince Brown’s work on digitizing the narratives of slaves and providing interactive tools to tell stories that would have otherwise gone unheard was incredibly moving.

I think the most eye-opening unit was “Ownership, Privacy, and Information.” Throughout all of the readings and the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, my jaw was always slightly agape, There is a wealth of information collected on you, even if you don’t have a social media website. The data collection that is mundane today would have been fodder for a dystopian novel thirty years ago. This unit caused me to think critically about the disparities that exist in technological literacy. There is a huge gap in the knowledge and resources that everyday people, much less people of color or economically disadvantaged people, have to battle behemoth social media agencies. It is also concerning how little regulation there is to defend the privacy rights of citizens. The government has access to so much personal data that could be damaging to the lives of average citizens.

lololololol

The units that challenged the most on how I think about my identity the most were “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality.” As a black woman from rural Georgia with Caribbean parentage, I always had a hard time thinking about my own blackness in relation to these sometimes-monolithic definitions of blackness. I really enjoyed Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black. This comedic memoir and social commentary really resonated with me. I also enjoyed the Andre Brock reading on Black Twitter. Brock really got at my own thinking: why do people always want to study what black people do, but at the same time if people do not study ‘blackness’ then there is no dialogue to encourage action that makes social structures that benefits black people.

Both pieces reminded me of the idea of black people being ‘unicorns.’ I always remember growing up how impressed people were with me—not always by my personality or skills. Instead they were impressed that me—a black girl with a ‘ghetto’ name—was as smart and capable as I am. I was definitely always the unicorn of my friends in high school. I also realized that being the resident black person in many settings is a huge responsibility that I did not choose to bear. The “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality” units pushed me to think about how I use social media and other story telling tools to add more diversity to the conversations of blackness. I have a unique voice because of all the identities I possess—very few, if anyone else, can provide the perspective I offer.

Overall, this course has been incredibly meaningful to me. As an aspiring journalist, this course gave me tools and strategies that will help me do a better job of telling the stories of people. This course also made me more thoughtful about what structures impact how and when particular individuals make the news. Going forward, I am going to be more cognizant about how to present news through graphics, long-form articles, and smaller packages that are more reader friendly.

In my time at Harvard, I don’t I have every interacted with a professor or teaching fellow as much as I have talked with Carla and Kera. Even though all of my classes won’t be small seminars, I am now more inclined to reach out to my professors and talk to them about my interests. I only have four years as an undergraduate at Harvard, so I need to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge surrounding me. I have also never spoken up as much as I have in this course. Being brave enough to put your ideas forward is incredibly important to enhancing not only your own learning, but also the learning of everyone else in the room.

For the rest of my time at Harvard and for the rest of my life, I would like to challenge myself to the following: 1) Always write, 2) Always speak up, and 3) Always treat people as people.

Works Cited:

Brock, André. 2012. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56 (4): 529–49.

Thurston, Baratunde. 2012. How to Be Black. New York, NY: Harper. (selections)

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

Rockman, Seth. 2012. “The Future of Civil War Era Studies: Slavery and Capitalism.” Journal of the Civil War Era. http://journalofthecivilwarera.com/forum-the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies/the-future-of-civilwar-era-studies-slavery-and-capitalism/.

Thompson, Darla J. 2014. “The Materiality of Slavery.” In Circuits of Containment: Iron Collars, Incarceration and the Infrastructure of Slavery. Cornell University dissertation, pp. 1-57.

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.

 

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

A Racialized Online Environment: YouTube’s Profit-Driven “Hood Pranks”

In 2005, three former PayPal employees launched YouTube as a “consumer media company for people to watch and share original videos worldwide through a web experience.” In 2006, the platform became the fastest growing website on the Internet. YouTube’s content managers quickly realized that they were not fully realizing the financial potential of their creation and, as a result, introduced video advertising the next year. The website is projected to generate more than a billion dollars in marketing revenue alone in 2014. Users, who typically receive 55% of the income, are therefore incentivized to post controversial and, in the case of “hood pranks,” immoral content in order to increase their online viewership and personal salaries.

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A “hood prank” on YouTube is typically characterized as a video in which an amateur comedian enters a predominantly African-American neighborhood in order to elicit violent behavior on camera. The proliferation of such videos on YouTube can be traced to a Russian male, Vitaly Zdorovestskiy, who in 2012 decided to dress up as a zombie and terrorize African Americans in Miami’s historically black downtown area. The video quickly went viral and received nearly thirty million views. Despite the video’s inconspicuous title—“Miami’s Zombie Attack Prank”—Vitaly’s motives are blatantly clear. In a span of three minutes, the user chases after eighty African Americans and makes a deliberate effort to show he is filming near Miami’s MLK Drive. Based on contemporary estimates, the video generated over sixty thousand dollars for Vitaly Zdorovestskiy.

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As the genre of videos was popularized, profit-driven users felt the need to create increasingly lewd and disturbing videos in black neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans defended themselves and were unfairly characterized as irrational and violent. OckTV, an account managed by the Ettayim brothers from New York, became one of the worst perpetrators of the trend in early 2014. With titles like “Domestic Abuse in Public!” “Stealing Strangers’ Money Prank!” “Selling Cocaine to a Security Guard!” and “Can I Kick You!?” the two males quickly garnered national attention and received millions of views on each of their videos. Viewers repeatedly racialized the understandable and rational reactions from innocent pedestrians in uncensored YouTube comments.

          Despite international condemnation, OckTV continued to post videos every month and accounts were generated in an effort to profit from the controversial practice. Today, many new comedic users attempt to establish themselves through this medium. With small initial fan bases, these users often push the racialized standard in a self-perpetuating process for revenue and fame. A recent video in Oakland, for instance, features a young man impersonating a police officer and slapping handcuffs on individuals walking on the sidewalk or engaged in conversation with friends and family members.

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Unfortunately, this trend will continue as long as YouTube continues to allow users to profit off of racist “pranks.” Indeed, the most disturbing financial aspect of these videos is that Google and YouTube also profit from them. As previously mentioned, the company receives nearly half of the revenue from each video. Clearly, there is an imperative for institutional intervention that has gone unacknowledged for far too long in the online community. The media is powerless in stopping the trend on its own. On the contrary, media attention generates more viewers and incentivizes unscrupulous users to participate in the lucrative practice. Despite the efforts of users like RicemanTV, people will unfortunately continue to make and watch “hood pranks” for personal enrichment and entertainment. It is sad and discouraging that people even feel the need to make such videos. I look forward to the day when people will cease to think in racial terms. Until then, online content managers will need to police cases of discrimination in a manner that creates a safe online experience for every user, regardless of their background.

Works Cited

“Are Black Guys Violent? (Social Experiment).” YouTube. September 10, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb4GfbR98EE.

Broderick, Ryan. “Meet The Two Brothers Behind The Shocking “Hood Prank” YouTube Videos People Can’t Stop Sharing.” BuzzFeed. August 7, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/meet-the-two-brothers-behind-ocktv-hood-pranks.

“Can I Kik You Prank!?” YouTube. September 2, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaiaaEbbkwE.

Faughnder, Ryan. “YouTube U.S. Ad Revenue to Cross $1 Billion This Year, EMarketer Says.” Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014.

Freeman, B., and S. Chapman. “Is “YouTube” Telling or Selling You Something? Tobacco Content on the YouTube Video-sharing Website.” Tobacco Control, 2007, 207-10. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/20748159.

Garrahan, Matthew. “YouTube Advertising Revenue Surges 50% to $5.6bn.” Financial Times. December 11, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/377ed152-6220-11e3-bba5-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3K7hCL3z1.

Glenn, Pia. “I Only Hope That the Hood Pranks…” Twitter. July 25, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://twitter.com/PiaGlenn/status/492818268843810816.

Kaufman, Leslie. “Chasing Their Star, on YouTube.” The New York Times. February 1, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014.

“Miami Zombie Attack Prank!” YouTube. June 2, 2012. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4awVqRr1eCo.

Readhead, Harry. “Pranksters Warned.” The UK Metro. July 12, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://metro.co.uk/2014/07/12/pranksters-told-they-are-putting-their-lives-in-jeopardy-after-latest-jokes-turn-violent-4795567/.

Schilling, Dave. “Stop Using Black People as Props for Viral Videos | VICE | United States.” VICE. June 27, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.vice.com/read/ranking-the-racism-of-the-hood-pranks-phenomenon-twir-845.

The Twitter Purge and the Fappening: How Women are Blamed for the Invasion of their own Privacy

The concept of ‘revenge porn,’ defined by the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review as “the public online posting of nude or sexually explicit pictures of a person, often with attached identifying information or derogatory comments” has come to public consciousness in the wake of two major events in 2014: the “Twitter Purge” in July and November and the “Fappening,” a colloquial term for the leak of hundreds of nude pictures of celebrities in September (Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review). However, the practice has been around for a while, with the most prominent ‘revenge porn’ website, Hunter Moore’s “Is Anyone Up,” being created in 2010. “Is Anyone Up,” until its closing in 2012, was a forum-style website where posters were encouraged to shame their ex-lovers publicly by posting their nude pictures and contact information (Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review). Though the site was not a household name, the practice of ‘sexting,’ or the texting of provocative and sexually explicit pictures to others, has apparently been a mainstay for years, and the Fappening and Twitter Purge made people understand that it was more widespread than most people expected, for better and for worse, and more troubling is the fact that sexting has trickled down into practice in the preteen and teenage arena, with a recent study finding that 18% of teenagers have sent a nude picture to a partner (Parkinson).

Sexting may not have become a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that partners inevitably break up. In moments of anger, many scorned partners turn to the Internet to shame their partners, and these partners whose pictures are posted online are overwhelmingly—90%-female (End Revenge Porn). With these statistics, it is easy to see that revenge porn is a gendered crime, and is more a manifestation of society’s ongoing harassment of women (ex. Street cat calling and victim blame in college rape cases) than a completely new adopted belief that is suddenly adopted when one goes online (Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review, Nutting). And revenge porn is not just an online issue—the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has found that 49% of women who have been exposed in revenge porn have been harassed and stalked both online and offline by those who had seen their pictures (End Revenge Porn).

Revenge Porn By the Numbers - An Infographic from End Revenge Porn

Embedded from End Revenge Porn

The “Twitter Purge,” a burst of revenge porn pictures of women that were posted on a dedicated accounts created by a teenager in California to purge, or expose, ‘thots,’ a degrading slang term towards women, began in mid-July (Parkinson). It is interesting to note that the “Twitter Purge” began only a week after a teenage girl named Jada Sparks became a trending topic on Twitter as boys from a party she was at raped her then mocked her online by posting pictures of her in an unconscious and partially clothed state (Parkinson). The timing of the purge coincided with the release of The Purge: Anarchy, the sequel to the first The Purge movie, and the reincarnation of the Twitter Purge occurred in November when the media hyped the DVD release (Wikipedia). What is interesting about the Twitter Purge is that even when the original Purge accounts that were created by the Californian teen were deleted by Twitter, individual tweeters continued to use the hashtag #twitterpurge in order to shame their ex-girlfriends and women that had trusted them enough to send them nude or semi-nude photos.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 8.35.37 PMThe spike of tweets containing the hashtag #TwitterPurge is shown to have increased dramatically on the days surrounding the release of The Purge: Anarchy DVD.  

Two months after the first Twitter Purge, the phenomenon was followed by an even more startling and more sensational story when the nude, personal photos of hundreds of female celebrities were posted online onto a forum site called 4chan, with the photos being stolen through a breach in security in the Apple iCloud which instantly stores photos taken on iPhones (Worland). Though the public had almost become used to the leaking of private photos because of the Twitter Purge, the victim blame game was even stronger than before as people tweeted ‘advice’ to celebrities that was patronizing and misogynistic as they blamed those in the pictures, not the people who had hacked into the iCloud to steal them and post them publicly. The overwhelming voice of people giving advice included things like “don’t take nude selfies,” but this was problematic as it was only targeted towards women, not the men who had hacked the system (Bilton, Dewey). Female reporters and feminists rallied towards the cause, stating that those who told women to ‘not take nude pictures’ were doing the equivalent of telling women to not dress a certain way when going outside, going to a party, or even telling women that rape is their fault (Dewey).

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A stereotypical tweet telling women what to do in order to avoid getting their pictures posted online without their consent, which doesn’t even touch the bigger problem of people posting their pictures.

Many men and women tweeted about the Twitter Purge and the “Fappening” saying that women should not sext at all in order to protect themselves from the possibility of a leak by someone they know (as in revenge porn) or someone they don’t even know (as in the celebrity nude leak), but this is difficult advice whe the practice has become embedded into the social norm of teenagers. Ironically, a study by Lippman and Campbell has found that girls are “no more likely than boys to sext” but “more likely to experience pressure to do so, particularly from boys” (Lippman and Campbell). However, girls are the ones who are exposed after a rough break-up, and are the ones who are branded with terms like “prude” if they are not willing to send sexts to love interests and “sluts” if they send them too willingly (Lippman and Campbell). In addition, the way that girls are treated when their photos are put online against their will is problematic as police officers say things like “they victimized themselves” (Rossin).

The issue of revenge porn, sexting, the Fappening, and the Twitter Purge all coalesce into one big question: how far is too far when the First Amendment is concerned (Kim)? How far are we willing to push the boundary of free speech when it is hurtful and detrimental to women online? Barlow’s 1996 “A Cyberspace Independence Declaration” seems eerie as it echoes the attitude of 4chan users who exposed celebrities’ personal pictures without caring about the government’s hand, as it states “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours” (Barlow). In addition, Barlow states that governments do not “possess any methods of enforcement [Internet users] have true reason to fear,” which is quite true in that due to the international nature of the Internet, what is outlawed in one state may be allowed in another, as not all states have anti-revenge porn laws in effect yet (Barlow, Kim).

There is no clear solution to this problem, as it again is just a technological manifestation of the way that women are treated in our society September (Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review). The fact that this problem is not just one online but that society has as a whole is highlighted by the case in which several police officers in California were found to be stealing and forwarding nude pictures from phones of people arrested or stopped for things like speeding to their own phones in order to collect nude photos of women as a game within the police force (Steigerwald). When even the police is contributing to the problem, it seems that it is a lost cause for women everywhere to be given dignity in expressing their sexuality with peace of mind.

Works Cited

Barlow, John. A Cyberspace Independence Declaration. 9 Feb. 1996. E-Mail.

Bilton, Nick (NickBilton). “Put together a list of tips for celebs after latest leaks:1. Don’t take nude selfies 2. Don’t take use selfies 3. Don’t take nude selfies” 1 September 2014, 5:31 p.m. Tweet.

Dewey, Caitlin. “This Is Why ‘not Taking Nude Selfies’ Is Not the Solution to the Internet’s Nude-Photo Hacking Scandal.” Washington Post : September 2, 2014. Print.

Kim, Anne. “Addressing Celebrity Nude Photo Leaks and Revenge Porn: The First Amendment Question.” Roll Call. N.p., 7 Nov. 2014. Web.

“Law and Revenge Porn.” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lippman, Julia, and Scott Campbell. “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t…If You’re a Girl: Relational and Normative Contexts of Adolescent Sexting in the United States.” Children and Media (2013): 371–386. Print.

Nutting, Alice. “Revenge Porn Is Vile Symptom of Modern Misogyny — It’s about Time We Had a Protection Law.” The Independent 16 Nov. 2014. Web.

Parkinson, Hannah. “Twitter Trend Based on The Purge Films Exposes Horror of Revenge Porn.” The Guardian 21 July 2014. Web.

“Revenge Porn By the Numbers.” End Revenge Porn. N.p., 3 Jan. 2014. Web.

Rosin, Hannah. “Why Kids Sext.” The Atlantic 14 Oct. 2014. Web.

Steigerwald, Lucy. “California Officers Steal Suspects’ Nude Photos as a ‘Game.’” N.p., 27 Oct. 2014. Web.

“The Purge: Anarchy.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Tweets per Day: Twitterpurge October 17- November 16.” Topsy. N.p., n.d. Web.

Worland, Justin. “How That Massive Celebrity Hack Might Have Happened.” Time Magazine 1 Sept. 2014. Web.

Intersectionality: Stretching a seemingly inelastic concept

Introduction:

I first came across the term intersectionality after doing the Freshman Urban Program, a pre-orientation program that introduces Harvard freshmen to social justice in Harvard, Boston/Cambridge, and beyond. While not explicitly using the term ‘intersectionality,’ Audre Lourde’s “Hierarchies of Oppression” spoke to me because her piece gave me the language I could use to describe my experiences growing up as a Caribbean-American in a rural Georgian town and at Harvard. Later, during my first WGS course, I read excerpts on Kimberle Crenshaw’s first intersectionality piece. Her work taught me that I hold multiple identities at once in all the spaces I occupy. While I apply that thinking to myself, Harvard isn’t necessarily conducive to thinking about intersectionality on campus. There are several disparate organizations that unite people on the grounds on just one or two identities that someone possesses. On the other hand, people possess so many different identities that there cannot be an organization or collective to represent all of them at once outside the bodies of singular individuals.

For this post, I would like to delve into the Brock, Kvasny, and Hales reading titled “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” and the Carabado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson piece called “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” I would like to expore the ways in which technology adds or detracts from the concept of intersectionality. In addition, I would like to see how intersectionality as a term couldn’t be used as an “identity catch-all.”

 “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” by Brock, Kvasny, and Hales

One of the initial things I noticed about this article was how it used content analysis to study three blog responses from black women. I immediately thought of all the black blogs and Tumblrs I frequent in order to find similar experiences to my own.

I find it really interesting how this paper intertwines technical capital with cultural capital. These connections make sense because the cultural group that dominates the technical sphere will create technologies and systems to reinforce the power of that same dominant culture. This creates a feedback loop of representation and control.

“Bordieu’s concept of cultural capital is an attempt to expand the category of capital to something more than just the economic and to identify culture as a power source” (1024). Bordieu’s breakdown of how and where cultural capital exists is also an incredibly useful framework to guide my discussion. Cultural capital exists in the mind and body, institutions, and cultural goods like technology and art.

I really like this breakdown of cultural capital because it is a multidimensional explanation of how culture isn’t just traditions that exist in “people,” but culture is a “living” mechanism that doesn’t just impact the people that proscribe to it, but those outside of the culture as well.

I also find their analysis of the matrimonial market interesting. “In the matrimonial market, the cultural capital held by a black woman is mediated by the object of competition between the woman and her competitors” (1043). These remarks remind me of how black women are represented and engaged with on online dating websites. Study after study shows that black women get the lowest response rates. In my own personal experience with online dating websites, I get more sexually explicit messages than I do actual messages of courtship. These messages (from predominately white males) are racially charge and fetishize my black womanhood. These men are exercising their “symbolic power.”

In regards to the black feminist theory initially outlined in the article, I didn’t like how passive it made black women seem, especially in the matrimonial context. Towards the end of the authors’ analysis of black feminist theory, they began to break down that image of black women. They alluded to ideas of code-switching and double consciousness when explaining that black women have to operate on their own understandings and within societal perceptions. Using black female bloggers was a smart choice on their part because, in my opinion, black female bloggers subvert dominant systems.

As the article moves into the main argument regarding three bloggers responding to Helena Andrews’ “Successful, Black, and Lonely,” I found the two of the most intriguing parts of the article were about how the bloggers engaged with the concept of interracial dating and provide discourse around the word ‘bitch.’ The interracial piece was interesting to me given recent Crimson articles on interracial dating that caused a firestorm of backlash on the BSA email list. There are two messages pressed upon black women in regards to interracial dating. Some parties argue that black women are limiting themselves by choosing not to date outside of their race. A BuzzFeed article from several months ago made this argument and event went as far to say that black women should travel to Europe for interracial love. On the other side of the debate, critics vilify black women who chose to date anyone other than a black man.

When thinking about the term bitch, my first thought always goes to the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch.” Not only is this the perfect period anthem, but the song talks about all the identities and roles a woman possesses and how angry women are ‘bitches.’ There are so many permutations of the modern bitch. There is the ‘bad bitch’ who doesn’t take ish from anyone, the ‘basic bitch’ who is uneducated and materialistic, and the ‘bitch’ who is scared to take action, to name a few iterations.

These discussions on the identities and roles black women possess bring me to the Carbado reading on intersectionality.

 “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory” by Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson

The opening line discussing how little has been done to trace the history and various complications of the world ‘intersectionality’ is so true. “The theory is never done, nor exhausted, by its prior articulations or movements.” So many times in social justice work, words get thrown around and don’t become evolving parts of the movement in the sense that they transform and get redefined as the movement itself progresses. “No particular application of intersectionality can, in a definitive sense, grasp the range of intersectional powers and problems that plague society” (305). In my opinion, intersectionality is more a way of thinking about people than it is a definition that encompasses everything.

One of the biggest “ah-ha” moments of reading this article for me was how Caribbean feminists used the term intersectionality to also incorporate the particular sentiments of nation-building and historical relations. Intersectionality incorporates more than just personal identity markers, but also the social contexts in which they exist.

In this article, the section that most fascinated me was how the identity of the black male was incorporated in the idea of intersectionality. Even though Cho stated earlier in the article that the term intersectionality applies to more people than just the black woman, I still use that as the default example given that a black woman wrote the article and my own identity colors my viewpoint.

The concept of ‘black male essentialism’ was so new to me. It almost says that black men can’t be at fault or held responsible for any negativity because so many societal structures are at work against them. The black men that are successful are told held in higher esteem. Black women almost seem to be a prize for their success. The article insists that these notions are dangerous and actually harm the social justice needed for black women. It is argued that intersectional thought can be applied to black political thought to make social justice possible for both black men and women.

Discussion Questions:

  • When celebrities like Raven-Symone choose to dismiss their racial and sexual identities as differentiating factors, does this harm discourse on intersectionality? Does this type of thinking move people further towards equity?
  • Theories and applications of intersectionality seem to work for marginalized people of color, how does this concept work with the privileges of white people, in particular straight white males? Do we leave the task to white writers like John Scalzi who write pieces like “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting”?
  • How does one build technical and cultural capital? Does the equity of these capitals come from members of the dominant culture actively sharing the space or do marginalized groups have to take capital away from the dominant culture?

Citations:

Brock, André, Lynette Kvasny, and Kayla Hales. “Cultural Appropriations Of Technical Capital.” Information, Communication & Society 13.7 (2010): 1040-059. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013.“INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

Cooper, Brittney. “America’s Sex and Race Failure: Why Raven-Symone and an Ohio Couple Are Struggling.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.<http://www.salon.com/2014/10/08/americas_sex_and_race_failure_why_raven_symone_and_an_ohio_couple_are_struggling/&gt;.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ivt_N2Zcts

http://www.buzzfeed.com/anitabadejo/why-black-women-in-america-are-being-told-to-find-love-in-eu

http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/04/europe-single-black-womans-promised-land/

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/10/27/interracial-dating-at-harvard/