Digital Alchemy: The Transformative Magic of Women of Color Online

Im unfortunately unable to attend MLA this year but I wanted to give a bit of what I would have presented on the panel, Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities. Its at 10:15 am, Friday!


Transformative Digital Humanities: Doing Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Class in DH

Alchemy is the “science” of turning regular metals into gold. When I talk about digital alchemy I am thinking of the ways that women of color in particular transform everyday digital media into valuable social justice media magic. We turn scraps into something precious. Like chitterlings, the discarded pig intestines of the internet can be reworked into a delicacy. As Dr. Tricia Rose notes however, there can be unintended and long term health effects from making a way out of no way. People can assume that leftovers are enough and abandon efforts to make sure everyone gets their fair share. It is the delicate balance of making do and pushing for more that informs my thinking on women of color’s transformative digital media magic.

By refashioning existing social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr, gender marginalized folks of color are creating the changes that they want to see in the world. Innovative web series, projects and initiatives proliferate on the web as those of us whose genders and sexualities are labeled deviant within white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, find more autonomous room online. But even within the “democratized space” of “teh interwebs” the same systems of oppression operate, pushing new digital media makers to grow new strategies that fit a rapidly shifting digital ecosystem.

In the world of digital humanities, digital alchemy takes many forms. In 2012, a conversation sparked in part by tweets from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History Conference, brought many DA issues to the fore.

On September 29, Josh Guild, a self described “historian. tacher. student. observer. urbanist. writer. freedom dreamer,” tweeted “still waiting on that ethics of live tweeting in the academy convo.” This tweet sparked an intense twitter, multi blog multi day conversation, dubbed “twittergate” by fellow Emory graduate candidate Roopsi Risam. The conversation reached the pages of Inside Higher Ed. What’s most interesting about the conversation to me is the way that the work and theorizing of women of color dropped out of the conversation about the ethics of live tweeting presentations.

Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson was one of the first tweeters to respond to Guild’s tweet. She, an afro-Latina digital humanist expressed her stake in publicly tweeting talks as an issue of access, particularly for folks of color she feels accountable to who are often structurally disempowered from participating in these conversations. Adeline Koh, contributed not only to the conversation but to its documentation as well by collecting the relevant tweets and blog entries that traced the conversation.

Tressie Cottom also an Emory Graduate candidate was a central figure, summarized the debate as follows.

I don’t want my ideas stolen before I have a chance to publish them. It happened to my friend/cousin/colleague.

Building your brand as a “hip” digital scholar by tweeting the work of

others is selfish.

People behave badly in conference backchannels. Rules should be established to govern good online academic etiquette.

This is, I think, a fair summation of different points of view expressed during the twitter conversation about the ethics of live tweeting at conferences. Interestingly enough the conversation was sparked by an academic who tweets regularly but who prefers more traditional engagement when they speak at conferences. I point that out to say that this is not a conversation being had by Twitter “haters” but also by those who engage and use Twitter but who are not comfortable with the medium being used differently in different spaces.

I highlight this portion of Cottom’s blog post to illustrate the complexity of conversation that is taking place. While talking about the substantive claims people are making, she is also pointing to the fact that Guild is a twitter user, attempting to counter efforts that would pit the positions expressed against each other. This complexity is obscured once the conversation is repackaged for larger audiences. The points being made by some of the main participants are no longer included in favor of more senior theorists thoughts.

Those most vocal and central to this conversation were junior scholars of color and specifically women of color and that’s where things took a turn. The Inside Higher Ed piece strips the conversation of the very real and central questions of control and access by only quoting white participants in the conversation and misattributing the concern around control and access to Mark Sample, a leading scholar in the field of digital humanities, who was quoting the aforementioned Risam. Sample informed Inside Higher Ed of their mistake and they fixed the attribution of the quote however the very real concerns about the labor and theorizing of women of color in the context of a public sphere were illustrated in that moment. It wasn’t tweeting itself that resulted in the incorrect attribution of Risam’s tweet as scholars concerned with tweeted talks worry will happen. It was preconceived notions about who theorizes and what voices matter in a conversation that shaped ideas about what voices had something relevant to say in the conversation.

Cottom wrote another piece highlighting both the scramble by some scholars on twitter to say something about the debate but obscure the implications of race in the conversation and the simultaneous dismissal of the conversation as old and unnecessary. She writes:

I am not sure if the debate is so silly because it is happening outside the purview of the digital humanities elite or because it was being had by a group of women (most of them minorities), early career scholars. But, I suspect it is a combination of both.
I find it hard to imagine that a conversation about who gets to define the rights of an audience, or who gets to control the dissemination of publicly funded knowledge, or how ideas are weaponized against the very populations we use to justify and further our research would be taken so lightly had Nathan Jurgenson or Mark Sample or Cathy Davidson taken it up. That it was a group of minority women (without tenure, no less!) seemed to render the conversation less valuable.

It is this context that makes me ambivalent about bringing people into the digital humanities or encouraging folks to identify as digital humanists. There are many benefits to engaging the community and what I like most is the genuine interest by people connected to DH to learn more and grow their knowledge about the issues that others are raising. I wonder if it might be useful to again survey some of the projects that already exist on the periphery of the big DH tent. I see clusters and nodes of activity that are linked by threads of digital media magic but are themselves examples of DH work beyond the canon.

I recently learned about Akirachix, a Kenyan women’s digital collaborative that is solving local problems with the members’ DH skills. They’ve created cell phone apps that are useful for farmers in their community, allowing them to check crop prices without a corrupt middleman, transforming the world of app users. Marginalized groups don’t just add to the diversity of the people working on DH projects; they have different priorities, which can lead to different types of projects. I hope that the spirit of inquiry that drives DH entices folks out of the tent to see all the great work people are producing in other places and encourages more transformative collaborations.

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