Race in Digital Space (Revisited): An Interview with Sarah N. Gatson (Part One)

“In Cyberspace, nobody knows your race unless you tell them. Do you tell?” Several years ago, I put this slogan on a poster advertising an MIT-hosted public forum about race and digital space. The resulting controversy was an eyeopener.

Like many white liberals, I had viewed the absence of explicit racial markers in cyberspace with some optimism-seeing the emerging “virtual communities” as perhaps our best hope ever of achieving a truly color-blind society.

But many of the forum’s minority participants-both panelists and audience members-didn’t experience cyberspace as a place where nobody cared about race. Often, they’d found that people simply assumed all participants in an online discussion were white unless they identified themselves otherwise. One Asian American talked of having a white online acquaintance e-mail him a racist joke, which he would never have sent if he had known the recipient’s race. Perhaps covering up for his own embarrassment, the white acquaintance had accused the Asian-American man of “trying to pass as white.” Even when more than one minority was present in a chat room, the forum participants said, they didn’t recognize each other as such, leaving each feeling stranded in a segregated neighborhood. If they sought to correct ignorant misperceptions in online discussions, they were accused of “bringing race into the conversation.” Such missteps were usually not the product of overt racism. Rather, they reflected the white participants’ obliviousness about operating in a multiracial context.

Perhaps when early white Netizens were arguing that cyberspace was “color-blind,” what they really meant was that they desperately wanted a place where they didn’t have to think about, look at or talk about racial differences. Unfortunately, none of us knows how to live in a race-free society. As Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier explains, “We don’t live next door to each other. We don’t go to school together. We don’t even watch the same television shows.” Computers may break down some of the hold of traditional geography on patterns of communication, but we won’t overcome that history of segregation by simply wishing it away.

This passage comes from an essay I published in Technology Review in 2002. (The article still periodically generates whole class sets of angry letters when it gets taught at various universities. Almost no one wants to accept that the taken-as-given “color-blindedness” of cyberspace could be anything other than the realization of Martin Luther King’s Dream.) The forum the article describes was held four or five years before that and was intended to foreground the relative lack of research on race and cyberspace.

Yet, I fear that the same conversation could be held today (though I am less likely to make the same mistake in my framing of the event) and despite some ground breaking work on race in digital spaces by writers like Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, among many others, there is still far less scholarship about race in digital theory than there is about gender, generation, or sexuality. You should certainly check out Anna Everett’s edited collection, Learning Race and Ethnicity, which is part of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning book series and can be read for free online.

This gap between gender studies and critical race studies looms especially large in research on fan and geek culture, as was suggested again and again in the conversations we held here last year about “Gender and Fan Culture.” I’ve been struggling ever since to try to figure out the most productive way to open this blog to conversations around this topic. All suggestions welcome.

Knowing of this interest, Robin Reid, a participant in those discussions, recently introduced me to a colleague of hers, Sarah Gatson, whose work straddles fan studies, digital theory, and critical race studies, who is currently organizing a conference on race and digital media, and who is co-editing with Reid a forthcoming special issue of the Transformative Works and Culture which tackles this topic.

Here’s the call for papers for Gatson’s forthcoming conference:

Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media April 30-May 2, 2009

The Race & Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A&M University convenes a symposium every other year, and the proposed theme for the 2008-2009 year is Shifting Terrains: Inequalities in the 21st Century, and the symposium itself is to focus on Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media. The explosion of work on New Media (including the Internet, mobile devices, Web 2.0) and the juxtaposition and overlap between ‘old’ media (radio, television, film, and mass-print media) and New Media is a rich field of cultural production and scholarly research in which scholars of race and ethnicity have not been particularly well-represented. However, there are cutting edge scholars who do indeed explore various aspects of race/ethnicity and (New) Media (including audience/fan studies, representations of racial and ethnic identities in a variety of media, identity-focused online communities, etc.). We invite such scholars to submit papers with the intention of presenting work that deals with these topics during a 2 1/2 day interdisciplinary symposium, with several keynote speakers, including Dr. Lisa Nakamura and Dr. Henry Bial. We intend that a number of these papers will be compiled into an edited volume intended for publication, and that all papers and participants will have the opportunity to upload their papers on our developing interactive website for scholarly exchange on working papers.

500 word abstracts or full papers of no more than 8000 words (including notes and references) should be submitted to: gatson@tamu.edu and resi@tamu.edu by December 31, 2008. Submissions will be reviewed by an organizing committee, and authors will be notified of acceptance/rejection by March 15, 2009.

In the following interview, Gatson spoke with me about the current state of research on race and new media, about what critical race studies could contribute to our understanding of fan culture, and about how Barack Obama is transforming our understanding of the “black geek.”

You are currently organizing a conference on “Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media.” Almost a decade ago, I was part of a group at MIT, UCSB, and USC which organized a series of similar events on “Race in Digital Space.” There has been a massive amount of research and reflection on digital media over that decade. Why do you think there has been relatively little reflection on the place of race in the new mediascape?

A recurring myth is that the online world is essentially color-blind. As the classic cartoon explains, “in cyberspace, nobody knows you are a dog.” What is wrong with this argument? Why do you think it carries such persistent force?

I think this second question is the beginning of an answer to the first. Since I think that discursive and narrative frames have some influence on how people understand things – especially new things with which they may actually have very little direct experience – the insertion of the color-blind (or post-racial) discourse into the online context is important. On the one hand, color-blind discourse has as one of its often implicit foundations the idea that racial identity in particular is or should be invisible. This idea is obviously rooted in the discourse of the civil rights movement itself, but its use after the last successes of this movement in 1968 has arguably (as pointed out in the now classic work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States) been turned on its head (or, rearticulated in Omi and Winant’s terms). Instead of focusing on race and what it does (what we make it do, what it does to us) in the real world, we are told not to focus on race because in an ideal world, it does not (should not) matter. Cyberspace, as in some ways it is the ideal “ideal world” (this is arguably one of the two dominant narratives about cyberspace), fits very well with this post-racial/civil rights discourse. I think that sometimes we don’t want the problems of the “old world” invading our shiny new cyberspace, especially when so much of what many of us ordinarily do online involves leisure and entertainment.

Most often considerations of race and new media get subsumed into discussions of the digital divide. What do you see as the limitations of this framing of the issues?

Obviously issues of access to media are important, especially when we are talking about access to the creation and dissemination networks involved in the processes of media production. While it is understood generally that new media technology – being both expensive and powerful – is pervasive, its relative lack of penetration into and use by racial minority communities, some of the most prominent research on the digital divide however (e.g. Van Dijk’s most recent book) is fundamentally disconnected from the vast literature on race and ethnicity. The digital divide framework in one sense replicates one strand of race/ethnicity theory (I think it tends to be more grounded in assimilation theory), but does not engage with more contemporary theories.

When I hosted the “Gender and Fan Culture” conversations last summer, there was a persistent agreement that the field of fan studies needed to address issues of race, though we could find few examples of scholarship which did so in any systematic way. What do you think critical race studies would contribute to our understanding of fandom? And conversely, what do you think an understanding of fandom would contribute to our understanding of the way racial identities operate in the online world?

I think the starting point for a fruitful discussion between these two research agendas would be first and foremost understanding fandoms as bounded groups (with more or less permeable boundaries). A crucial component of critical race theory (which is influenced by black feminist theory) explicitly examines the interplay between salient identities, how they interact, and how they are prioritized in macro and micro situations, by both those who hold the identities, and everyone else. Like any other group-identity, one’s membership in a fandom may have more or less salience given a particular situation. While one might assume that a fandom identity takes the ultimately salient position in a fandom space, what exactly might that fandom identity entail, and who is to say what is the “appropriate” salience a fan’s other identities should take in that fan-expressive space? Not talking about race, gender, class, sexuality – or being pressured not to do so – in a fandom space ends up offering a “generic” or “normalized” fan. If that fan is generic, what has typically been the go-to generic fan identity? The fanboy, who also has a presumed race, class, and sexuality, right? We’re being disingenuous if we pretend that this isn’t so.

Going online, we have to make decisions about self-presentation and identity in more purposeful ways than in offline situations. At least initially, we control a great deal more information about ourselves when we decide to go online – we may even present ourselves in anonymous ways not available to us offline (while letter-writing and graffiti are in many ways analogous to anonymous posting, the opportunities for near-thorough anonymous synchronous discussion are unique to cyberspace). However, those self-presentations still involve our offline identities, both those aspects we have more control over, and those we have less control over. Assuming either that these selves are or should be shed before entering into online space, or fandom space, or indeed online fandom space, is highly problematic.

Sarah N. Gatson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-College Station. She earned her B.A. at Cornell College in 1991, and her M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. at Northwestern Univserity (1999). In addition to her work on Internet community (Interpersonal Culture on the Internet – Television, the Internet, and the Making of a Community, with Amanda Zweerink, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), she collaborated on a NIH/NIDA-funded project looking at Computer-Mediated Communication as it intertwines with Rave and Drug-using subcultures, which has just been released as a book: Real Drugs in a Virtual World: Drug Discourse and Community Online, edited by Edward Murguia, Melissa Tackett-Gibson, and Ann Lessem (Lexington Books). Her research interests are centered on how people organize themselves in terms of community and citizenship. Her graduate work focused upon gender and race as they intersect with these processes, their significance as cultural systems, and as ideologies that permeate all our lives. Her work has moved back and forth from a focus on policy and law, and thus the more formal process of citizenship, to a more generalized focus on the micro- to macro-level processes of identity, community, and citizenship, and the connections between these processes. Some of her work has been published in Contemporary Sociology, Law & Social Inquiry, Research in Community Sociology, Qualitative Inquiry, Qualitative Research, and Feminist Media Studies. Currently, she is a collaborator on a project whose focus is the development of scientific learning and professional communities and future scientists, particularly focusing on access to education, mentors, and scientific networks for underserved segments of the population. Innovation in both offline and online methods to increase access are being explored. This project currently has NSF funding as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates site, a Research Experiences for Teachers site, and a Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Summer Institute site, and NIH funding as an R25 site to increase diversity in research personnel, and is housed at the TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Physiology & Pharmacology. Her teaching interests include the sociology of law, race and ethnicity, popular culture, qualitative methodology, marriage and family, and the introduction to sociology; all her course are framed with attention to intersections of race, gender, class, & sexuality.