Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kishonna Gray & Lori Kido Lopez (Part I)



I am excited to be blogging alongside Lori. She has produced some provocative scholarship within Asian American media studies that I look to in making sense of the experiences of women of color in digital gaming. I often utilize her scholarship to think conceptually about emotional labor and performativity online, illustrating the intersectional burdens placed upon certain bodies as well as their associated reactions and responses to these burdens that range from exploited labor, racism, sexism, harassment, and a host of other structural inequalities that manifest online. I am thinking specifically about her often-evoked dialectic of pain and pleasure. This is such a useful framework in how I make sense of Black women in gaming. Preview the following quote from her 2014 “Blogging while angry” piece published by Media, Culture, and Society:

If the existence of a thriving blogosphere is seen as beneficial for Asian American communities, it is important to understand the emotions that underlie its existence—the anger that initiates its existence, the camaraderie that sustains it, the potential for exhaustion and burnout (Lopez, 2014, p. 422).

This quote captures the essence of women in online gaming. But it is also important to add an additional emotion of rage to make sense of the holistic realities of the women who serve as co-producers of knowledge in my projects. This concept of rage is a core component of Black feminist engagements in understanding pain, pleasure, mobilization, and resistance.

 Similarly, bell hooks’ concept of radical Black subjectivity is useful to further explain this practice. Self-definition and commitment to liberatory and transformative praxis constitutes this Black subjectivity. These habits of being, as bell hooks outlines, explores how this practices of centering the intersectional self is a radical act is disrupting the confluence of the matrix of domination and intersecting oppressions. While significant attention is often placed on the controlling images that dominant Black women’s representation in mainstream media, Black women within gaming create narratives and experiences that are self-actualized, self-determined, oppositional, and engaged in Black women’s healing, understanding, and commitment to the struggle justice.

In media outlets dominated by privileged bodies, the narrative disseminated is limited given whom the primary producers [and assumed consumers] of digital content are.  In navigating this, Black women, as other marginalized communities do, isolate themselves from the larger gaming community. To continue participating, many women exist within the boundaries of hegemonic ideology, by forming their own communities operating counter to the dominant narrative. Despite the extreme discrimination, lack of inclusion in the gaming industry, misrepresentation, and a host of other concerns, Black women still take participate in a culture that continues to delegitimize their participation. Our/Their rage is often misread through a deficiency lens: she can’t play – she can’t take it – they can’t keep their cool. bell hooks rightfully asserts and disrupts the traditional approach to making sense of Black women’s rage:

“They named it pathological, explained it away. They did not urge the larger culture to see black rage as something other than sickness, to see it as a potentially healthy, potentially healing response to oppression and exploitation” (hooks, 1995, p. 12).

 In linking these transformative practices to Black women in gaming, I am illustrating the power that transmediated gaming has on connecting Black users across platforms. It would be premature to relegate Black women to the hostilities they experience online – focusing singularly on their rage. Lopez’ work urges us to engage not only the pain but also the associated pleasures. The anger and rage represents a small segment of their overall experiences in gaming. A more nuanced exploration into their everyday relationships with each other and with gaming is key to making sense of their testifying, oral narratives, and other forms of storytelling. By exploring Black women’s gaming practices, from playing to streaming, through a lens of digital storytelling, I explicate the relationship between White supremacy and Black feminist orality. Oral narratives and digital storytelling connect these contemporary practices to historical legacies of Black feminist thought.  This practice has led to Black women’s creation of intersectional counterpublics.

Catherine Squires illustrates that marginalized groups create “coexisting counterpublics in reaction to the exclusionary politics of dominant public spheres and the state.” While there is much academic debate on what and whom constitute a public and/or counterpublic, for the purposes of the current context, my understanding focuses on the spaces that women of color create in digital gaming directly due to White masculine supremacy, Black patriarchy, and White feminism.

The intersectional, transmediated practices in which women engage in gaming communities reflects the ways they create meaning out of different texts, cultures, and practices – bridging multiple to create a hybrid summation of experiences. Black folk have patched and pieced together multiple modes of culture and identity due to the discontinuous trajectory of the Black Atlantic – a practice that resonates significantly to the digital experience of the Black diaspora.  In applying this concept to the fragmented experiences of Black gamers online, I am able to continue making the connections between the visual arrangements of racial hierarchies and physical relations, to go beyond the discursive practices that render and regulate certain bodies to the margins.

While the practices of digital redlining within gaming are markedly hostile and violent, Black women’s responses have been to create nurturing spaces for healing and transformation. One significant feature of these intersectional counterpublics is digital storytelling, what I consider an expanded form of testifying, and what Amy Wilkins suggests is one process through which intersectional identities are achieved and managed.


I am also very excited to be engaged in a conversation about contemporary participatory politics with Kishonna, because her extensive body of research on racism in video game cultures has deeply shaped how I think about interactive media and its political limits/potentials.  I think that we both have taken on research subjects that explore traditionally racist media formations—Kishonna in looking at racism within video gaming communities, and my own work on how Asian Americans have been excluded from mainstream media representations—but in doing so, can call attention to the possibilities for resistance and nuanced engagements that might otherwise be overlooked.

This kind of work puts us in an interesting position to then consider the question of what all has changed since the publication of By Any Media Necessary in today’s political climate.  It is undeniable that people of color are under tremendous threat right now—facing rising anti-immigrant sentiment and policies, bans and deportations, an increase in white supremacy and organized hate, police brutality and state violence, and so much more. I frequently return to the question of what has really changed and what is the same, given how much we tend to deny or overlook the historical precedents for these problems.

But let me back up for a moment, and situate my opening statement within more of an introduction.  As an early member of the Civic Paths research group at Annenberg, I was part of the first conversations with Henry, Sangita, Liana, Neta, and Arely (and everyone else!) about how participatory culture constituted a site for increasing civic engagement.  In the beginning we focused a lot on fan communities, thinking about how love for a media franchise could be transformed into political participation.  I was so excited when By Any Media Necessary was published and I got to see how that thinking had significantly evolved since I graduated and left the group, focusing more squarely on the question of how youth activists are using participatory cultures for civic engagement—even without the explicit connection to fandom and popular culture texts.  I recently taught the book in my graduate seminar on Fan Studies, and it really forced my students to expand their thinking about how frameworks around fandom and participatory culture can be usefully expanded.

My own research has focused on Asian American activism of all kinds—including activism that centers on improving entertainment media representations, but also engagements with non-media targets like Asian Americans organizing alongside the Black Lives Matter movement or LGBTQ Asian Americans fighting for recognition and rights.  From my vantage point as someone who is deeply engaged with Asian American politics, I would say that we are actually in a very strange and exuberant period of seeing hard-fought struggles finally result in successes.  I’m thinking here of last year’s #AsianAugust that saw the overwhelming success of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching starring John Cho, and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before starring Lana Condor.  Within the television realm we’ve also had an outpouring of Asian American stars and ensembles, with Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, Kim’s Convenience, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Killing Eve, and so many others.  These accomplishments then contribute to the continuation of this trend, with at least five Asian American-centered television projects for 2019 having been greenlit immediately following the box office reports from Crazy Rich Asians.  Digital participatory cultures have played a key role in supporting these advancements, serving in both promotional and critical capacities as a way of keeping Asian American representation relevant in mainstream discourse.

Yet it is also undeniable that Asian Americans are facing the same increase in threats as other people of color in the United States, with Muslim families being separated across national borders, increasing fears of China and North Korea as the threatening Yellow Peril, and Asian American women struggling to maintain reproductive rights and fight against sexual violence.  In my own community in Madison, Southeast Asian refugee communities have been targeted for detention and deportation by ICE Agents.  With these rapidly advancing threats to Asian America, I have been curious to see how we are again making this leap from activism focused on media representations to activism that is squarely within the civic realm.  Do the skills developed within newly engaged collectives of Asian Americans who came together to support John Cho and Constance Wu and Sandra Oh transfer to other forms of civic engagement?  What will that look like, and will it make a difference?  These are the kinds of questions I’m continuing to ask in looking forward to how Asian American activists respond to our changing cultural climate and all the good and bad that it may bring.


Kishonna L. Gray (@KishonnaGray) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois - Chicago with a joint appointment in Communication and Gender and Women’s Studies. She is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live (Routledge 2014), lead editor of Feminism in Play (Palgrave-Macmillan 2018), and co-editor of Woke Gaming (University of Washington Press, 2018).  She is currently completing a manuscript entitled Intersectional Tech: The transmediated praxis of Black users in digital gaming (LSU Press).

Lori Kido Lopez is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Gender and Women's Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship (2016) and co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media (2017).  She is currently a co-editor for the International Journal of Cultural Studies.