My Reflections on "Race and racism in Internet Studies: A review and critique"
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Citation: Daniels, Jessie. “Race and Racism in Internet Studies: A Review and Critique.” New Media & Society, vol. 15, no. 5, Aug. 2013, pp. 695–719, doi:10.1177/1461444812462849.
Author: Jessie Daniels
Institution: City University of New York, USA
The first time I thought about race and technology was when I learned in school about the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. I thought about how the “cotton engine” affected the lives of African slaves and it had turned out that women and African slaves assisted with the invention yet rarely got any of the credit. Another jarring moment happened in the fifth grade when I watched our family computer booting up and saw the words “master” and “slave” in reference to disks. In the movement for Black Lives, people are demanding change across aspects of our lives including technology. NPR reported on these changes and it goes beyond just updating the language.
Jessie Daniels critiques and analyzes the Internet studies field and its use of race as “variable” or “identity” and “racial formation theory” which fails to place power and systemic structures as well as racism itself in conversation with race. In this article, Daniels also recognizes that the state no longer makes sense as the place within which race is constructed as everyone from the black diaspora to white supremacists connect across national lines to engage around race.
The article begins with the musings and hopes for the internet and race: either it will become a place rife with identity tourism or race will become integral to Internet studies. Daniels points out that neither came to fruition. However, race and racism did manifest online both in new and novel ways as well as “alongside vestiges of centuries-old forms that reverberate both offline and on” (Daniels, 696).
Next, the publication dives into a systematic literature review covering the following sections:
(1) race and the structure of the Internet,
(2) race and racism matters in what we do online
(3) race, social control and Internet law
After the review, Daniels draws upon various theoretical perspectives such as “DuBois’ view of white culture (2003/1920)” and “Hall’s spectacle of the Other (1997)” to analyze and critique Internet studies as a field and discipline in 2012 (a time marking its 15th anniversary) and focusing in particular on its use of racial formation theory (Daniels, 696). In conclusion, Daniels focuses on Internet Studies’ need for “a critical understanding of whiteness and white racial frame” (Daniels, 696).
Race and the Structure of the Internet
There are key takeaways from each section of the review. In the first section, “Race and the Structure of the Internet”, Daniels opens the section with the statement that race has been and continues to be implicated in the very structure of the internet. The section is further broken into “Infrastructure and Design”, “Industry” and “Digital Divides and mobile technology”.
Infrastructure and Design
Within the first segment, it is made clear that the role of race in the development and design of the Internet specifically and technology, in general, has been obscured. Daniels quotes Bruce Sinclair from their 2004 text Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study, “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial significance” (Daniels, 696). Daniels, in this segment, also highlights the language of “master” and “slave” used in technology.
In the second segment, “Industry”, Silicon Valley is taken to task. While a majority of white men, with a few white women, lead the industry, it is immigrants and outsourced labor (usually women in the global south) who are doing the manual labor of cleaning offices or assembling circuit boards and other hardware across the world. Building from the previous segment which saw Black people and minorities in marketing for technology always on the receiving end of technologies created by white people (read “white men”), in the second segment we see the imbalances, biases, and shortcomings across race, class, and gender at the heart of the tech industry.
Digital Divides and mobile technology
In the third segment, “Digital Divides and mobile technology”, the origins of what we have come to know as the “digital divide” are explored and problematized. “In an initial study conducted by the Census Bureau under the direction of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, African-Americans were found to have lower rates than whites in both computer equipment ownership and telephone service (NTIA, 1995)” and a few years later, “The initial focus on computer ownership shifted in subsequent versions of the study to Internet access (NTIA, 1999)” (Daniels, 697). Selwyn points out that the “digital divide” relies on an assumption that everyone sees benefit from engaging with technology whereas Brock theorizes that slow Internet adoption may speak to the lack of content by and for Black people as opposed to lack of skill. The segment concludes with findings from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project which indicate that Black and Hispanic people are more involved than White people in mobile technology ownership and usage.
Race and racism matter in what we do online
Moving to the second section, “Race and racism matter in what we do online”, there are a number of segments that capture various aspects of our lived experiences online which have implications for our offline lives as well.
Identity and community
In the first segment of this section, “Identity and community”, Daniels coalesces early Internet studies research around race and identity online. Succinctly put, “People use the Internet to both form and reaffirm individual racial identity and seek out communities based on race and racial understandings of the world” (Daniels, 698).
In the second segment, “Gaming”, Daniels reviews research which shows that “White males are over-represented”, the “dominant narratives about ‘violence’ in video games, and the impact this has on imagined white youth, obfuscates their role in legitimating state-sponsored violence against Black and Brown people depicted in the games (Leonard, 2006, 2009)” (Daniels, 700).
Online fandom and popular culture
For the third segment, “Online fandom and popular culture”, Daniels highlights that gender has been an early and important research focus in fandom, but race and racism in the same context have only garnered “little attention” despite the evidence from said nascent research that online fandom is imbued with race and racism (Daniels, 700). The studies listed range from race in Star Trek and Asian fans of Japanese celebrity Kimura Takuya to audience views of white savior films, The Wire, and online activity around Disney’s Song of the South.
Online news and sports
In segment four, “Online news and sports”, Daniels opens with the notion that newspapers in the U.S. that went online and initially allowed comments found in many cases the need to discontinue the option after being overrun by negative comments. A key takeaway from this segment is Howard Rheingold’s assessment of the “‘classic tragedy of the commons dilemma’ in which ‘flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention’ ” (Daniels, 701). With the line between public and private blurred on the internet, this assessment is paired in segment four with the invocation of “Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the presentation of ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ performances of the self” in research by Picca and Feagin to develop their concept of “ two-faced racism to explain the hundreds of thousands of diary entries from white college students in which they document how whites perform tolerance in public, mixed-race settings and explicit racism in private, white-only spaces” (Daniels, 702).
Social networking sites
Segment five, “Social networking sites”, covers social media platforms such as Myspace and Facebook and the various ways in which race and racism play out in these spaces. The studies explored by Daniels, which include an ethnography by danah boyd capturing “white flight” from Myspace to Facebook, “[move] the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why, to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks” (Daniels, 703).
The sixth segment covers “Blogging”. Daniels asserts that “...the whiteness (not to mention, US-centric quality) of the blogosphere is notable but not often examined within Internet studies” and covers several studies focused both within and without the United States which explore how various non-white races utilize blogs to “ foster diasporic connections” for Asian American bloggers, “encourage civic engagement in politics” for African-American and Latino political bloggers, allow African women bloggers to “‘[tell] their own stories’ in ways that offer pathways to social change”, and more.
Health and science
The seventh segment, entitled, “Health and science”, looks beyond “who looks for health information and support online, as well as in the democratizing influence of the Internet on how scientific knowledge is mediated” (Daniels, 703). Here, Daniels cites various studies to bring into relief the benefits of Internet use amongst people in general and in particular when “online spaces...are both focused on a particular health issue (e.g., HIV/ AIDS) and racially specific” which “can function as important alternative spaces for support, networking and discussion” (Daniels, 704). The studies also show that because “[t]he Internet has changed the dissemination of scientific knowledge” such as YouTube videos being used to share genealogy information, “this has implications for the way race and science are mediated online” (Daniels, 704).
Propaganda and epistemology
The eighth segment, “Propaganda and epistemology” explores how the internet has changed how “we know what we say we know” [epistemology] when formerly agreed upon understandings of cultural values such as “racial equality” and “diversity” are now hotly contested (Daniels, 704). On Wikipedia, battles rage between white supremacists and progressive anti-racists who try to override each other’s edits. The internet has also changed how propaganda is done. Cloaked websites like the seeming tribute site MartinLutherKing.org that is actually owned by a white supremacist group, disguise authorship and therefore disguise political agendas.
Social movements and collective action
In the ninth segment, “Social movements and collective action”, Daniels points to the growing research surrounding social movements online and the comparisons to offline collective action. Researchers are also examining movements with racially progressive goals as well as racially regressive groups who are mobilizing online. Daniels also makes plain the difference between social movements and collective action writing, “Collective action lacks a clearly defined social goal, whereas movement organizations are trying to affect social change” (Daniels, 705).
Race, social control and Internet law
The third section, “race, social control and Internet law” covers topics that involve the Internet and law. Daniels recognizes that our current culture is one of surveillance that is in large part facilitated by the Internet and related technologies.
Surveillance culture and social control
The first segment in this section, “Surveillance culture and social control”, focuses on DNA. Before the era of Ancestry.com and 23andMe kits where millions of people have sent their DNA into a private company in order to learn more about their family and genetic makeup, Daniels points out that the federal government and some states had been collecting DNA from people arrested for misdemeanors resulting in over 6 million DNA records. Daniels remarks that Duster anticipates a future in which the public would be able to search DNA records and as previously mentioned with the advent of companies selling kits and providing access to one’s family in their database we have arrived at such a time. At the close of this segment, Daniels evokes Alexander’s “New Jim Code” as they describe the system of collecting DNA from people arrested for misdemeanors having a larger impact on Black and Brown people.
Haven for hate speech
The second segment in this section, “Haven for hate speech”, focuses on the juxtaposition between the humanist approach to hate speech found in Europe and the absolutist position favored in the United States. While the regulation of racists hate speech is seen as a more serious threat than racist hate speech in and of itself by cyberlibertarians, we see today how these issues have played out with demands to change Section 230 in the United States and the sweeping changes brought about by the passing of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in the European Union.
In their analysis, Daniels covers three segments: “The spectacle of the other”, “Anything but racism”, and “Seeing whiteness”.
The spectacle of the other
For the first segment, Daniels explains Stuart Hall’s “spectacle of the other”. When there is a power imbalance, it is upheld by establishing two groups: those who are “normal” and part of an “imagined community” and those who are “other”. In terms of race and Internet studies, the “spectacle of the other” comes into play in two main ways: “(1) race as a ‘variable’ and (2) race as ‘identity.’” (Daniels, 707). Daniels draws on Zuberi’s work in quantitative social sciences rooting out the misuse of race as a causal variable. To demarcate race in your data without social context, it “conflates correlation with causality ” (Daniels, 707). When it comes to race and Internet studies, this is seen within the usage of the term and study of the “digital divide”. The dichotomy of the “haves” and “have-nots” being drawn along racial lines leads to a deficit model of thinking for those deemed to be “have-nots”. The dichotomy also harms groups like Asians and Asian Americans who are dubbed to be “the most wired” group. As Daniels puts it, “both the disabling rhetoric of blacks and Latinos as on the “wrong side” of a dichotomous divide and the obscuring language of Asian Americans as “most wired,” conceptualize race as a causal variable in Internet studies in ways that replay the spectacle of the Other while reaffirming whiteness as normative” (Daniels, 708) Daniels goes on to cite early research on the Internet as focused on exploration and discovery. Combined with the identity of the early Internet being a frontier, the research conducted takes on a colonizing perspective. For researchers who did study race early in Internet studies, their work was decentered and often seen as minorities sharing their minority experiences in cyberspace. To Daniels, these researchers were “asked to perform the spectacle of the Other about the experience of people of color online and off” (Daniels, 708).
Anything but racism
For the segment, “Anything but racism”, Daniels begins with the observation that “resistance to critically analyzing racism within social science” extends to the field of Internet studies (Daniels, 708). They go on to purport that race and racism in Internet studies are undertheorized. While some scholars want to turn to “Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory” which “refers to ‘the socio-historical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ in societies like the United States”, Daniels and others find the theoretical framework to be lacking (Daniels, 709). It does not implicate racism and instead invokes a “bad apples” approach to racism while also “creat[ing] a false equivalency that denies the asymmetry created by gross inequities” (Daniels, 709).
For the final segment, “Seeing whiteness”, Daniels returns to Stuart Hall’s notion of the “imagined community”. For race and Internet studies, the “imagined community” is white people. Whereas “racial formation theory” was found lacking, Daniels believes that W.E.B. DuBois’ astute sociological work on both whiteness and being Black in the United States could lend itself to race and Internet studies.
Before concluding, Daniels urges, “we must resist the longing for a color-blind Internet and eschew a white-framed field of Internet studies. To accomplish this task, Internet scholars need to think differently about race, racism and the Internet” (Daniels, 711).
This article is thorough and full of excellent research and scholarship from across Internet studies. In its conclusion, it points to Twitter and the presence of Black and Brown people on the platform and the future of Internet studies looking into their experiences as well as new manifestations of race and racism online. I am better informed and encouraged by this work and highly recommend it to others.