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Race and Racism Online: What the Research Tells Us

Jessie Daniels: Assumptions about the whiteness embedded in the infrastructure and design gets spoken when there are ruptures in that sameness, such as the introduction of an African-American-themed web browser, Blackbird.

The Internet is changing us. It’s changing how we acquire knowledge, how we communicate, how we connect with one another. Today, some 15 years into the scholarship of the Internet, researchers are just beginning to look at how race and racism are (and are not) changing by and through the way we use the Internet. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about what the research tells us about race and racism online. I’ll also point out spots along the way that, in my view, are understudied and need someone to turn a critical eye toward.

internet and black kids

Race & Structure of the Internet

We may not think of the Internet as having been invented, but in fact it was, at a particular place and time. The combination of technologies that has come to be known as the popular Internet was developed in a number of specific geographic places, institutional contexts and historical moments. For more about this history, see Berners-Lee, T. and M. Fischetti Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. This narrative is compelling, but to date, no one has offered a thorough examination of the ways that race was, and continues to be, implicated in the structure of the invention of the Internet.

Infrastructure & Design

Scholar Tyrone Taborn notes that the role of black and brown technology innovators has largely been obscured (Taborn, 2007). As Sinclair observes, “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” (Sinclair, B. (ed.) (2004) Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study.).

Yet, race is implicated in the very structure of the “graphic user interface” (GUI). For example, Anna Everett observes that she is perpetually taken aback by DOS-commands designating a “Master Disk” and “Slave Disk,” a programming language predicated upon a digitally configured “master/slave” relationship with all the racial meanings coded into the hierarchy of command lines (Everett, 2002, ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere’, Social Text 20(2):125-146., p.125).

Nakamura writes that the drop-down menus and clickable boxes that are all too often used to categorically define `race’ online are traced back to the fact that race is a key marketing category (Nakamura, 2002). Beyond the selection and targeted-marketing via race, elements of the interface are racialized. The nearly ubiquitous white hand-pointer acts as a kind of avatar that in turn becomes ‘attached’ to depictions of white people in advertisements, graphical communication settings, and web greeting cards (White, M., The body and the screen: theories of Internet spectatorship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). The images of racial or ethnic minorities and their relationship to IT infrastructure and design is either to the role of consumers or of operators of the technological wizardry created by whites.

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Assumptions about the whiteness embedded in the infrastructure and design gets spoken when there are ruptures in that sameness, such as the introduction of an African-American-themed web browser, Blackbird which I wrote about here in 2008.

While Blackbird caused quite a stir among those who had operated on the assumption of a race-blind Internet, the development of a racially-themed browser is not qualitatively different from, but rather an extension of, the racially targeted marketing facilitated by drop-down menus and clickable boxes.

jessie daniels

Next, I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss some of what the research tells us about race and mobile technology.

Jessie Daniels

Racism Review