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On Movement, or Removal: Black Cultural Production Online

Eileen Isagon Skyers

I. An Uncanny Peak

It is no secret that the very nature of sharing content online obscures the one to one relation between creator to expression, or creator to product.  The internet is a site where anonymity, reproducibility, and dispersed authorship have long been willingly embraced. Owing thanks to a growing selection of stickers, reactionary GIFs, and keyboard add-ons, the expressive capacity of our anonymized social experience online has reached an uncanny peak. Pointing and saying “it me,” or “same,” without words, has never been easier.

What begins to typify this form of expression is the uncannily static: alongside every banal digital compulsion is yet another interruption. The internet has demonstrated significant community-building potential since its inception, and it has long been regarded as a place of congregation for the marginalized. Consider, for instance, the countless body positivity forums, LGBTQIA communities, and the preeminent online discourse and subsequent proliferation of the #BlackLivesMatter organization.

Today, the internet is perhaps the only place where various black assemblies can manifest their robust opinions, memes, and movements with intricacy and zeal (particularly when compared against certain misperceptions of the social gathering of black and brown bodies as imminent threat). Nevertheless, in the hyperconnected experience of constantly near-obsolescent time, nothing truly feels safe, private, or colloquial.

II. Female Drivers and Black Children

Challenged by the curious, often misguided, efforts of social media companies to diminish, or eradicate, hate speech from their platforms, those who participate in black communities online are often flagged or suspended for their contributions. An article circulated on propublica.org reveals the staggering biases inherent in the way that Facebook censors its users. Censors are trained to remove hate speech against “protected categories,” but to permit attacks on “subsets” such as female drivers and black children.

These impressions are especially alarming, considering the rate at which digital content and, indeed, attention itself, are increasingly commoditized on the internet. Concurrent with the insistence of social media moderators and algorithms to remove the content of black cultural producers, the all too common occurrence of “digital blackface” continues to arise. The phrase digital blackface is used to describe instances of performative blackness carried out online by nonblack people. It harkens back to the 19th century phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, a theatrical tradition in which performers dress in costume and enact exaggerated behaviors as black caricatures.

Today, the use of reaction GIFs or stickers featuring women of color, and the widespread use of African American Vernacular English in comments, captions or, at times, even ad campaigns, is widely accepted among internet users. These unambiguous co-optings signify a perennial dilemma of commodification—of who, or what, is commoditized, and who seeks to benefit from it.

III. The Mannequin

The online video “challenge” uses a hashtag to invite users to record themselves carrying out a certain task in order to participate in a viral video phenomenon. Like much of the content popularized online, these challenges are frequently initiated by black teens and young adults.

Jasmine Cavins, a high school junior at Edward H. White High School in Jacksonville, Florida, unwittingly released the sensational  Mannequin Challenge in class with her peers. Before long, Hilary Clinton and her campaign were using the challenge to encourage voters. Well-known celebrities such as the Kardashians and Britney Spears were quick to follow suit. FOX Sports even created a high production version of the challenge in their newsroom.

It is unsurprising that producers of certain expressions, who are often systematically disenfranchised, develop a reactionary relationship to seeing these expressions decontextualized from their community and aesthetics, only to be repurposed within a commodified frame. Such infectious cultural representation is often met with feelings of disdain, doubt, or condemnation, because as images of identity are instrumentalized for profit, the validity, or value, of that same identity remain largely rejected. Any expectation that the digital world would refrain from reimagining the structural qualities of a world that created it is naive, at best.

IV. Consequences

Any piece of content on that is posted online becomes both mutable and unstable. But the internet, perhaps more than its material equivalents, can support, expand, and even create, its own publics through publication, just as print media did before it.

Invocations of cultural appropriation, the bating and censoring of black users by media establishments, and the dangerous conflation of race with a certain set of behaviors, are routinely carried out on the internet at a massive scale. These virtual exercises of exploitation and dominance—of ownership and fluidity, cultural sharing and cultural theft—bear very real consequences.

These unyielding issues limit the potential of black cultural producers who, through online platforms, would otherwise have the ability to breach gaps that have long existed in media and entertainment, as well as art and criticism.
The perspectives lent by black people, women of color, and trans and queer people of color, online certainly have the capacity to fracture the status quo. Indeed, the very way in which these online contributions are embraced, monitored, co-opted, and spread, across the internet, reveals their unique power. They pose a direct challenge to systematized cultural production and its attribution of value to certain genres and practices (at the expense of granting others any such “worth”).

An attributed, or individualized, form of cultural production for black producers may never emerge; particularly on a platform where the content made by black producers is always, irrevocably, situated within and against a broader collective body. And because commodities are not the primary material of black culture and expression, the project of black cultural production online is a very different one. As we continue this failure to recognize how black culture, expression, and labor often migrates from its context online—how policed and how fleeting it is—we also fail to disrupt a systemic model of cultural production that is itself outmoded, or at least simplistic.