Review of Digital Black Feminism (Knight Steele 2021)

Review of Digital Black Feminism (Knight Steele 2021)

Peitho Volume 21 Issue 2, Winter 2022

Author(s): KáLyn Banks Coghill

KáLyn Banks Coghill is a Ph.D. student in the Media, Art, and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She teaches in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department. Her courses focus on race, feminism, girlhood studies, literature, and hip-hop. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Old Dominion University and her master’s degree in Organizational Communications from Bowie State University. KáLyn participated in the inaugural class for Re-Design LLC’s Content Mapping program where she and other educators nationwide worked on an anti-racist curriculum for K-12 schools. She is currently working as a community partner with Henrico County School’s facilitating a sister-circle, rooted in black feminism and hip hop education, called GLOW, for high-school girls. Outside of her scholarly and service work, she is the network advisor for the Digital Black Lit and Composition organization, board member for Neighborhood Access, and a fellow of VCU’s Digital Sociology Lab.

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Why I get these tweets off?

“Digital Black feminists also wrestle with shades of gray. Like hip-hop feminists before them, digital Black feminists work to reconcile economic and sexual freedom for themselves with community interests that may conflict with their individual needs. However, instead of hip-hop as a driving force, the “gray” for digital Black feminist praxis is deconstructing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture.” (Steele 10)

In 2009 I created my first Twitter account from my Nokia brick phone. I had to go to the web browser to make an account and this was before apps were even a thing. As I started college, I began to use Twitter for web (this is tweeting from the Twitter website in your web browser) and the text to tweet feature to stay connected with my friends back home and those I was meeting on my college campus. When I got my first iPhone I downloaded the Twitter app and it was history from there. The Black Twitter counter public allowed me to stay up to date with arguments on $200 dates, be aware of police brutality happening in Ferguson, and information on natural hair products to keep my curls poppin’. As an avid user of the internet from Myspace to Twitter, I found community in these digital spaces. Now that I am a doctoral student who is unpacking what feminism looks like for me, I needed a feminism that allowed me to embrace my digital lifestyle. Catherine Knight Steele’s book Digital Black Feminism gave me the language and foundation for a feminism that allowed me to combine Black feminist values with my love for digital spaces. Steele’s work has influenced my scholarship since I was a master’s student in Maryland. I found that her work talked about digital spaces in a way that felt familiar to me. Digital Black Feminism does the same thing. It allows me to be in that “gray” area she speaks about in the text that allows me, as a Black woman, to call out and clap back at “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture” (Steele 10) and to create, embrace, and honor my Blackness in online spaces. 

What is Digital Black Feminism

 “Digital Black feminism insists we centralize Black women in our definition of and history of digital technology. Digital Black feminism is a mechanism to understand how Black feminist thought is altered by and alters technology. Digital Black feminism suggests we attune our gaze to Black women because they potentially provide the most robust site of inquiry as digital scholars interested in digital communication’s capacities and constraints” (Steele 15).

Digital Black feminism centers the voices of Black women and how they use technologies. Steele’s text talks about the technologies that Black women have used dating back to slavery. She opens the first chapter by explaining how these technologies impacted how Black women lived their lives as enslaved women.  By opening the first chapter this way, she is solidifying the Black woman’s contribution to technology and confirming that we do indeed know how to be technologically advanced and that it didn’t just start with the worldwide web. Her examples of the many technologies that Black women have used, as a reader, made me feel powerful. It affirmed, for me, that Black women belong in these conversations about technology and how our years of using and creating technologies influence how we use spaces like Twitter or blogs now to mobilize, organize, educate, and build community. As an extension of black feminist theory, Steele uses digital black feminism to debunk the idea that Black women are not included in technology as an “intentional practice” (Steele 15). She asserts that by not aligning Black women with the intentional practices of technological innovation it continues to center white men as the ones who are the creators and responsible for the foundations of technology. 

Steele’s creativity shines through this text as she uses the beauty shop as a metaphor for “an analytical tool to understand the relationship between Black women and technology”. Through this metaphor, she explains in detail the ways Black discourse, in this instance, opens folks up to the technologies of Black hair care. She believes that Black women’s hair maintenance can be seen as a “road map” for centering Black women’s financial independence. It also serves as a space to create communities of color that have desires to understand the technologies of hair. I found this interesting because it made me think of how there was a natural hair boom on sites like Youtube and blog spaces. Steele also brings in blogs to solidify this metaphor. Her explanation of these technologies offline and how they transfer skills to online spaces made it easy, as a reader, to see the impact Black women have on technology.

In addition, she also talks about how online spaces and communities create a safe place for Black women and nonbinary folk. Black women are using online spaces to not only talk about their entrepreneurial ventures but also to push back against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. The clap backs are strong, backed by many Black women, and will quickly remind you that you’ve crossed the wrong one. Black women are using these spaces, according to Steele, as places for liberatory practices as well. 

A Feminism that INCLUDES Me

“I intend to send up a flare to those who study and report on digital culture about the glaring absence of Black women in their work. For those studying online harassment and trolling, algorithmic bias, and digital activism, Black women must be included in your work.” (Steele 156)

Digital Black Feminism influences my current work and future work in a few different ways. Firstly, Steele’s many definitions and examples of digital black feminism allow me to situate not only my work but myself in this type of feminism. It is inclusive of all of my intersecting identities as a Black, queer, and disabled woman who uses social media regularly as a space to create community, learn about new things, and clap back when people try to disrespect Black women. “The importance of digital communication and technology in the lives of Black feminists today cannot be overstated. As a site of thought generation, community formation, and economic advancement, digital tools and culture have changed how Black women (and all people) interact with the world ” (Steele 60). Secondly, Steele’s work is a foundational text for digital humanities scholars. She is setting the groundwork for scholars to build upon her assertion that digital black feminism is personal AND public. Meaning that it requires “intention and care around methods and ethics” (Steele 155).  She challenges scholars to think and be mindful about who they cite and how they cite when it comes to talking about these digital spaces. By her starting the conversation on ethics, I believe, that it will implore other scholars in this discipline to consider their ethical and moral compass when it comes to this type of work. “I take caution in whom I cite, which tweets or stories I share, and how much personal information shared in other digital forums I repeat in this text. Countless people participated in the dialogue in the blogosphere and on social media that shaped digital Black feminism. In this text, I choose to cite and publicize the work of those who through their public writing, signal a willingness to enter the public discourse on issues of race and gender.” (Steele 156) Throughout the text, she cites many writers, scholars, and contributors to digital spaces which helps the reader understand more of the genealogy of digital black feminism. 

The goal of Digital Black Feminism is to continue to empower Black women to use these many technologies and to feel like true contributors to the advancement of these technologies. Steele states that “Understanding the joys and labors of Black women, their fight for liberation, and their complicity in systems of capitalism is very complicated. Digital Black feminism is complicated, but perhaps this sheds light on why this inquiry is necessary” (Steele 157). Black women are necessary to the mobilization of these many technologies and we, all of us, use these digital spaces. Steele does not believe in re-traumatizing Black women for the sake of research and I believe that her text makes that clear. I am excited to think of these ethical implications as I embark on expanding my own research and adding to the foundational work of digital black feminism. Steele’s Digital Black Feminism has made me, as a novice Digital Black Feminist, feel seen, heard, and excited to use this framework to create new and innovative work. Although I tend to look at violence online, Steele’s work has encouraged me to consider what Black joy is in this digital space and how I can incorporate the beauty of Black digital discourse into future work.