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Race and Black Code: 2018 Critical Code Studies Workshop (Week 3)
By: Safiya Noble, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Mark Anthony Neal
There is growing attention on the cultural and socio-historical contexts within which computer code, software development, and the platforms and hardware through which they are expressed impact or interact with society. While a range of scholarly investigations of computer code are underway--from critical information science to digital humanities to the broader field of communication--and the last two weeks have offered opportunities to reflect on gender and programming, and the poetry and art of coding, this week will offer an opportunity to think about the ways code interacts with, constructs, and impacts race.
On the one hand, this week will be a conversation about race as a system and as a social construction that has history and that structures everything we know about our world. On the other hand, this week will go deeper. There has been conversation around separating race from gender in CCSWG18. This week is a reminder that when dealing with race and code, there is no race without gender, sexuality, and related identities or the structures that enforce/maintain them. As Johnson and MAN noted in "Wild Seed in the Machine,” Black Code Studies IS "queer, femme, fugitive, and radical." Which is to say, there is no discussing Blackness outside of or beyond a discussion of gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, power, and precarity.
Which is also to say--Black Code Studies will be feminist, queer affirming, trans* defending and invested in social justice or it will be bullshit.
What does that mean for our discussion of race and critical code studies? Race, in this context, is a matter of socially constructing hierarchical power systems that differentiate people according to ethnicity. In the United States, we often see this expressed in a racial binary that privileges Whiteness and is fueled by or predicated upon anti-Blackness, with many ethnicities negotiating their relationship to Whiteness and Blackness in a context of racialized power and economic relations. Slave codes were once used to subjugate and control movement, identities, expressions, and access to resources. Placing Black codes in historical context, opens us up to an interrogation of the notion of “codes” as a means of control that apply in multiple material contexts--from the use of public facilities, to unequal education and healthcare, to digital life on the internet. How black codes, in existence from the eighteenth-century and earlier, re-emerge in everything from slave trade databases to Google algorithms to the appearance of the color black on computer screens impacts what kind of programs, operating systems, and work is created. How can we hack these codes?
Black Code Studies argues, people of African descent, who have been subject to black codes for generations, have also learned to turn the operating system against itself in interesting ways. Invoking the "critical" in critical code studies, how can computer code be used as a means of oppositional practice/praxis? Can it? Black Code Studies also queries the ways blackness is rendered invisible and, as a result, where power relations are obscured and reminds us to always ask where and when blackness, antiblackness, racialized meanings, and systemic violences have being encoded even if those codes aren’t explicit or legible.
Finally, engaging race and code together means speaking back to power. What is the relationship between coding, systems and expressions of racialized power? How do we identify, name, and ameliorate projects that reinforce white supremacy or racialization and racism? Since much of the digital or computer code we experience is in large-scale, multinational internet-based platforms (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth), we should be critical of the output of these platforms and the way their programming instantiates or reifies racial codes. We should also look at ways code is being taken up to make power and violence visible, or where coding or the need to code forces us to ask difficult questions about consent, ethics, accountability, and justice.
This week, we seek to better understand how race is both reproduced and/or subverted within coding projects.
What are the elements of a Black code? What do Black codes execute? What are the meanings of this metaphor in the study of race in the United States?
How can we use theories of race when examining code (e.g., critical race theory, postcolonial studies, Black feminism, Intersectionality)?
How is racialized coding also gendered online?
What is the relationship between coding, systems and expressions of racialized power? How do we identify, name, and ameliorate projects that reinforce white supremacy or racialization and racism?
Code Examples for Discussion - Links are to Posts or Threads - Last update: 2018 January 29 | 12:09:17
Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal. “Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine.” The Black Scholar
Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.
Melissa Dinsman interviews Jessica Marie Johnson, “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson,” LARB, 2016. Link
Simone Browne, "“Get at a way of telling” On Black Net.Art Actions," Rhizome Link
Sydette Harry, “Everyone Watches, Nobody Sees: How Black Women Disrupt Surveillance Theory,” Model View Culture Link
I’Nasah Crockett, “‘Raving Amazons’: Antiblackness and Misogynoir in Social Media,” Model View Culture Link
Roopika Risam, “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism,” in Debates In The Digital Humanities Link
Sarah Patterson. “Toward Meaning-Making in the Digital Age: Black Women, Black Data and Colored Conventions.” Link
Chloë Bass, “Sorry Not Sorry. | ARTS.BLACK Journal Link