“Black people are constantly lookin’ back at who they were, while constantly trying to look forward while navigating this fuckery that is white supremacy”
André Brock is an associate professor of media studies at Georgia Tech. His scholarship examines racial representations in social media, videogames, black women and weblogs, whiteness, and technoculture, including innovative and groundbreaking research on Black Twitter. His NYU Press book titled *Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures* was published in February 2020, offering insights to understanding Black everyday lives mediated by networked technologies.
His article “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation” challenged social science and communication research to confront the ways in which the field, in his words, preserved “a color-blind perspective on online endeavors by normalizing Whiteness and othering everyone else” and sparked a conversation that continues, as Twitter in particular continues to evolve as a communication platform. He has also authored influential research on digital methods, gaming, blogging, and online identity.
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. Today my guest is Andrè Brock; pronouns him/his/he. Would you please introduce yourself to the audience, Andrè?
Dr. Andrè Brock: Hi, my name is Andrè Brock. I’m an associate professor of Black Digital Media at Georgia Institute of Technology here in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kim: All right, so we always start with two questions: why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Dr. Brock: It’s important for me to cause a scene in the work that I do because I study Black people and digital environments. I’ve been doing it since the early 2000s, and one of the things that has been of note to me is that we’re often erased from technological narratives, particularly around computing. And if we’re not erased, we’re often put in a space where we’re deemed not sufficient or not appropriate to use those technologies.
Kim: And how are you causing a scene?
Dr. Brock: My research since that time has been dedicated towards showing that we indeed are—in my recent book, I call it “natural Internet users”—that our facility and our joy at using the Internet come from the ways that we interact with the world. And as such, we tend to bring an excess of life to wherever we are on the Internet. That translates in multiple ways, whether it’s dance videos, or Black Twitter, or our political activism done during Ferguson and later moments of social injustice.
Kim: OK, so we’re just gonna dive into this; y’all know how I do this. So you said erased from technological narratives or positioned as inadequate. [Laughs] I need you to talk about that, because I need to know if you—and first I want you to say more about that because again, my audience is mainly white folx and I need them to understand what the fuck they doing.
Dr. Brock: Hello, white people.
Kim: Yes, hello white people and welcome to my world. And also, if you have any historical precedent of like when did this happen? Was it always this way? Was there… because—and what’s popping in my head, it reminds… the question I’m trying to answer is when video games first came out, they were non-gender. They were—everybody played video games. And then all of a sudden they start gendering games and having the narrative of girls don’t play games when that was never the truth.
So I’m trying to see if this eraser from technical narrative and this this narrative that Blacks aren’t capable, has it always been there, and then… or, was it not there and then—just like we saw with “Hidden Figures”—and where we learn that women were actually in computer—were in heavily in computing and then were pushed out. So that’s the one I’m tryna figure out: is this something—this erasure of Blacks in technical narrative—was it from the beginning, or did it get… or did it happen?
Dr. Brock: OK, I’ma go way back. I’ma open up the Wayback Machine.
Kim: Oh please, ’cause I believe in history because we learn—these people need to learn from fuckin’ history; their history is warped as hell, and we need to know what the hell… Because again, white supremacy is the parasite that’s now eating its host, because white people have never had to examine themselves, their history, they’re the default, so you don’t know anything. So…
Dr. Brock: I will drink to that.
Kim: Yes. So, Professor—is it Doctor or Professor?
Dr. Brock: It’s Andrè.
Kim: OK. Oh all, see? But I try to give my Black folx our titles…
Dr. Brock: I appreciate that.
Kim: …’cause we’ve earned ’em…
Dr. Brock: I appreciate that.
Kim: …and people don’t often give ’em to us [inaudible].
Dr. Brock: No, they [inaudible] a Black person with a PhD.
Kim: Exactly. There you go. So, Andrè here is gonna break down to you ignorant folx what the hell is going on. So let’s go.
Dr. Brock: So—and I’m pulling here from multiple sources and I’ll try to give them credit where I can—so an author that I follow named Ramon Amaro talks about the concept of the “Black technical object,” right? And it’s the idea, drawing upon strains of Afro pessimism, that we’re always to be acted upon in any technical system; we never have any agency.
And I bring that up first because one of the first ways that Black folk entered this era of modernity, in 1619 or so, was that we were brought to be labor from Africa to the Americas, right? And in the process of justifying that labor, they had—white folk had to do two things. One, they had to work us as hard as we could, work us harder than they would work people who looked like them because they didn’t believe in us, but at the same time create a narrative that we weren’t good at work. That we were always lazy, that we were always trifling, that we were dumb. And so the work that they imposed upon us was somehow good for us.
So this is where I start talkin’ about the Black technical object, particularly in relation to sugar plantations. One of the things that’s really interesting when you look at that history is that in many cases those Black bodies were the first bodies that principles of scientific management were enacted upon. So where Amazon right now is having computers basically push workers to work faster and faster by saying you should be able to pick so many items an hour—which is not—which I always find really ironic, right? They’re still picking stuff like they did back in the day.
And so, those principles that were honed and made into algorithms now were started on slave plantations, because a plantation is one of the first modern machines, right? It’s designed to extract as much labor as possible from bodies to produce goods which can then be sold as resources or as finished goods to other countries or other institutions. And in the process of doing so, the Black bodies were tabulated based on their reproductive capacity, based on their labour capacity. They were also tested—A/B testing—if you’re a techie, you know about A/B testing, where you try to institute two different ways of addressing a problem or producing information and see which one is more efficient? Those… they did that to Black bodies and punished the one who lost by whipping.
And in that… and so I bring this up because at the same time that these Black bodies were being used for testing, there were Black artisans. They were the ones who kept the machines running. At the time, sugar mills were really complex machinery, but they didn’t have the advanced capacity for making the parts that go into it, so there were Black—there were enslaved blacksmiths, there were enslaved millers, there were enslaved coopers who made barrels; all these Black folk were essential to running the plantation, and they were super skilled. They were so skilled, in fact, that their owners would lend them out to surrounding plantations in the towns so that those laborers could make a little extra change on the side.
So this concept of the Black technical object really kind of just follows along as technologies become more and more advanced, but also more and more networked. And so, “Hidden Figures” is a really good example. By the time we get to the 50s and 60s, white universities have started letting Black folk attend one by one—if you think of the dude [James] Meredith who attended the University of Alabama or other folk—they were letting folk in one by one to attend those courses while at the same time, historically Black universities were training these immensely skilled mathematicians and doctors and the like. And those folk made their way into the various tech industries.
“Hidden Figures” is really fascinating because it revealed that there was a lot of Christianity, masculinity, and misogyny embodied in white men that held those women back from doing what they’re doing, to the point where those enterprises almost failed. But because those men spend so much time believing that Black people were not capable of doing the work, we’re not—did not have the temperament to do the rational calculations they needed—they shot themselves in the foot, to use your phrase earlier.
Where I came in is that I started looking at digital divide research, which really began in the mid 90s, following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deemed that telecommunications was… should be a universal service, meaning everybody in the house should have had a telephone. And just like “Brown v. Board [of Education],” the telecom companies dragged their ass on putting that telephone service in various neighborhoods. In many cases, some Black neighborhoods didn’t get fully—didn’t get the highest rate of phone service until closer to 2000-2005.
At the same time they did this Telecom Act, the Internet was jumpin’ up. The browser—the first usable browser—was invented at the University of Illinois in ’96, called Mosaic browser, which later became Netscape. And at the same time, the authorities that be were saying, “Well, look at these Black people, they’re teaching each other ebonics; they have low rates of literacy because of environmental segregation and discrimination; they don’t work as hard, because we believe in this culture of poverty that came through from the sociologists and Daniel Moynihan; so, of course they won’t be able to use technology.”
And my own intervention was, growing up in New York in the mid 90s as a young adult, I saw Black folk using technology every day. We had Tribe Called Quest talking about “Do you know the importance of a skypager?” Right? We had Black technologists building stuff like New York Online—which was Omar Wasow, the creator of BlackPlanet—that was his first initiative in Brooklyn connecting urban communities of color. So it felt really foolish to me—both as having my own computer from the late 80s and then seeing people in New York using the technologies around them, the information technologies, to communicate both in art and in everyday life—it felt foolish for me to say, how can we just be technical objects when it’s clear we have mastery and we have become technical subjects?
And so it’s a really interesting—in my work, I tried to weave together these historical… and these histories of technology, but also Black culture, to get folk to understand that we have long been operated on as technological objects even while being depended upon to be technological subjects. In fact, one of things I talk about for my students—and I’m at [Georgia] Tech, so they instantly recognized this phrase—is “rigging”. I was raised in Louisiana, and so the term we use is “N-word rigging.” More white people may be familiar with it with the word “Jerry rigging.” I don’t know who Jerry is, [laughs] but for me rigging—especially N-word rigging—is about the capacity to make something work that should not work anymore. You use your ingenuity, your drive, your need to have something get done, in order to make those things work. And so we’ve always been expert with with technologies. I just want—in my work, I extend that expertise to digital practice as well.
Kim: OK, you said a whole ffffffffuckload.
Dr. Brock: I mean, I’m just trying to keep up wit’ you, boo.
Kim: Man. I’m taking notes ’cause I’m just, like, OK, so Black technical object. Oh, my god, the enterprise almost failed. Do we not see that constantly? And the fact of, when people want to talk about, “Oh why do we have to have inclusion, and why are we spending our time on inclusion and diversity?” ‘Cause your shit’s gonna blow up! It’s not gonna be successful. This is an information knowledge economy. We’re not making widgets, you dipshit. You need to know what’s in my head so that you can take that out of my head and scale that within your organization so that you can be innovative and competitive. That’s why you need inclusion and diversity, ya dumbass. It’s not some nice-to-have. It is—ahhh. And then, who—and I’m gon’ say it, you say N-word—yeah, nigger-rigging. I know what nigger—my dad—um um um!
Dr. Brock: Of course you know.
Kim: Good god almighty. So my dad passed away in 2014. I actually had to have my uncle come through this house because my dad nigger-rigged so much stuff [laughs] just to make it work!
Dr. Brock: Had to repair the repairs.
Kim: Oh, my word, though, how he had hooked up the washing machine to run, I was like, what is…? And because he was in the house, we just made it work. But if he wasn’t, he was no longer here to make that work, I had to think of other ways. So I end up gettin’ nigger-rigged because I ain’t bought a new washing machine. It works. We done figured out how to make it work. Also call it country-rig too, because my family’s—my dad’s family’s—from the country and my grandfather, lord have mercy. He built—he was a carpenter—and he built his house. You can go into that house right now and turn on a light and it turn on something from somewhere else. We’re like, “Granddaddy, what the hell were you thinkin’?” But the shit worked.
Dr. Brock: It worked when I wanted it to work. Exactly.
Kim: Exactly. ‘Cause folx ain’t had, didn’t have this disposable income where you just go buy, out and buy a new thing just because it’s not working. That don’t make no sense.
Dr. Brock: That’s correct.
Kim: And we’ve al— and you’re absolutely right— we’ve always had those things, and it never even dawned on me, even though it makes sense, that there would be enslaved individuals in these various specialized jobs that needed to be—’cause Pawpaw an’ Mawmaw wan’t doing it. You know, they was sitting in the, in the house drinking, you know, whatever the hell they was sipping on, mint juleps or whatever they— I just have this, now, this popped in my head, “Gone with the Wind.” [laughs] I don’t know why.
Dr. Brock: You know a Black bartender created the mint julep, right?
Kim: Of course, that’s— OK. So you, you know I say all the time that whiteness is not creative, at all. Absolutely not. They have stolen, co-opted everything that is, about Black musi— about music, about art, about… I mean, I can give ’em, I guess, you know, like the Renaissance and stuff. But I’m sure if there were Negroes around, they stole that from us too.
Dr. Brock: They stole it from the Jews, they stole it from the Moors, they stole it from the Asians and the Persians… like all that stuff—look at Picasso. Picasso had to go to the Asian Pacific, right, in order to be inspired by his stuff. Nah.
Kim: Exactly. So there’s nothing unique or creative or— and so this was what gets me every time when I start saying mediocre white dudes and they get so mad because I’m like, “Prove to me, show me, show me what the fuck you come up with.” Because the things you come up with are just asinine. Who the fuck, what, why do we have all these scooter companies? What is that about? Why do we have all these damn scooter companies? We have no sidewalks. What are you doing? [laughs]
Dr. Brock: Right. You tryna’ get people killed.
Kim: Yes, by universities, makes sense. I mean, they—you know—they want to scoot around. Good. All right. But that’s not a must-have. That is a nice-to-have, that is a, you know, something, some lil’, you know, to get to your next class. But when you have five or six different scooter companies competing in a city with no sidewalks? That means people have not even thought about, “What can I create?” What? What were you thinking?
Dr. Brock: Their only creativity is around financial instruments. And they’re really…
Kim: Oh! Oh, ISAs, boys. They could come up with some, they can come up with some way to scam.
Dr. Brock: They’re really good at that, that type of exploitation, but no. Technological stuff?
Kim: Yes. And I—you speak to—and I want to know ’cause I… So I was talking to, had a show with [Shireen Mitchell] @digitalsista. We never got back to this, do you… And she says, and other people say—but I want to see, I want some proof of it. Do you know who the Black person who created Twitter was?
Dr. Brock: No.
Kim: I need to find out from her, ’cause she says a Black guy who created Twitter, and they—and I don’t know if he worked for Twitter and then they took it and went into another direction or what. But I really wanna know about that because how she explained it was the fact that a lot of the issues that Twitter has now were because they took— just basically, you know, like the code, like we always do—without the lived experience and didn’t think about some of the harm that could be… because they don’t have that lived experience. So that just meant, your question, your thing just made me think about that. I need to find out. If anybody who’s listening to this has any information on who this Black person is, could you please send it to me? ‘Cause I’d really like to know and tell that story.
Dr. Brock: I’d like to know too. In the book, I talked a lot about Twitter’s origins. I have one of the first articles that came out about it so I’ve always been interested in it. What I found while digging deeper in the research I needed to get done was that there were a group of engineers who were concerned around keeping activism and communication around the 2004 Democratic Convention. And so they came up with this software, this messaging software called TXTMob. And it allowed activists to go around radio networks and keep in touch with people while they were spread across a location, say New York City Hall or Atlanta City Hall, where you might be out of the line of sight. But you could communicate with one another using your phone which had a small browser on it to keep in touch.
And those TXTMob employees went to Twitter. A lot of those guys were employed at Twitter, did presentations for them, and so Twitter has this capacity built in for distributed communication around authorities, like, that’s one of its essential qualities. What it’s never had built in—and I can see why somebody would say a Black man is responsible for but white people mess it up—Twitter has never really had moderation capacity built in, and any time you have a network that allows anybody on it, including bad actors, you need to also build in a robust moderation capacity to keep those bad actors from messing up the vibe. Right?
And because Twitter has really fought hard to get venture capital funding in order to stay afloat, that hasn’t been their priority, right? And so I would love to hear more of this. I’d love to integrate this into the stories I have, but I do know—at least from Jump—those TXTMob engineers… and they weren’t, most of them were not Black, but they did have this activist mindset that helped us make Twitter what it became for Ferguson, for Occupy, for Arab Spring, and for a Black Lives Matter as well.
Kim: It’s so interesting that that was the impetus behind it. You know that activism being… and yet the people—and that is about prioritizing the most vulnerable. That’s about looking at social justice issues. And yet those are the people who get harmed the most on this platform. And that’s an interesting outcome of this—which I guess I shouldn’t say it’s interesting because nothing surprises me anymore—but it is an interesting outcome knowing that that was the intent is to connect activists, and activists are the first ones that get deplatformed or silenced. [Laughs]
Dr. Brock: There’s definitely something about Twitter’s moderation policies and algorithms now that works really hard against brown folx. You can tell that they thought they were implementing color-blind policies, but if a Nazi says something to me and I say, “fuck off and die” to a Nazi, I’m the one who gets shut down. Twitter has this really banal—not banal—this really limited understanding of what it means to be in discourse and how to talk back to somebody who’s being harassing to you. The initial act is not harassing but my response is, and that’s a problem. But that’s not a Twitter problem. That’s an online communication problem on every platform.
Kim: Oh, most definitely. That’s that “every voice…” or “everything is equal” bullshit. And this is what I have a problem—I have a problem with equality versus equity. My voice should weigh more than the average white dude on tech. Sorry. That’s just how I feel. You know, I should get 10 points for every time they open a goddamn—their mouth to say one word. I should get—it should be a 1 to 10 ratio in my favor because people gonna listen to them by default. I mean, that’s just how this is… gonna listen to them by default. So even my 10 words mean absolutely nothing.
Dr. Brock: Be careful, though, because then you’re letting people in like Keri Hilson, who apparently discovered on YouTube that 5G cellular phone transmissions helped to cause a coronavirus. So every brown, every skin folk ain’t the type of person you need to listen to.
Kim: Well that… but that to me is different from… OK, let me tease this out because you just challenged me with that, and I need to… because I have it in my head. So to me that—I totally agree with you. Let me put a pin on that. Totally agree with you. And yet that is different to me than… that’s a whole bunch of ignorance, who… OK, let me say this because this reminds me of when people are talking about—because people will want to say how, like Candace Owens and Ned Diamond and whatever—I can’t ever remember their names.
They would not be who they are if it weren’t for white folx. Black people would have shut that shit down because we always have had people like that in our communities. We know how to handle them. We don’t give ’em the mic, we… it’s like eh! We handle that. But what happened is they figured out a way—and I’ma be honest: I can’t fault ’em for it.
Dr. Brock: I can’t knock the hustle.
Kim: Exactly! I can’t knock the hustle for them figurin’ out a way to get white people to listen to they ass. And pay for ’em. Because people like us, we having the righteous fight, and we tryna figure out how to get paid, you know what I’m saying? So, I can’t get them for that. So, Keri Hilson saying whatever—there is always ignorance, period. There’s always that. I was speaking specifically to the fact that whiteness by default is always believed, and we have to come in with receipts and finished products that making profit and all these other things, and they can go from idea to IPO and never make a dime, just on an idea.
Dr. Brock: Yup, fair enough.
Kim: And so, oh lord have mercy! [Both laugh] And she still—and now, even in this time of COVID-19—people are saying, “Well, I wish…” This would have been great time for her… so she’s still seen—is being touted as some hero even though that shit that she said did not work, was not gonna work. But people are still looking to her to be, you know, like this savior and vindication because she had a great idea. And that is just not what happens with us. So I I want to… so yes, Keri Hilson, who needs to shut the fuck up? And yet we’ve always had people in our community that just need to shut the fuck up. It’s just like, just go sit down, just go sit down somewhere.
And yet we get to amplify—those voices get amplified—but her voice getting amplified is not the same as when you have a Bette Midler or Alyssa Milano, or a Rogan—all these people sayin’ shit that’s just ass wrong. And then when you clap back at ’em, you get attacked because their opinions are ass-wrong because they come out of no lived experience. Only people gonna clap back about Keri Hilson are Black folx. It ain’t gonna be…
Dr. Brock: White people don’t even know who she is.
Kim: E-xactly. So she’s going to cause harm for the people who listen to her. But then—and then lemme pull this out. How powerful is her voice compared to a Rush Limbaugh who say the same shit? There is no comparison.
Dr. Brock: No, there’s no comparison. And the way that whiteness builds out networks to support and represent his views has been somethin’ that we dealt with forever. I started—again—I started writing this in the early 2000s, and at the time we were looking at blogs, right? And there are a number of blogs: Jack & Jill Politics came out of that, Gene Demby and Jamelle Bouie came out of a blog called PostBourgie; there are a whole host of blogs that have spawned a lot of the journalists that we know that are popular today. And at the time they were complaining because whiteness magnified the voices of a few prominent white male bloggers who have particular political opinions.
And so the opinions of these folk—some of them were doing great political work, like Gina McCauley of What About Our Daughters—they were doing great political work to support fights against social injustice. But their voices weren’t being heard because white folk had no interest in listening to the things that they had to say. So I don’t know if we’ll ever have a Black person besides Beyoncé that has the audience and reach that our most critical intellectual think—that has the audience, the reach of the stupidest white man. Let me finish that thought first. [Kim laughs]
Because the stupidest white man will be able to appeal to xenophobia, misogyny, and the American… the misguided principles of the American dream—you know, like our president—and then attract audiences of people who want that world to exist, and say, “We’ll make America great again.” And any time a Black person who’s sufficiently critical or radical speaks up against that, they are contradicting the values that white folk desperately cling to.
Dr. Brock: …they are contradicting the values that white folk desperately cling to. So they will never be as popular. I think it’s kind of out of pocket to even want them to be as popular, because if they do get too popular—look what happened to Malcolm and Martin.
Kim: Oh, yeah. I tell people I ain’t trying to be a martyr for this shit. I… [laughs]
Dr. Brock: But so, there’s the physical violence—you talk to folk like Gina McCauley; you talk to Latoya Peterson, who used to run Racialicious; you talk to a whole host… the young woman who used to run For Harriet, or Black Girl Dangerous, I’m sorry—you get burned out doing that work. Over and over and over.
Kim: Exactly. And that’s why I tell people I’m very strategic about the work I do. There is a lot of engagement I do not actively participate in on Twitter that I just in my soul wanna say something. But I was like, “Nope, this does not fit my strategy.” I do not need to go down this road, because it’s like shooting buckshot: you’re just trying to hit everything, ’cause it’s…
Dr. Brock: Tryna hit everything.
Kim: Because every day—’cause I remember when I first started #CauseAScene, I thought it was my role to be, you know, on there everyday, engaging with anybody who says anything to me. And I was—and it took me a while, because again, I’m an educator. So I came at it from a perspective, I’m trying to educate my community. So let them experience, see this. And then I realized I was making myself a target. I was causing—actively causing myself harm so that white people could learn. And I was like, [laughs] “Fuck this!”
And then I say constantly, it’s like, it’s a shame that we have to be actively in pain for them to understand that we’re not having the same lived experience; for them to even believe that we’re not having the same lived experience. And this is—when I say that I’m not being a martyr for this work, it’s not just the physical. It is: Black women are killing themselves, tryna hold up the sky. And I’m not gonna be doing—I’m not doing the high blood pressure, diabetes, the depression—oh, I see so much depression in our community.
Dr. Brock: And anxiety, yes.
Kim: Yes. And I’m not doing it. I’m just, I am gonna rail against everything that looks like that in my life. And if that means cussin’ y’all out on a daily basis so I get this shit out, that’s what I’m gonna do. If that means that I’m gonna tell you, “Fuck off. It’s none of your business. I don’t need to talk to you,” that’s what I’m gonna do. I never used to block people; I block the hell out of people now, because again, I’m the educator thinking everybody needs to have access. But then again, that’s that Black woman thing. You know, I need everybody, you know, I’m gonna take… nope! Can’t do that. I have created…
Dr. Brock: Everybody gon’ do that.
Kim: I have created a bubble, and I love my echo chamber. And it has been such a nice breathing space to be in. And people think about echo chambers as if you know, you don’t learn anything. No, I know a lot. And I know how to go outside this and get the research I need. What I don’t want—need to have—is a whole bunch of toxic relationships online. That’s what I don’t need to have.
Dr. Brock: Right. OK. And I pushed back against the concept of echo chambers too, and I got supported in this. There was a study done by Pew Internet a couple of years ago, and they found that Black people, when they’re online, tend to see and post stuff about race three times more than white people do, right? And that doesn’t make it an echo chamber. In many ways, that concerns both our desire to be seen as human and our navigation of white supremacy. That doesn’t make it an echo chamber because that’s the content I choose to engage with. And so it goes back to—I don’t know if you remember back in the day, Beverly Daniel Tatum and her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria”—’cause you motherfuckers is racist. [Kim laughs]
It’s a space where we can protect ourselves, where we can enjoy ourselves without having to look over our shoulders to see who’s trying to play us or who’s trying to treat us at that moment. And so no, echo chambers to me is specifically—I mean, there are Black people who do put themselves in echo chambers, and I’m specifically thinking of like, the Hoteps, the Baisdens, the Umar Johnsons. But there’s also bourgeois echo chambers, too. But those echo chambers are still not as impenetrable as the ones that white people have erected to shield themselves from the causes of the injustice that they’ve done.
Kim: And it’s interesting that you—thank you for teasing that out some more—because it’s also, again, a question of equality versus equity. Because—and this is why I do not like, fundamentally do not like whisper networks. I understand that they provide a service for protection. But what I found—and you just hit the nail on the head—is who gets to be a part of echo chambers are the ones that end up being protected. And because you individuals who are privileged enough to be in these echo chambers know about these individuals who cause harm and the rest of us who’re ignorant; we get caused harm because we don’t know about these damn people.
Dr. Brock: Right, the whisper networks we have no access to because we don’t look right.
Kim: Exactly. And so they still are about whiteness, in most of them, mooost of them—even in the ones that are about women are fundamentally about white women. And so we still get left out and get harmed in whiteness trying to protect itself. And this is why I just… right now we’re in the Corona virus—saga of the Coronavirus. And I’m going to say something that I know people gonna get pissed off about, but fuck it, that’s what I do.
I’m not feeling—OK, let me let me start by saying this: I care about humanity. If my work has not proven that to you, it’s nuttin’ else I can say. But what I do not have right now is a whole lot of patience and compassion for a whole bunch of white people who decided now that things are tapping on they door, now everybody needs to be fucking concerned. Nope, nope. The fact that you’ve decided that you spent the last—and it’s before Trump, and this is what gets on my nerves: it’s not about Trump. It’s about a strategy that’s been in place forever.
Dr. Brock: Since the Southern strategy. Since before that.
Kim: Exactly. And so when you spend your waking hours watching a television station that only—is the default of whiteness and integrates everyone else—and it’s done that by being less than truthful in majority of the times. And then when there’s a pandemic? Hey! Now you go to the grocery store after everybody else that cleaned it out, because we’ve been watching other shit, and we knew the shit was coming. And there’s nothing for you on the shelves. You know what? I just you… you know, do what you do, boo. Because that’s what Black people had, that’s why the fuck I like chitlins: because that’s what the fuck they gave us. You what I’m saying?
Dr. Brock: We had oxtail so everybody else discovered those too.
Kim: Exactly! So… so you know what? And that’s what I say: whiteness is not used to—they don’t have the skills, these coping resiliency skills that we have. So we could make a… you know, what they say? A dolla out of 15 cent. And so, I just don’t… if you ain’t got no toilet paper to wipe yo’ ass? Take a shower, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t feel—I’m just really not feeling much compassion, and that might come hard to people, but I don’t see many of these people as the most vulnerable. This is a choice that white people have made that fundamentally, they have cited against their own interest in order to harm people that look like me. So fuck y’all.
And I just don’t have it in me, and I’m not gonna apologize for it. I’m not going to justify it, but I’m not gonna raise my hand to help you. I’m not gonna do that. What I’m gonna do is look for the most vulnerable and help them out. But you? No, no. That’s a choice. Yeah, I just… I’m seeing so much of that right now. And this is where we gettin’ the pushback on… like the primary results. You know, everybody wants to blame Black low-information voters. No, these damn voters aren’t low information. They just know good and damn well that these white folx ain’t about to vote for no damn progressive ticket, that first of all that has no damn identified implementation strategy. I just see a whole bunch ideas and talking points,
Dr. Brock: Which we know are not gonna make it through a political legislation session.
Kim: Exactly. So Black people are voting as we always do, for the interests of ours. Because we’re at the bottom; we need to make sure that we’re at least tryin’ to cover parts of ourselves, because we gonna be harmed, no matter what. Whoever the hell this president’s gonna be next, we’re gonna be harmed, because no one is fundamentally an antiracist candidate here.
So, it’s always been a calculated, pragmatic strategy for us. And this is what people want to act like, “Oh, they’re just…” No, no, no, no. It’s because of y’all sorry asses. We know good and well that you can be in yoga and be as progressive, as liberal as you want to, but soon as you go into that voting booth, that’s not what the hell you gonna vote for.
Dr. Brock: Mmhm. That’s what happened in 2016. They said they was gonna do one thing and got in that booth, did something altogether.
Kim: And when… and refuse to take credit for that. They refuse to say that they are the ones who elected this person in. It’s everybody’s fault but whiteness that this person was elected.
Dr. Brock: I’m with you there.
Kim: So, tell me about your work specifically. How did you—what’s your background? How did you get to tech? And what are—because there are very few Black students, I would think, in computer science. There’s a lot of Indians and a lot of white folx, but very few Blacks. So tell me what—tell me that journey.
Dr. Brock: OK, so let me let me clarify—because I don’t want the computing folk to jump down my throat—I am not in computer science. I have a degree in Information Science from Illinois, but I’m currently in a communications program where…
Kim: Which Illinois?
Dr. Brock: University of Illinois Champaign.
Kim: Ah, OK. I spent 1 year at Carbondale before I had to bring my ass back home.
Dr. Brock: Ooh! Carbondale’s a mess, boy.
Kim: Yes! I went from a high school graduating class of 87 people to Carbondale that had 10,000 folx and lost my fuckin’ mind. Oh, my god, I didn’t know what a class was. I was… woo, yes! Memories! Memories!
Dr. Brock: You sound just like me. So I’m in—the discipline I claim—is Internet Studies / Information Studies. I, along with two other young women, Susanna Morris and Joyce Lynn Wilson, were hired as part of a cluster hire for my department because my dean, dean Roister at Georgia Tech, was really engaged and prescient enough to figure out that there’s no reason why Georgia Tech, in the middle of the Black communities that it’s plopped down in, in a city as Black as it is, with a booming tech culture should not have people studying Blackness and technology. So Susannah does Afro-futurism and Black feminism, Joyce Lynn does hip-hop and maker culture—she actually has a 3D environment of a hip hop studio, and it serves as an archive and a studio where her students can go in and pull records off the virtual shelves and create mixes with them. So we do dope shit, basically.
Kim: OK, so I’m gonna stop you right there, ’cause you will be connectin’ me to these two women so they can come on the show, right?
Dr. Brock: Absolutely.
Kim: OK, yes. Goddamn! OK, thats…
Dr. Brock: That’s why I mentioned their names.
Kim: Yes, please! OK, go ahead. [Laughs]
Dr. Brock: I came to—so Georgia Tech is not my first job; I was at Michigan before this and then at University of Iowa before that—and so my degrees are in Rhetoric and Information Science. My dissertation was focused on something that—I can’t believe it’s 15 years now—when Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath happened, and the media were talking about us as refugees versus evacuees, or looters versus finders, I went online because I wanted to see how Black people were responding to this particular framing of Blackness in the time of catastrophe. Sounds familiar, right?
Kim: Mmhm, mmhm, mmhm.
Dr. Brock: What I found was, we were very much intent on re-casting, renegotiating, and destroying these stereotypes. And we did it in these online spaces where necessarily, people weren’t actually seeing us at the time—like many of these blogs that I study had only a few hundred followers at most—but it was really important for us to get out there because we saw the Internet as a space which finally allowed us to have a voice to challenge the mainstream narrative, like CNN…
Kim: Oh my god!
Dr. Brock: …MSNBC.
Kim: Oh my god, yes!
Dr. Brock: So we’ve been doin’ this for a long time. My work since then, I’ve looked at other blogs, such as On The New York Times. I’ve looked at video games. I’ve looked at browsers, and I’ve looked at Twitter. And the book that I just put out collects a lot of that work and tries to apply a theoretical frame to it. Like, what is it that I thought Black people were doin’ over these last 20 years that I’ve been studying them. And how do we understand that as a Black cyberculture?
And so that’s pretty much why [Georgia] Tech picked me up, because I was articulating this particular move, because there hasn’t really been a lot of theorizing about what it means to be raced online. In many cases, what we talk about bein’ raced just stems from our previous positions where we’re attemptin’ to be resistant, or we’re fighting off oppression, or we’re getting commodified. But I wanted to talk about us in the sense that we do this because this is—we see the world in different terms.
We bring a joy to everything we do. We bring an energy to everything we do, from across the diaspora—even if you go back to Africa, from the 54 countries in that continent—we do things differently, and we bring that particular way of understanding the world and time and space. And Zoe Samudzi—right now one of my favorite young scholars—is talkin’ about mutual aid societies, where we band together to thrive in the face of hostile conditions. We bring all that to the Web.
Kim: Oh, my word. OK, so you’ve, again, said a whole mouthful.
Dr. Brock: It’s what I do.
Kim: Yes! Because it reminds me of, someone reached out to me—and I’m gonna continue to tell this story, but I’m not gonna identify this person—but someone reached out to me and said, “Kim, have you had this problem in your advocacy?” ‘Cause I don’t actually see this as advocacy work. I guess it is, but again you…
Dr. Brock: Technically, right. But I see it as a passion project.
Kim: Yeah, well, it’s my voice. It’s like, like you said, it’s the Internet—as long as I have an Internet connection and a platform, a blog, or whatever, I get to say, I get to rewrite, I get to tell you what my experience is. Whiteness doesn’t get to do it by default.
Dr. Brock: Exactly.
Kim: And so that’s what the, that’s the huge thing is now we’re challenging these narratives, and that’s why that 1619 Project is getting so much pushback…
Dr. Brock: It was crucial. Yes.
Kim: Gettin’ so much pushback from white folx, white scholars, white historians, because when people wanna, people wanna act like it’s so innocent. No, these white scholars are being—many of them are pushing back ’cause it now upends the research they’ve been doing.
Dr. Brock: That is correct.
Kim: And so it’s now talkin’ ’bout they pockets. So that’s another story. But I’m here because I have no other choice. I’m here because I’ve always been an outspoken person. I’m here because I’ve always prioritized the most vulnerable. I didn’t have the language for it. And once I started unpacking white supremacy, I’m here because fuck you, you don’t get to say no more.
Dr. Brock: Exactly.
Kim: That’s the bottom line. You just don’t get to say anymore. And as long—again—as long as you’re not threatening my person, I don’t give a fuck what you say to me. I don’t live with you. You don’t, you’re not informing my scholarship. You’re not paying my bills, because the people who are paying my bills are listening to this and waking up, and not only realizing they’re complicit in the harmin’ of great amount of people, vast amounts of people, but they don’t have a clue on how to stop it.
That, to me… and I tell people I wouldn’t wanna be a white dude right now for shit. Y’all had y’all day. Y’all are demonized, and I get it. I so get it. I just don’t give a shit, but I get it. Because you do not—I would not want to know that my behavior is not just hurting people, but actively causing harm, and I not know how to stop it. That right there would be such a mindfuck for me, ’cause I tell people all the time I have very few white friends. Verrrry few white friends.
Because I understand that whiteness is racist by design—design—and cannot be trusted by default. And even with the white friends that I have, they are very conscious of, I know that at some point in our relationship, they will do something. They will prioritize whiteness, even if they do not intend to, and I will be harmed. That is something that people need to think about. That to have a relationship with you, I understand that at some point you will, intentionally or unintentionally, harm me. Who the hell wants to engage in a relationship like that?
Dr. Brock: That is correct.
Kim: I mean, hell, that’s just like dating somebody or having a, you know, it’s saying, “Well, you know I’m gonna cheat on you. You know I’m goin’, you know this is what I’m goin’ do. And I’m gonna need you to forgive—I’m gonna make amends and I’m gonna stop, but I’m gonna do it again. I mean, you may not know when it’s coming, you might go to the doctor and have a test and realize I gave you a STD. But hey, my bad.” [Laughter]
But yeah, that is—I need people to understand—that is the mental gymnastics I have to go through to have friendships with white people. This is not easy. And this is why I limit my contact with you, because again, going back to our first—I’m not a martyr. I’m not gonna continue, if I already know this is what this relationship is gonna be, I need to make sure that those people who I know are gonna at some point harm me, are at least conscious of that, care about that, and know how to try to make amends when that happens. That’s the calculation Kim is doing constantly.
Dr. Brock: And you can’t depend on liberal white folk to do that on a regular basis.
Kim: When the liberal right folx are actually the ones who are just like bulls in a china shop. I mean, if I hear one more time something about your feelings or we need civility; I’m no longer responsible for your fuckin’ feelings. If you have problems, you need to go get therapy like the rest of everybody else. That’s not my issue. And, because I know I’m gonna actively—actively—try to cause you pain just so you can understand, just any pain you experience is just a small, small minute portion of anything that we’ve ever experienced. And until you actively feel pain, which is what people are going back to my why I’m not really givin’ a shit about these people who missed the boat or didn’t get the toilet paper when it comes to coronavirus is, you did not care until it bothered you. You did, everything that this president has done this far has been okey-dokey OK with you until it’s sat in your backyard.
Dr. Brock: It was all, it was fuck Black people, until they started fucking white people.
Kim: There you go. And that’s what I say. Whiteness, white supremacy is the parasite that’s now eating its host. And you don’t know how to deal with this. It’s been eatin’ on our asses forever. It’s now eating the host.
Dr. Brock: Theirs too, they just hadn’t realized it.
Kim: Oh exactly, mhmm, ’cause I say nobody escapes white supremacy unharmed. Nobody. It is designed to cause exponential chaos and harm. It never gets better, there is no bottom, so I need people to stop looking for the bottom. There is no end to this shit, until we end it, until we dismantle it. And going back to our candidates, not one damn candidate is fundamentally antiracist, who has committed to fundamentally dismantling white supremacy. So to me, you’re not progressive. I don’t know—of these things that people are talking about, “Oh these are progressive candidates.” Jesse Jackson and people before them were talkin’ ’bout the same shit back in the eighties. This is not progressive.
Dr. Brock: But Jesse did say one thing that I found really interesting. He got interviewed, I think recently, because he endorsed… was it Sand—
Dr. Brock: Yeah, and Jesse said something I found interesting. He said, “Our people have always known that it’s a long game.”
Dr. Brock: The candidate that you endorse today may not get you to where you wanna go, but as long as they’re taking steps towards that goal, you work with them as long as you can until they betray you, then you move on to the next one. And so I don’t play this purity shit. I don’t say, “Well, this person is imperfect in these factors, so I could never support them.” I’m like, “What can you do for me?” I’m like Stacey Abrams. Stacey Abrams took $5 million of Bloomberg’s money, and people tried to drag her. Guess where Bloomberg is. He out the race, Stacey got 5 million dollars.
Dr. Brock: Right? So Stacey played the game, right? And that’s, I need more people to recognize that; that you get, it’s called interest convergence. Derrick Bell talked about this in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, right? Understand that white people only get you as far as their interests converge with yours.
Dr. Brock: …that white people only get you as far as their interests converge with yours. As long as you’re aware of that and make sure you play the game to protect yourself, you support them while you can with some of your resources. You don’t go off…
Kim: That’s what #CauseAScene is, I’m doing this work only because there are white people who support me. I get it. I said this when I first started. I was gon’ speak in any conference, I was gonna be your token because you pay for me to go to the conference, you pay for me to stay at the conference. And basically they became mini vacations for me, and it helped me with my strategy of amplifying my voice, for me to get my message out there.
As long as—and I was very conscious of—we’re aligning here. I’m not gonna fall in love with you, I don’t care if you fall in love with me. It doesn’t matter. We’re working together on these things. It is, it is—but we’ve always had to do that. They—that’s my point—they’ve never had to do that. To them it’s always been a love affair. For us it is: currently we have two shitty-ass options.
Dr. Brock: Right. Outta 23 crap options, like, none of the options were perfect.
Kim: And—exactly. So now people are trying to decide out of—especially Black folx—we’ve never had an ideal candidate! There is no ideal candidate for us. Yet. And so it’s like you just, you make these calculated decisions. Whiteness has never had to do that. And so it’s all new to them. It’s all, for them it’s always been all or nothing. For us there’s always been a whole bunch of goddamn grey. Because you think about how we have to live our lives, we have—I say this constantly now, as I’ve been unpacking this— family is the first place we learned to accept abuse as love, and that’s really fucked up.
Dr. Brock: Yep.
Kim: And yet in our communities, we’ve learned how to navigate those very toxic people in our communities and families to be safe. So that brings me back to Candace Owens and the Omarosa’s and all that because we’ve learned how to navigate those folx. We’ve learned how to use them when we needed to and navigate around them. They’ve always been in our community.
Dr. Brock: Always.
Kim: They’ve just never had the ears of white people, ’cause they didn’t—again, it didn’t benefit white people to—Cadance Owens is not a independent. This is why I challenge and Ibram—like we did last year, we did How to Be an Antiracist. We did that book club, it was our first book club selection. Now we’re doing White Rage. But what, one thing Kendi said—two things that he said in his book that I challenge. One was that Black people can be racist, and the next thing he said was—and I’m gonna break that down—the next thing he said was…
Dr. Brock: I know. I hear you.
Kim: …that antiracist, he wanted an antiracist anticapitalist system. And I have a problem with both of those. First of all, let’s break down: Black people cannot be racist because the only power Black people have are the powers that a white system gives them in service to whiteness. So he used Obama as a reason ’cause he said he had power. Yes, he had power…
Dr. Brock: Look how John Boehner shut him down from day three.
Kim: Yes, exactly. So he didn’t have inherent power. They could put all the walls around his power to stop him. And so even with Candace Owens and the two ladies, the two sisters, whatever the hell. As soon as they’re not playing the game, they’re gonna be gone. They’re gonna be dismissed. They don’t have inherent power, so no. They could be racist as hell, they could be pres—I mean prejudiced as hell. They can… but they are not racist. They do not have inherent power. It is only power that is given to them that must be used in service of white folx.
Dr. Brock: Look at David Clarke. David Clarke is a perfect example. The former mayor of—I mean sheriff—up in Milwaukee, thought he was gonna get a position with the Trump administration, had one of the worst records for running the jail system in the country, second only to Joe Arpaio down in Phoenix. And he’s still on Twitter as recently as this weekend talkin’ about, “Y’all are foolish for letting the government tell you to go inside. You need to go ahead and be out and be free; this coronavirus is a hoax.” And I’m just like, “Dude…”
Kim: Well, yeah. Again, we’ve always had them kind of clowns in our community.
Dr. Brock: Always had them clowns.
Kim: And so the other piece that is gonna be where my research is when I finish school is the antiracist anticapitalism. I don’t believe yet that that’s the answer. I would like to see if we can have a antiracist capitalist system, because I have…
Dr. Brock: Go on, boo. I gotta applaud you for that. I love that. [claps]
Kim: Well, that’s what my research is when I’m finished. The book that I’m gonna be writing is Redefining Capitalism Without White Supremacy, and the tagline is: The Economics of Being Antiracist. Because, as I’m doing my research and I’m looking at Adam Smith—who is the father of economics—his two books, The [Theory of] Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations were about moral economics. When you look at the definition of capitalism, it only—its very simple—it’s a theory about private—how private businesses should function within the system. It is not inherently white supremacist. It’s only that because that, those are the things, the mechanism…
Dr. Brock: Because those are the white people who work on it.
Kim: Yes, those are the mechanism we use to build this shit. So I don’t wanna… until we can say, until someone has done—and so fuck it, I’m gonna do it.
Dr. Brock: Do that. Do that.
Kim: I see this as my life’s work. I want to see, I want to—this is a theory, it’s a hypothesis, but I believe we can have an antiracist capitalist system. If we prioritize the most vulnerable. That’s what that is.
Dr. Brock: I mean, if you look at Europe, and the ways that they never had to worry about a co-pay, the countries were already saying, “We’re gonna give you a universal basic income to make it through this thing. No evictions. If you don’t have a job, we got you. We’re not charging you for treatment.” That is what ethical capitalism—and Europe is flawed, right? Because Europe is in the process of denying a lot of those benefits to the people whose countries they colonized to get resources from…
Dr. Brock: …but at the same time, they’re still enacting a model that’s so much more powerful than what the United States is doing because they recognize that the citizens are the bulwark of a country. If you take care of your people, your country is taken care of. That’s why them folk get six weeks of vacation. That’s why them folx have a higher standard of living than we do, because they have shaped capitalism to be regulated by the government and the government is regulatin’ it on behalf of the citizenry. That’s just such an important…
Kim: And that is not socialism, people!
EB: That is not socialism! That is not socialism.
Kim: But I wanna bring back, ’cause now that you’re—’cause my ADHD brain just went off on a tangent—because it reminds me of—like I was saying—so this this white activist was saying, “Kim, have you have people to come to you and say that you make everything about yourself and dadadada?” And I was like, “No, you’re getting that because you’re white.” Because everything y’all do, y’all make it about the individual. I don’t get that because I talk about the community.
There are—I could say this #CauseAScene community belongs to Kim. I could do that because I’m the leader of it, but what would that get me? Every time I talk about, I talk about us as a community, we get there together. I use inclusive language because it’s about us. But that’s about being Black, also. We couldn’t survive if we didn’t have rent parties and everything else we did. If we didn’t, if, you know, they didn’t slaughter our hog and everybody came and got parts of the hog.
Dr. Brock: Right, everybody eatin’.
Kim: That’s how we fuckin’ survive. And this is where whiteness is gonna—is having a problem—because it has been told that its individual efforts, successes are its own. And yet its failure is somebody else’s fault.
Dr. Brock: Oh you mean like your president saying it’s not his responsibility?
Kim: Excuse me, I need, that’s the second time you said “my president.” [Andrè laughs] Like I’m sayin’, yeah. Exactly. I’ma shut yo ass down with that. ‘Cause I write his name with a small “t”, so don’t…
Dr. Brock: I only refer to him by his number.
Kim: He is the president of the United States, and that’s the title, the role. Just, like, to me, he’s just a CEO of a, you know, of a company. That’s the role, the job he has right now, does not belong to me.
Dr. Brock: I will say, that one of the projects I’m workin’ on right now talks about the calcification, the codification of whiteness because of 45’s tweets, because of Twitter’s unique space as a platform where multiple people get to see it and the influencers flock to it. So they repeat his stuff, he has this out—this oversized visibility as an avatar of white fragility and white angst.
But I also am careful to place that in the context of the previous eight years, where you started seeing white forces marshal against Blackness early on. Even though, you know, I love that scene in Get Out where a boy’s like, “I’d have voted three times for Obama if I could.” But from the minute Obama stepped into office, there were forces already marshalling to limit his power, like we were just talking about. And I’m careful to place Trump in that context. Trump wouldn’t be possible if liberals and progressives and racists hadn’t banded together in the project…
Kim: Oh, most definitely.
Dr. Brock: …to try to limit the type of power that Black people—or type of resources that Black people could have. And Trump is just a manifestation of that pushed to the nth degree.
Kim: Well, I’m gonna—one thing I’m gonna challenge you on. You used it, but you used it in academic terms, so I’m not gonna challenge it, I’m just gonna extend it ’cause I need people to understand. You use “white fragility” and you use “white fragility” in the academic term. Which Robin DiAngelo meant was to use it as a term to explain the behaviors of white people when they became uncomfortable. I no longer recommend that book because in the wilds—as we call it—in the real world, this theory, what it’s panning out to be is an excuse for white people to do shitty stuff.
Dr. Brock: Oh, I agree.
Kim: And so, I understand it as a theory, and I thank you for using it as a theory ’cause most people don’t. Most people will use it as, “Oh that’s that, that’s just that, somebody’s done something shitty, oh, that’s just their white fragility.” No, no, no, no. White fragility, what she did not talk about was there’s a cause and effect. When white people feel, have their white fragility moments, there is an exponential harm on the backend that’s the effect of that. And that’s what people aren’t talking about. Every time Becky cries because she got her feelings hurt at work…
Dr. Brock: It causes us to re-center around Becky’s emotions instead of the problem that she caused in the first place.
Kim: And not only that, though, that’s one part. The financial effect is Becky is now in HR and Shaquanda, Kim, or whoever, can’t get a raise, can’t get a promotion, because that shit’s now on my record because Becky couldn’t handle her shit. And that’s the piece that people aren’t talkin’ about: the effect when people, white folx, get, feel attacked, when they feel that way—that’s not even attacked—when they get uncomfortable, there is a negative action that happens from there.
Dr. Brock: So that theoretical framework I use takes advantage of DiAngelo’s white fragility because it’s something that people have latched onto. But I’m really centering my work on Du Bois and Du Bois talks about the white world in 1940 and how they are unaware—even before Charles Mills started talking about epistemologies of ignorance—Du Bois was already trying to figure out what it was that white people were holding onto in order to build all this economic—I mean, not economic—this spiritual disquiet, this spiritual anger, against their fear that they’re being displaced from their place in the world, right? So, I feel you. DiAngelo is not enough.
Kim: And that’s the thing, to me DiAngelo’s a great elementary school book for you to learn some language. And for you to start seeing some stuff. But that’s, but what people using that, they get the language and they think that they’re all woke and then they, that’s, they don’t go any further. It’s a great beginner book. I, and you—both of us—are on a dissertation level. Don’t come to me with no damn, with no white fragility shit. I don’t want that. No, you need to work through that shit with your therapist, not me. But yes, Du Bois… whew, this got—OK, everybody, this episode’s gonna go a little long. That’s fine. ‘Cause I need you to talk. I need to unpack this DuBois conversation [Andrè laughs] and then we’ll close out the show because I really want to understand what you mean by this. I really need them to understand what you mean by this.
Dr. Brock: So let me, let me circle around to it. I wanna put this in the context of technology. So—and when I wanted to write about Black people in technology, remember I said earlier—I wanted to be sure that I was able to capture our own resilience. And I hate that word too. Our excess of life, our joy, our capacity to be inventive in all spaces, culturally, technologically, and linguistically.
And so I turned to Du Bois because Du Bois was early on with his statement of double consciousness, which is—I will not let you push back on double consciousness—because I think it’s a really invaluable way of understanding that whole thing where you were talking about capitalism not necessarily bein’ an instrument of white supremacy. So for Du Bois, double consciousness really describes the fact that Black people are constantly havin’ to be the same cuckoo bird. They’re constantly looking back to remember who they were, while constantly trying to look forward while navigating this fuckery that is white supremacy.
Kim: Oh, I wouldn’t push back on that. Oh, no no no. That’s why I love history. Because it helps, it helps us… So what we’re seeing, what people are seeing now with this voting for Biden—again, I’m not telling you ’cause I think both of them are shitty people—but what you’re seeing with these voters is they go back and see these people have always said that this is what they want, going back to suffrage. And they’ve always thrown Black folx under the bus.
Dr. Brock: Under the bus.
Kim: I’m not going to believe this shit. So I’m gonna vote this way. So go ‘head. I get it. No, no, no. I totally get it.
Dr. Brock: So Du Bois wrote three autobiographies during his lifetime because he lived to 96 years old. The one I focused a lot of my work on is one called Dusk of Dawn. And in it he has two chapters—actually, Dusk of Dawn is subtitled An [Essay Toward an] Autobiography of a Race Concept. And so he has two chapters in there that are really important for me. One is “The White World,” and one is “The Colored World Within.” In “The White World” there’s a couple of allegories where he has a conversation with these imaginary interlocutors, and he talks to them about why is it they think that whiteness is superior, for the first one, and then why is it that whiteness is so fucking upset on a regular basis for the second one.
And that second one is really interesting to me because it prefigures what DiAngelo is doing with white fragility, because it takes piece by piece: it looks at whiteness; it looks at Christianity; it looks at socioeconomic status; it looks at masculinity; and it looks at whiteness; and it builds out this matrix of why white people are constantly in fear of all these categories being violated.
There’s one more: America, right? America’s an imperial power. And so Du Bois is really ahead of this game. He’s already looking at ways to try to understand the various—what I called in my book libidinal moments—these pre-cognitive energies that power the things that we do, why these white folk are already being driven by this? The limitation of it is that he’s primarily focused on a white middle class perspective. But that actually works for me because the default for Internet is middle class.
Kim: Mhm, yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Brock: And so it’s really this powerful construct, because Du Bois is very insistent that in order to understand the matrix that we’ve been thrown into, the kettle that we’ve been thrown into, we need to not only understand the fire that’s boiling—the fire that’s burning and the water that’s boiling. We need to understand how we got put in this pot in the first place.
Kim: Yes. [Claps]
Dr. Brock: That’s whiteness, right? If you understand whiteness, you have a better understanding of why you’re responding to certain things in the way you do. But crucially, for Du Bois, you also have to carve out a space to understand that you existed before whiteness.
Dr. Brock: Somebody else said this—and I can’t remember who—but he’s like, “Blackness only came into being when they took us out of the continent.” But since that’s where we are, it’s a social construct that has real influence and effect. We need to understand what we’ve done to it, with it, and within it.
Kim: And that’s one of the reasons why I say whiteness, and I make that on parallel with Blackness, because no one’s ever had… white people have always had no problem with, you know, talking about Black stuff. You know, we’re the anti-Black or whatever.
Dr. Brock: Right. They called the Irish dirty Black people.
Kim: Yes, but they’ve, we’ve never had conversations about whiteness. And so they get so offended when you call them white. You don’t get offended by calling me Black. And so I put them on the same level. I’m gonna talk about whiteness just like you gonna talk about Blackness.
Dr. Brock: Exactly. And so when I teach my critical race courses—here at Tech and elsewhere—I always start off with whiteness because it doesn’t make sense to start off with what it means to be Black if I haven’t talked about why Blackness exists in the first place.
Kim: Yes! Exact—woo! Exactly. Blackness exists as an opposite of whiteness, which is the default. And that’s why it’s so prevalent around the world, why anti-Blackness is so prevalent around the world, because everybody, the default is white. So the closer you can get to whatever white is—wherever you are—is the prize. And anything other than that, the closer you get to Blackness—globally—is bad.
Dr. Brock: Right. And I will say, at least for that part, because I’ve had arguments with decolonial folk and ADOS folk, when you start looking at anti-Blackness in other concepts—other contexts—it becomes wrapped around this really complex idea of social class and labor, right? But the end result is, as they’ve been introduced to Africans, is that it becomes tied once again to Black bodies. So the Dalits and the Tamils in India are constantly discriminated against not because they’re Black, but because they fit the precepts of anti-Blackness. Similarly, in China—where they don’t have a huge ton of dark-skinned people, but they do have darker-skinned people—that’s one of the biggest markets for skin whitening creams in the whole world.
Kim: Exactly! Yes!
Dr. Brock: Right, so obviously there’s something to this concept.
Kim: And that’s what I keep trying to tell people. And this is my issue. And again, I am not endorsing anybody, but this is my issue with Bernie Sanders. Everything is not about class.
Dr. Brock: No.
Kim: If you can’t talk about race, then you can’t talk about me. You can’t center my needs, and you don’t have a progressive movement.
Dr. Brock: You don’t.
Kim: And that’s just my—because the things you’re talking about, and this is where I’ll go back to—and we’ll kind of wrap up here—the things I talk about, what people are talking about progressive now, people have talked about already.
Dr. Brock: Right.
Kim: The majority of the Democratic Party is there. We believe that people have needed health care and all those basic needs; that’s not progressive anymore. Progressive is a fundamentally antiracist, we-are-working-on-dismantling-white-supremacy candidate. And until we get that, I’m not gonna be happy with anybody that runs for office.
Dr. Brock: ‘Cause trust me, if you lift up Black people, the lowest white people will already be ahead of us being lifted up in front—I mean look at affirmative action. White women have been lifted up so high by affirmative action. Right? [Laughs]
Kim: But yet, Asians want to say it’s our fault that it—no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Again, but that’s that model minority, and it’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
Dr. Brock: That’s a whole ‘nother hour that I will get…
Kim: But that’s exactly, but that’s also about anti-Blackness as well. So in your final moments—oh my god—what would you like to talk about? What would you like to share?
Dr. Brock: So I just put out a book called Distributed Blackness. It’s on NYU Press, for those of your listeners who may be interested in ordering it, if you go to NYU Press and pick up the title there, there’s a discount available if you use the code BROCK30. And Distributed Blackness is—at this point—my magnum opus. It represents about 15 years of thinkin’ about what it means to be Black, what it means to have an online identity, and what it means to have—be online. Those three things work together.
So in that way it’s kind of a unique take. It’s different from the books by my outstanding colleagues like Safiya Noble, and Charlton McIlwain, and Ruha Benjamin, all of whom have fabulous books on race and online and algorithms and the like. But mine differs from them, because I try to also think through what it means to study the actions of the everyday. So I talk a little bit about “Black girl magic.” I have a whole chapter devoted to the ratchet, because I’m interested in the ways that we were ourselves before we came, we got to online spaces, and continued being ourselves mediated by the technological influence.
So for those people who’re interested in philosophy of technology, history of technology, African American studies, information studies, like the list goes on… sociology, anthropology, communication studies. That book is the book for you: Distributed Blackness, NYU Press, and it’s awesome.
Kim: Well, thank you so much. This has been a phenomenal, phenomenal conversation. That’s so funny because I…
Dr. Brock: Oh, this has been fun, I really appreciate it. [Kim laughs]
Kim: Because my, my podcast producer, he says, “I love when you talk to academics, ’cause y’all speak in paragraphs.”
Dr. Brock: I mean, what’s the point of coming on here and be like, “Yes. Yes. Uh-huh.” Like this is a chance, this what we do. This is what we love to do.
Kim: Yes, exactly. And so yeah, I’m ready—when I talk to you academics—I really get excited about finishing my program up. And getting started and fundamentally looking at a theory for antiracist capitalism.
Dr. Brock: Oh, please keep me posted. Please. I’m working with an academic in Michigan now, Ron Eglash, who does work that you’d be interested in on ethno-mathematics and ethno-technology. He looked at how cornrows are actually geometric fractal patterns and he has a computer program that allows the students to design cornrow patterns and then put ’em, braid them into their friends’ hair. He’s so dope.
But he talks about this thing called generative justice. And it’s the idea that while we talk about algorithmic justice and all these other—those concepts are not sufficient in order to provide the resources—spiritual, technological, community resources that we need in order to survive in today’s modern society. So how do we generate, build structures that generate justice-based outcomes and goals for our people? It’s dope shit.
Kim: Oh, well, I’ll definitely be expecting you to contact me with three people that we’ve discussed on here ’cause, yeah.
Dr. Brock: And I expect to hear about your dissertation defense too, don’t hold out on me.
Kim: Well, no. My… exactly. But see, what’s funny is, so I’m getting a doctor is a business administration technology entrepreneurship. And so my doc study is on how do you share tacit knowledge within organizations? Because we’re in a knowledge economy and how—and so this is why I tell people inclusion and diversity is not a nice-to-have—in a knowledge economy it’s a requirement for me to feel safe, have psychological safety, and feel welcomed and included in the space if you want me to use my knowledge to help you build a product or service.
Dr. Brock: So, write this citation down: Elfreda—I think that’s right—Chatman. And her work is The Secret Life of Outsiders, and she talks about how outsiders have to navigate information structures. She was specifically focused on women who were previously inmates, how they had to communicate with each other to transmit concepts when they weren’t supposed to, and how they built these shared knowledge patterns. So it’s an inquiry into a tacit knowledge, but tacit knowledge from the perspective of people who are not necessarily part of the system.
Kim: Exactly. Yes, yes. Thank you. Yeah you, wow. This has been amazing. Thank you for being on the show.
Dr. Brock: Thank you for inviting me.
Kim: Have a wonderful day.
Dr. Brock: You do the same.
Kim: All right.