Insight – Black Girl Labor as Magic: Toward an Understanding of Digital Black Feminism

This is an insight written by Jack Schurman on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace lecture by Dr. Catherine Knight Steele, Black Girl Labor as Magic: Toward an Understanding of Digital Black Feminism, co-sponsored with The Critical Race Initiative, the College of Arts and Humanities, and the College of Behavioral and Social Science on March 12, 2019. 

As a white male who does not really use social media, I was afraid that a lot of the lecture would just go over my head. Instead, I walked out glad that I was able to learn so much about something that I otherwise would probably not think about. The section on hip hop feminism particularly drew my attention due to the parallels I was able to draw between the ways Dr. Steele was saying hip hop has influenced black women and their views on feminism, and the ways I’ve seen punk music influence myself and others. The ways she talked about people debating whether you can reconcile hip hop’s sometimes misogynistic and materialist lifestyles with feminism reminded me of similar debates within punk, such as debates about what counts as selling out, or what makes something ‘punk,’ and how far the ideology can stray while still being considered ‘punk.’

Early on, Dr. Steele mentioned how we don’t usually think of black women and technology as being connected. This reminded me of a cognitive science philosophy class I took in a previous semester, in which we discussed the difference between explicit and implicit stereotypes, as well as how these implicit stereotypes can still negatively impact the subjects of those stereotypes regardless of explicit beliefs. What I learned there led me to hypothesize that the fact that people don’t associate black women and technology likely causes a significant portion of people to hold implicit stereotypes about black women being bad at or not having a place in technology, which may deter black women from pursuing technology or cause their performance in the field to suffer.

I then connected this thought with the song, For a Girl in Rhinelander, WI, by Wingnut Dishwashers Union, which I happened to be listening to earlier that day. The song talks about a hypothetical girl who doesn’t think that girls can be singers in a rock band, to which he points to Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, an influential punk rock band that helped establish the feminist subgenre known as “riot grrrl” in the 90s, and helped show that girls belong in punk. However, he sadly realizes that small town Wisconsin record shops almost certainly don’t carry Bikini Kill records. In the case of this song, the hypothetical girl sadly does not have much of a chance to randomly encounter Kathleen Hanna, who could serve as a role model and dispel that negative stereotype. This example helped me understand one of the greatest strengths that digital black feminism and modern technology in general, being that the inherent connectedness allows it to reach and impact anyone with access to the internet.

Another perspective that framed my thoughts about the lecture came from my experiences as a computer science major. As someone who is currently getting their butt kicked by an upper level class dedicated entirely to algorithms, I found Dr. Steele’s point about how hair braiding can be reduced to an algorithm as a particularly powerful example to illustrate the contribution to and success black women have had with technology. I usually think of computer science and coding when I think of technology, so I often neglect to think about all the other wide areas that also fall under technology, and examples like this that can be seen in other people’s cultures. As a white male, it’s easy for me to overlook the lack of diversity in the field since I’m not the one being hurt by it, so I think it’s valuable to attend lectures like these to serve as reminders, and help me reflect on ways in which I can help others feel more included.

I went into the talk with my expectations being that it would be a good opportunity to learn in depth about topics and communities that, while important, would not really resonate with me in particular. However, I was genuinely surprised by how much I was able to relate parts of the lecture with my own life. To me, this highlights one of the biggest takeaways I took from the lecture, being that even despite differences such as the way we communicate, music tastes, skin color, and gender, we are all still fundamentally human, and we are more alike than we may sometimes think.

About the Author: 

Jack Schurman is a Sophomore from Columbia, MD studying computer science and philosophy. On campus, you can find him with the Philosophy Club or out skateboarding. He is not sure what he wants to do after school, but he is leaning towards doing something with research.



To watch the lecture visit the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Youtube page at the link here.

To learn more about the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace visit the website here.

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