“Technigga”:Cyber Racism

Julian Bond, current head of the NAACP, was recently quoted as saying that an Obama win will not end racial injustice. And, indeed, I think that’s increasingly clear given what even “allies” are publishing these days (more on the New Yorker debacle tomorrow). If there’s one place that we should clearly see evidence of a “race-blind” society, it’s the world of the Internet – advocates of such a view contend – because online “there is no race,” as that MCI commercial conjured it. However, the reality is that the Internet is giving way to a new kind of racism that I’ve discussed here before, that I call cyber racism. It’s a blend of centuries-old racist stereotypes with new forms of media and technology.

Here’s one of the most recent examples of cyber racism, and a really cogent analysis to go with it. First, a little about the backstory. A videoblogger and fellow New Yorker by the name of Loren Feldman owns a company called 1938 Media which, according to the description on their site, the firm “produces video for the web and mobile devices.” About a year ago, Feldman produced a series of videos for the web that caused the Silicon Valley Wag to call him the “Don Imus of Silicon Valley,” and lots of others to call him a racist. Still others (including himself) call him an artist. The controversy stems from the overtly racist language that Feldman uses in his video series. It starts with a video titled “Where are the Black Tech Bloggers?” and in this video, after explaining his question (“I mean black guys love technology. Car stereos, cell phones…”), there is a white man dressed as a caricature of a do-rag-wearing, pot-smoking black gangster hosting a site called “TechNigga.” Following the release of this video, people were (understandably) upset and then Feldman goes on to enact a sort of disingenuous drama in which he supposedly apologizes, goes to rehab and gets out (recounted in great detail here). None of that actually happened, it was all an elaborate fabrication, and, as Feldman explains in his “Official Statement” about the incident on his website, he is a comic and “the tone of my work is similar to South Park, Ali G, SNL and many other artists…” Feldman goes on in the statement to explain his actions saying:

The web is about freedom. Freedom of ideas, freedom of code, freedom to make a choice, freedom of not being afraid to tell a joke, freedom to fail. Freedom to look at the reflection that we cast as a group.

You might think that sometimes I’m too mean or not funny. Ok. Am I so different than you?

TechNigga was part of a weeklong project that reflected on numerous issues in our culture. Across the series I make fun of jews, psychologists, scientologists, celebrity rehab, nerds, nazis, tech culture, 70s movies and, yes, black people.

Interesting take on “freedom” by Feldman here, but not anything cyber libertarians haven’t already said. Nothing much happened about this until Verizon pulled a deal with Feldman (to develop mobile video) after people protested the company’s association with him. Ok, that’s all by way of backstory. Now, for the cogent analysis on all this, from a blogger and entrepreneur named Hank Williams. Williams, another New Yorker, has quite a different perspective on “freedom” than does Feldman. In this excellent post by Williams, he situates his analysis in his own lived experience, which he describes thus:

I was born in Harlem, in the midst of the civil rights movement. My father was an active participant in that movement. His best friend was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, to whom he served as counselor. So as a child I was present as amazing things were happening. I observed as great people planned and fought so that I would have opportunities that they did not. Not that I fully understood what was going on, but it was happening all around me, and I could not miss its import. They fought the evil ideas, and the evil people. And they won. And in so doing they helped to change the country.

Admittedly and thankfully, this country is far, far better today. And the reason my father was able to start as a mail sorter and end up a judge, and the reason that I can write this blog and do the work I do, is because of the many great people, white and black, who protested, boycotted, and resisted. Peaceful resistance and dissent, is not only a right, but a responsibility for those of us who value decency and democracy.

To suggest that the right thing to do is to be silent in the face of racist words, or that protesting or boycotting is wrong, wipes away the part of American history that has made my life possible — peaceful protest.

And to suggest that we should just ignore racist bile like Tech Nigga is wrong. Words matter.

This is just the kind of thing that Pat Collins talks about when she discusses linking “epistemology” and judgments about knowledge claims. Here, Feldman and Williams have two, very different views of what “freedom” means and the value of words. For Feldman (who is white decidedly not concerned with social justice), the “web is a place for freedom.” He uses that “freedom” to make fun of people, an activity he sees as harmless. For Williams (who is black and steeped in the civil rights struggle), he sees the performance of Feldman’s “Tech Nigga” as wrong, and, he also calls out the people who do nothing, remain silent, in the face of racism. These are not only “differences of opinion,” they are rooted in different epistemologies, different ways of knowing. For Feldman, he’s calling on the rules-of-the-Internet-as-he-knows them, e.g., “the web is about freedom.” And, you can’t really blame him. After all, that’s what the dominant, mainstream culture, says again and again about the Internet. It’s also what pundits and libertarians like John Perry Barlow say over and over.

Williams has a different epistemology. His is rooted in an experience of discrimination and inequality, and struggle and triumph over that. And, his analysis reflects this. Here’s Williams at the end of that post, describing what racism is like in 2008:

In 2008, racism is appeasing the evildoers. It is making jokes that no one finds funny, or ones that a few misguided people do. It is categorizing large swaths of people with words and language that hurt them, even if you have no idea why. It is questioning the morals of people when they stand up to defend themselves against language that seeks to further diminish an already weak social standing. And, yes, racism is doing nothing when you could be doing something. I know racism when I see it, and I hope you do too. What are you going to do about it?

Well said, Mr. Williams. Indeed, what are you going to do about it?