Professor TreaAndrea Russworm, of the English department, hosted a Pizza & Prof on November 9, discussing race, digital culture, and the technologies of protest. Russworm’s expertise includes the examination of films, video games, and new media in relation to what it means to be recognized as human in the digital era. Her presentation fell the day after the U.S. presidential election and Russworm took time to discuss the results.
Donald Trump's victory is “about white supremacy always being a structural and ideological force in this country,” she explained. She said that supremacy and racism have remained relatively veiled at times in U.S. history but have been forces working in the background. The results of the election, she said, made one thing painfully clear: “We can see how supremacy functions in broad daylight, without the mask of a black president.” Russworm explained that unveiled white supremacy has the grave potential to make the country more unsafe for some of its most vulnerable populations.
Russworm then dove into her presentation and asked the audience a key question: what is recognition? She explained that at its core, recognition means accepting that the other person you are interacting with is psychologically human.
She discussed the failure to recognize black humanity in television programs and movies. She noted that black characters are often larger than life, but they are not human—at least not in the ways in which white characters are represented. During the rare occasions when black humanity is recognized, it is almost always “predicated on a system of violence,” she asserted.
She explained that in some aspects of new media there is a continued lack of recognition of black humanity that is evident in the way society consumes violence against black bodies, saying “black death is now viral in a whole new way.” This “death in plain sight” is not new, she said, pointing to historical examples of technology and histories of violence interacting, and citing lynching postcards as an example.
Russworm then asked: how does this history of failing to recognize black humanity in media interact with digital culture including, for example, use of hashtags and creation of data sets?
Sharing this type of content and using hashtags can become categorized and tracked, she noted, making “projects and activism” searchable, even while facilitating engagement, which is imperative. For example, when using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter or other social media, a user instantly self-identifies as part of a movement, a movement that can be targeted for surveillance or even be dissolved. While Russworm sees the great potential for online organizing and activism, she also wants to connect civic participation to the ways in which the use of media technologies have historically worked against any recognition of black humanity.
In closing, Russworm reminded the audience that social media is not the only medium for creating searchable data that can be used to obscure and police black humanity. Video games have a role there too, for example. As Russworm said, “play is always political and now it's a space that creates new media data.” She used the example of NBA 2K16 which obtains biometric data in order to digitize a player's likeness and create a personalized avatar. Russworm had more questions than answers about the use of facial scans and facial recognition software. Who owns that data and how it can be used are important questions to ask as we head further into this digital era, she said, adding that we must continue to ask questions about the tenuous project of recognizing black humanity when we surrender rights to our image to a video game.