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The ‘technique’ of blackface

Snapchat_blackface1By Jason A. Smith

Outrage over the Bob Marley Snapchat filter was swift following its brief appearance on the mobile application’s platform on April 20 (The 420 pot smoking holiday). The idea of mimicking Bob Marley in appreciation of a day dedicated to smoking marijuana enabled users to don the hat, dreads, and…blackface!? News outlets that day covered the issue pretty quickly. and The Verge noted the negative reactions voiced on social media in regard to the filter. Tech publisher Wired released a brief article condemning it, calling it racially tone-deaf.

The racial implications of the Bob Marley filter are multifaceted, yet I would like to focus on the larger cultural logic occurring both above and behind the scenes at an organization like Snapchat. The creation of a filter that tapped into blackface iconography demonstrates the complexity of our relationship to various forms of technology – as well as how we choose to represent ourselves through those technologies. French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society of ‘technique’ as an encompassing train of thought or practice based on rationality that achieves its desired end. Ellul spoke of technique in relation to advances in technology and human affairs in the aftermath of World War II, yet his emphasis was not on the technology itself, but rather the social processes that informed the technology. This means that in relation to a mobile application like Snapchat we bring our social baggage with us when we use it, and so do developers when they decide to design a new filter. Jessie Daniels addresses racial technique in her current projects regarding colorblind racism and the internet – in which the default for tech insiders is a desire to not see race. This theoretically rich work pulls us out of the notion that technology is neutral within a society that has embedded racial meanings flowing through various actors and institutions, and where those who develop the technology we use on a daily basis are unprepared to acknowledge the racial disparities which persist, and the racial prejudice that can—and does—permeate their designs.

This understanding of technique, when combined with critical race theory, allows us to ask if the presence of blackface in technology is any big surprise in a presumably “post-racial” world. I am positive that any critical race scholar would, without hesitation, answer, “No, it’s not.”  And that’s because we are definitively not post-racial. The intentions behind the filter might have been innocent or playful by developers, but the use of blackface within society has a long and complex history – particularly in regard to its use as a tool to perpetuate systemic racial inequalities in the dehumanizing and “othering” of African Americans in the United States. Hollywood has traditionally been the long time perpetrator of promoting blackface, and variations of it, through utilizing stereotypes that adapt to a given historical moment in society. Yet the racial implications of blackface extend beyond the screens in which we view film. Over the past couple of years tensions brought up over racialized costumes during Halloween and college parties demonstrate the reach and continuation of blackface. With such a contemporary example that has generated conflict within the general public, it seems as if the tech innovators at Snapchat would have known better. I guess that is just wishful thinking. This movement and use of blackface from film, to parties, to the mobile app demonstrates what Ellul meant in regard to technique. The continuation of blackface in our society presently is not necessarily linked to the technologies that produce them, but through the ways in which individuals develop and utilize those technologies. The presumed innocence of using blackface to ‘celebrate’ an individual within a logic of providing ‘daily-new’ filters for consumer use reflects a gross oversight in what blackface means within the larger cultural sphere of public life.

The continued existence of racism in society is undertaken through multiple shifts and debates, in which no actor or institution stands in isolation. This case of the Bob Marley filter only highlights the ways that historical racist images are allowed to perpetuate themselves in the present – becoming not-so-historical in the process as they reincarnate through new mediums. I have no doubt that some cases might be found of individuals using the filter, or commenting on it, in overtly racist ways. Yet, as mentioned above, voices also sprang up to condemn the filter as racially insensitive in various social media and news sites. The technique of blackface is malleable in that it lingers on through practices that are uncritically carried out by tech developers, but those practices are also challenged through other means across various technologies. Unraveling this technique requires disrupting the structural racism that upholds it. Brushing off the filter as a misstep by Snapchat or condemning the developers as socially out of touch, is antithetical to the critical race project, a project that is less interested in identifying those who fail at race relations and more interested in identifying the social conditions that allow racism to persist.


Jason A. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University whose research centers on the areas of race and the media. His dissertation will look at the Federal Communications Commission and policy decisions regarding diversity in the media for minorities and women. Along with Bhoomi K. Thakore, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media (Routledge, May 2016). He is on twitter occasionally.

This post originally appeared on Cyborgology on May 2, 2016


Beyonce and Academia

Sasha Fierce!!

Listen to a fun conversation with Professor Kevin Allred on NPR’s Tell Me More on his summer course at Rutgers University, “Politicizing Beyonce.”

Allred: …I’ve got some of those e-mails thinking, you know, we’re going to have a quiz on different Beyonce facts, but what I’m actually doing is putting her in line with this longer history of black feminism and black feminist thought in the United States.


Globalizing Culture and Mobility in the Periphery: Centrality, Informality, and Security in Guayaquil

By Robert Fenton

Cities are, by the very nature, entities deeply riven with conflict. The very organization of any cityscape the world over easily illustrates this fact. However, and this is the important point for social theorists, we must envision the city as a sort of totality—albeit one nestled within the confines of others—that transcends and sutures together the various conflictive fragments of which it consists; cities are always more than just the sums of their component parts.

On what grounds can we think about cities as both parts and wholes? I argue that we must actually think through those dialectical moments by envisioning the myriad ways in which everyday life in cities brings different parts together through everyday social relations and collective interaction. And, with that said, we must also grasp how the symbolic and real barriers that separate groups contribute to the functioning of the whole, not merely as a functional necessity, but as points of contestation along the contours of which change occurs. The unruly elements of cities, those people and places that the rich and powerful try to hide and banish from public view, have creative ways of reemerging and contesting such occlusion. Full-blown strategies of urban redevelopment have aimed at squashing and squeezing out these elements, or controlling them to such a degree that the spaces and people lose their sense of identity and transform completely. And yet, in other instances, these redevelopmental policies can enhance and reinforce the identities of the people and places they transform. The resiliency of traditional Guayaquil blares on through the speakers of the Metrovia, patriotic songs celebrating the city’s past can be heard on the bus if you listen closely enough; and yet times are changing, as they must. We see both continuity and discontinuity in the same fragment.

(Inside a Metrovia Station; Photo taken by the author, 2013)

I have elaborated, previously, on urban redevelopment schemes in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I intend to develop that analysis further, here. First of all, I would like to highlight the ways in which transportation solidifies and unifies the city as a specific level of practice, or as an identifiable scale of collective activity. Transportation in Guayaquil, as I have discussed previously, remains both a principle branch of urban redevelopment in the city as well as a cultural entity in its own right. The massive reorganization of city space, both achieved and in process, in constructing and implanting the Metrovia Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has entailed both a reconfiguration of the city as an economic space (with Guayaquil being the center of Ecuador’s global economic interconnection) as well as a space for play and leisure—in other words, a reorganization of everyday urban life. The extent of this redevelopment is monumental, at least for this city (of roughly 2.4 million people). Two main BRT corridors transect its ciudadelas and avenidas, with two hubs into which various feeder buses connect. The entirety of the bus system, including all of its various routes, were completely reorganized to direct traffic into the BRT corridors. Old connections were lost and new connections were made; old routes destroyed as new ones take their place. As such, there are now two “centers” towards which people move every day when they enter the Metrovia system (which costs $0.25 for each trip, including transfers), a new everyday routine with its own centers of gravity.

But these centers are the located in the traditional centro, with its skyscrapers, tightly-packed streets, ornate and baroque churches, and architectural relics of a bygone era (surrounded by the structures of “modernity”). These centers bookend the traditional city center, to the north and the south, and send out their feeders to the suburban centers dotting the north, south, and west. The BRT lines that crisscross the city, fed by the other, more traditional buses, are the cheapest and most effective way of getting from one side of the city to the other. But due to the centralizing focus of the system, traveling in directions opposite of the centers becomes a chore (for people that live in Washington, DC, this is somewhat akin to riding on the DC Metro, which favors the center at the expense of the periphery). While private operations exist to fill in this gap (personal vehicles, busetas, and taxis), they feel woefully neglected by the central authorities that planned the BRT system. The heavily rationalized routes (dedicated lanes and elevated platform stops) of the BRT work for those who shuffle in and out of the center(s) on a daily basis, and they liberate their passengers from the vicissitudes of the hellish traffic of the city, but the price of admission is a system that functions primarily for those who need to get in and out, for work and play, but not one that could be a singular source to satisfy transportation needs.

(Metrovia Station in the City Center; Photo taken by the author, 2013)

While the BRT is the most rationalized form of transportation in the city, it is not free from issues of informality. Buses, while on fixed routes, do not have schedules on which they run, rather they have average times between them depending on the hour of the day. Catching a feeder bus from a northern neighborhood requires you to go out to the main street, stand near a specified stop, and wait for the next bus (the frequency of which changes, but since these are feeder buses they are subject to normal traffic). This takes you to the central terminal where you transfer to the articulated BRT buses. Transferring means standing in a line and waiting for the next bus to come. These lines can be over a hundred people long, especially for buses heading into the city center during the mornings. There is always a chance that you could catch the next bus and be relatively comfortable, but, because the frequency of bus arrivals and departures is so irregular, one can never know—this typically means sucking it up and getting on a jam-packed bus. No words can describe how the infernal heat of the tropics turns those buses into furnaces, but your sweat-drenched clothes will surely recount the story better than your parched mouth could. Depending on how full the bus is, getting off at your stop could, likewise, be problematic. Standing next to the door of a packed bus might also get you stampeded if you are not keen enough to get out the way; hopefully you can find your way back on if that is the case. The general point is that even in the midst of such a structured environment—that of a rationally planned transportation system—etched into the fabric of another system (the city), informality finds a way; no system is total in the sense of functioning perfectly according to a plan.

While these issues of informality certainly bring culture into the technocratic system (I guess we can add the margin for human error that comes with human drivers in the mix as well), perhaps the biggest menace plaguing riders of Metrovia remains security, or to be more specific, insecurity. Petty crime runs rampant: pickpockets and stick-up kids are the norm, with people dressing accordingly, guarding their bags, or refusing to be out on the street during the hora boba (literally the stupid hour, but occurs throughout the day when the streets are generally vacant and crime rates shoot up). Would the criminal element be one of informality? We could say both yes and no, as it appears to be essential to the planning and functioning of both the city and Metrovia; armed guards are everywhere. Passengers, similarly, plan for crime in both their behavior, rhythms of riding, and in what they keep on their person. Metrovia buses are not places to bring luggage or grocery bags, beyond the limited space on these buses, these items would just scream “take me!” to wayward hands. While most of the crime is physically harmless, guns and knives do find their way into buses and, in those tightly packed recess, can be influential in getting people to run their jewelry, cell phones, and wallets. Getting off in the middle of a street also exposes people to random acts of criminality, depending on the time and place. As with informality, the criminal element is fused into the culture of riding the Metrovia. This is not to say that riding is unsafe, just that the system, which attracts a certain ridership also attracts criminals who feed off of them, which in response these riders have developed means of protecting themselves from certain types of criminals. As a general rule, crime is very normal in Ecuador and siege architecture is ubiquitous in the city, security bars cover windows and doors of most buildings, electric fences and broken shards of glass adorn the tops walls, and armed guards stand watch on many corners and in certain buildings, but this is an element of everyday culture in the developing cities of Latin America.

(BRT-0nly lane in Guayaquil City Center; Photo taken by author, 2013)

The Metrovia signifies many things for Guayaquil: It is a marker of modernization and development, a new means of traversing the city, a more general component of Latin American urbanization, an image of a city redeveloping itself to attract both foreign tourists and investment, and an alteration of how the city reproduces itself both in time and space. It fuses the various parts into a networked whole, even if the city itself is bigger than this, and its reach extends far beyond this specific system of transportation (Guayaquil’s urban fabric must at least include the various agricultural lands that surround the city, which continue to link the port with various markets for banana, cacao, coffee, and more). But this system of transport is one of the most visible ways in which the city is brought together as a whole, and represents a specific moment in which the world-system inscribes its logic into the city itself—for all cities react to global economic forces in specific ways, with Latin American cities tending to adapt to neoliberalization by developing cheaper transportation alternatives and developing tourism to attract foreign capital. The BRT system is not a Latin American invention, but it is one of the primary methods that cities and states in the global South, particularly Central and South America, have responded to the dictates of the “spaces of flows” so central to the current capitalist ensemble that shapes and is shaped by the world we live in. And yet these local cultures do not die out, nor do they remain distinctively local: hybridization, when we dissociate it from the specific problematic of postcolonial theory, appears to be the norm globalizing society (and we must recognize that not all of the planet’s societies are globalizing), even if we know that this is an unevenly developed phenomenon. We might even speculate that while capitalistic inventions and expansions feed off and necessitate this hybridization, that counterhegemonic social movements might similarly latch onto these energies as well (in Latin America see indigenous movements and the creation of the mestizo as a cultural category).

While technology may make the Earth flat, only a few can and do perceive it as such. Everyday material culture and tradition still weigh on the minds of the living like a warm, comforting blanket in which one can find a bit of respite from the hectic and vertiginous cycles of global capital and geopolitics. However, this is exactly the level at which capitalism benignly operates, the realm of ideology, as Henri Lefebvre puts it in The Survival of Capitalism (1976), in practice, in the reproduction of the relations of production. What remains is grasping how the level of everyday life and global capitalism coincide. What I have been proposing is that things like everyday mobility at least indicate how this is so (elsewhere in my other research projects, food is another prism through which we see this process). The basis of a sociological analysis of social change can either look at power through its specific articulation in the commanding heights and so on, or it can look at how power is articulated in everyday life; this is not Foucault contra Marx, but a dialectical materialist analysis of power as it is experienced, obscured, lived, and modified. By looking at everyday cultural artifacts (the city, transportation, food, and so on) I propose that we can better understand these articulations of power in order to change them…

This post originally appeared on the GMU Cities & Globalization Working Group blog on November 11, 2013.