NITLE Race & the Digital Humanities Intro

So I am saying to you: If you want women and people of color in your community, if it is important to you to have a diverse discipline, you need to do something besides exhort us to code. [Miriam Posner]

Allison Koh and Invisible Australia via online seminar.

Allison Koh and Invisible Australia via online seminar.

Last week’s session was with Adeline Koh, a Visiting Faculty Fellow at Duke University. One of the projects she shared was Trading Races, a role playing game (RPG) used to teach race consciousness in the undergraduate classroom. Her focus was on modalities of oppression in race and ethnicity, in digital humanities.


What is the role of race in the digital humanities? While prominent scholars such as Alondra Nelson and Lisa Nakamura have problematized the role of race in technology from the late 1990s, the relevance of race studies is only recently starting to be broached within the digital humanities: for example, by Alan Liu, Tara McPherson, Amy Earhart, Natalia Cecire, and the #TransformDH collective. This seminar will give a brief survey of the emerging field of race and the digital humanities, introduce the audience to a variety of digital projects informed by race, and provide links to resources for people interested in working in this field. Topics covered will include: the genealogy of these debates, the theoretical assumptions that inform them, and issues to consider while constructing a race and digital humanities project.

Trading Races game concept map

Trading Races game concept map

During the session I brought up the false perception that underrepresented minorities are only consumers of digital (media) technology. Koh presented Technicolor, a book by Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu (2001) that incorporates a broader definition of technology and technological practices, to include not only those technologies thought to create “revolutions” (computer hardware and software) but also cars, mobile phones, and other everyday technologies. Koh also quoted Moya Bailey who wrote,

“There is still a need to challenge the ‘add and stir’ model of diversity, a practice of sprinkling in more women, people of color, disabled folks and assuming that is enough to change current paradigms.  This identity based mixing does little to address the structural parameters that are set up when a homogenous group has been at the center and don’t automatically engender understanding across forms of difference.”

Koh outlines central issues regarding race and the digital humanities including:

  • Representation of people of color and “recovery” or how people of color and their cultural productions are represented on the Internet (i.e, the recovery and presentation of lost or forgotten projects)
  • How assumptions regarding race, class, gender, etc. are reproduced is computing code/systems/games (i.e., how certain assumptions are replicated in these platforms); this is addressed in Trevor Owen’s blog and Tara McPherson’s articles
  • Activism and access (i.e., participation divide or gap re: production); this is addressed in Miriam Posner’s blog post

I really liked reading Posner’s post because it got me thinking about my own proposed research that looks at techno-vernacular creativity in underrepresented minority communities (of practice).

But there are all these online communities where you can learn to code. There are! But if you are under the impression that online communities are any friendlier to women’s participation, then you, my friend, have not looked lately at Wikipedia.

The same could be said for African (Black), Latino and Chicano American or Indigenous groups who are even more overlooked in academia. In my dissertation proposal I use my own experiences as a Black female learning computer graphics in high school for the first time. There is also this trajectory in my own path between shifting from art to computers, later virtual worlds, games, and DIY technologies.

Second, the “culture of code,” the inside jokes and joshing that you enjoy, may not be equally appealing to everyone who encounters it. This should be, but apparently isn’t, obvious. [M. Posner]

I learned this, too, when enrolling in a DIY-type of class last spring. I was included but somehow felt like an outsider the entire time and I couldn’t figure out why… until now!

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