Thursday, April 23, 1998
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
of this event is to foreground the various ways that digital
media are shaping our conceptions of and experience of race
in America. The program is designed to be far-reaching, touching
on such topics as:
- the digital
representation of racial difference
- the role
of the internet and the web in building and maintaining
- the challenge
of providing greater access to digital media for
- the role
of hate groups and community activism online
assumption of this event is that issues of race need to be understood
within a multi-racial and multi-cultural context. The event
is intended to raise awareness in the MIT community about the
relevance of race to our understanding of all of the issues
posed by digital media.
Brenda L. Cotto-Escalera is a
Puertorriquena theatre artist who has worked extensively as
director, writer, dramaturg, and sometimes performer. Her work
focuses on the development of new performance through collective
creation and actor-centered research and improvisation. She
also works with Popular Theater techniques in a variety of grass-roots
community organizations. Her latest works include Motherlands
(the exploration of a young Latina's coming of age while reconciling
with her culture, her family, and her lesbian idenity), produced
by Boston's Theater Offensive, and Pajareo Boricua (an
allegory of Puerto Rican society done with bird puppets). Brenda
is currently teaching at MIt, where she has developed courses
on Contemporary Latin American Theater, Theater and Cultural
Diversity in the U.S.A., and Gender Performance. She also teaches
introductory courses on theater arts and studio courses on collective
creation and actor-created theater.
Glenn Kaino served as the board
president of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies,
where he developed a program to teach inner city children media
literacy and the effective use of the internet. This program
has now spun off into its own non-profit called On The Line,
and is in the process of launching its pilot project, Waking
Tara McPherson is an Assistant
Professor of Critical Studies in the Film School at the University
of Southern California. She is the co-editor of Hop on Pop:
The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (forthcoming,
Duke University) and is currently revising Reconstructing
Dixie: Race, Place and Femininity in the Deep South, also
for publication by Duke University Press.
Erika Muhammad is a doctoral
candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU, an instructor
in the Graduate Communications Department at the New School
for Social Research, and is a member of the Curatorial Department
at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Muhammad writes for numerous
publications including The Independent, Afterimage, and Ms.
Magazine. Her work on new media by artists of color will be
published in the forthcoming volume Strategies of Representation:
African American Documentary Film and Video, edited by Janet
Cutler and Phyllis Klotman.
Brenda Cotto-Escalera opened by explaining "we are here
to explore the various ways that digital media are shaping our
conceptions and experience of race in America." The forum was
also expected to delineate some parameters for the conversation
to take place at a conference on race and cyberspace in the
next academic year.
pointed out that there have been disturbing disparities in usage
of the Internet by people of different races, as clearly outlined
in the recent article, Bridging
the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and
Internet Use, by Thomas P. Novak and Donna L. Hoffman
(excerpted from the 4/17/98 issue of Science).
the speakers contributed a unique perspective on addressing
these issues that challenged popular views of cyberspace.
Kaino highlighted the inaccuracy of popular discourse which
has proclaimed the erasure of race in cyberspace, pointing out
that knowledge about ethnicity on the Internet leads most user's
to perceive a default race and gender of white male, regardless
of their own identity. Users of different racial and ethnic
backgrounds face the unacceptable dilemma of either overtly
establishing their race, ethnicity and gender or accepting an
inaccurate default identity of a "6 foot tall white male." Kaino
then demonstrated Favela--
an Internet site named after Brazilian shanty towns created
by poor communities for survival -- which attempted to shift
the balance of perceived identities on theInternet by infusing
the predominantly white male popular culture with the art of
women and people of color.
cautioned that such activities would not be enough to help people
of different races and cultures to find spaces and voices on
the Internet. He predicted that the overall situation would
only change if people of different races, ethnic backgrounds
and genders moved beyond issues of access and representation
towards actively engaging in creation and expression about personally
meaningful topics. This was the goal of the WWW site "Waking
Hours," which was the pilot project of the non-profit organization
On The Line. He demonstrated how the site was designed to engage
children in on-line critical discussions about class, race,
ethnicity and gender through creative juxtaposition.
McPherson began by declaring that "white is not just the
default race of the Internet, it is actively constructed!" Furthermore,
the way that whiteness is constructed can be understood by examining
major neo-confederate websites (e.g. DixieNet, The Confederate
Network, The Heritage Preservation Association and The Dixieland
portray white men's attempts to make self in the world and articulate
a particular presence. They do this by finding new ways of securing
and privileging the meaning of whiteness without engaging in
overtly racist discourse or using images of blackness to delineate
the contours of whiteness. Instead, they use techniques such
as referring nostalgically to southern manners, which historically
functioned to help one to know ones place, especially ones racial
place. They also appropriate nationalists and civil rights struggles
as an attempt to give whiteness both a voice and a content.
Dixie" is a technologically mediated public sphere fashioned
by white men to sustain their desire for origin and homeplace.
Their emphasis is on unity rather than multiplicity, and the
sites represent a serious battle over place, race and identify
rather than play. Given this, it might be important to wonder
what might be gained from shifting theories of cyberspace away
from the currently fashionable tropes of play, multiplicity
and theater towards explorations of citizenship, politics, justice
also added a cautionary comment about lending too much credence
to utopian rhetoric about the potential of the Internet for
questions of access and education. She pointed out that the
rhetoric about the introduction of cable was similar, but did
result in the widely democratic space that was expected.
Hopper asked Muhammad to compare her experiences as an African
American female to those of Kaino, a forth generation Japanese
American male. Muhammad began by saying that she felt Kaino's
experiences reflected much of her own as well. However, she
expressed concern over the particular problem of sustaining
authentic representation of black women in sufficient numbers
to make an impact in the face of inappropriate commodification
and co-opting of black culture on the Internet.
Scottrecommended to the audience that they visit the website
for the Million Women March. She then described a radio station
in Long Beach, CA that used the slogan "Erase Color Lines."
She felt that celebrating the abandonment of racial and ethnic
identity was offensive, and wanted to know the panels thoughts
about the role of the media in erasing rather than celebrating
responded "the faith in colorlessness is one of the great racist
conspiracies of the late twentieth century, and a vision of
a raceless future is a racist future."
also responded by further contributing to Scott's point with
his own personal knowledge about the particular radio station's
employment policies. The station had a primarily African American
audience, but only two DJs of color, and didn't admit it. Kaino
said that he didn't feel comfortable with their practices, despite
the fact that the station did make positive contributions to
communities of color in the L.A. area.David Thorburn
pointed out that the discussion dramafied that the ease with
which the media permit disguise and counterfeit is a double-edged
sword. On the one hand, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out, its
a very exciting and creative avenue where participants can shed
aspects of identity. But, on the other hand, it can permit very
Thorburn went on to suggest that it was essential to consider
what skills were absolutely critical for taking control of the
new technologies. "The Internet is still a textual medium, and
so reading skill is a primary barrier to access. You have to
be a good reader, you have to be confident verbally, and you
can't be intimidated by a page of type. We mislead ourselves
if we talk about the need for access, instead of the skills
that we know are a function of economic and racial inequality.
It is important to not think of the problems of the Internet
as new or special just because it is a new technology, rather
than considering them as a function of deterioration of schools,
indifference to education and other things that were problems
before there was an Internet."
responded to Thorburn's comment by sharing that she considered
it critical to get people equipped to speak to the people in
their communities -- both locally and globally. She agreed that
access to technology might not be as critical, relative to preparing
users to be able to determine what to say, how to say it, and
how to get it to particular audiences effectively. She concluded
her response by agreeing that discourse often started out on
the wrong foot in many respects.
with the final note that these issues were the reason why it
would be critical to teach young people to control the media.
He also added that the biggest way to empower people would be
by teaching them how to teach themselves.