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Ask the Oracle

Digital Black Feminism with Dr. Catherine Knight Steele

By Alisa Hardy

In this interview, Professor Catherine Steele answers a few questions from Alisa Hardy, one of the graduate student representatives for ORWAC. Dr. Steele is an Assistant Professor in the Communication department at the University of Maryland. Her research examines race, gender, and media with a specific focus on how traditional African American culture and discourses function in digital media. Dr. Steele was the Founding Director of the Andrew W. Mellon funded African American Digital Humanities Initiative. She has conducted research on the Black blogsphere, digital Black feminism, and digital discourses of resistance and joy. Her work has been published in the journals, Television & New Media, Feminist Media Studies, Information, Communication & Society, and more recently Women’s Studies in Communication.

Dr. Catherine Steele

  1. Your book Digital Black Feminism was recently published in 2021 and puts Black women at the forefront of our discussions about technology. What was the most important thing to you in your experience of writing this book?

This book helped solidify for me the value of slow work. As academics, we are encouraged to move through our research quickly to maximize our output. This book’s subject matter compelled me to move slowly and retrain myself in the writing process. If I had written more quickly, I would have focused almost exclusively on a presentist study of Black women’s social media activities. However, my favorite thing about writing Digital Black Feminism, and the most challenging thing, was the time I spent sifting through the archives of Black women writers. It was the slow process of just getting lost in their worlds that was most valuable. I try to apply a similar methodological approach to my online research. The Black feminist bloggers I write about-- I spent years reading and interacting on their social media pages– years just getting lost in their words until I developed a context for what they said. I do not claim to know all these individuals personally, but I know their writing intimately. That kind of intimacy and commitment to the slow work helps me regard the folks I write about, namely Black women, as whole human beings rather than data points or their work merely as a text to be mined for information. I believe it is Black feminist praxis in action to bring that kind of care to the communities I write about and for. 

  1.   In what ways do you see digital Black feminism being a part of interdisciplinary work in other social sciences or even outside of social science and into hard sciences or applied contexts?

We are living in a time where we are so fortunate to see the work of scholars like Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Alondra Nelson taken up in algorithmic studies, medicine, computer science by researchers, educators, and policy experts. Black women and Black feminism are rightly being regarded as central to imagining and putting into practice a more equitable digital future. I’m excited to be in such company. In Digital Black Feminism, I use approaches and literature from both the humanities and social sciences to trace the long history of Black women’s relationships with technology. I put forward ample evidence that focusing on Black feminist praxis and theory is among the most productive ways of understanding the capacities and constraints of technology. We look back because it is vital to correct the record about Black women’s technological expertise. When we shift our frameworks to position Black women at the center rather than the margin, the kinds of questions we can ask in any field shift. We also expand the possibilities of a more ethical digital praxis in our research when we focus on ideas like intersectionality, standpoint, and privileging the knowledge of the everyday. 

  1. If you could give any advice to younger scholars who study Black feminist scholarship in the field what would it be?

Expose yourself to a wide array of writing and research from across disciplines and through the writing of public scholars. When you do this, you do not need to re-invent the wheel in your work. You can find places where writers have already contended with the ideas and materials that concern you, and now you get to ask questions to push the work forward. There are moments to critique and challenge, but there are also many moments, perhaps far more, to see your work as part of a rich legacy and to situate yourself in that conversation. The other point of advice I would give is to find mentors in other Black feminist researchers and writers. These do not have to be people that you see each day. In fact, they may be people that you never meet offline. But I have found profound support from Black feminist foremothers and delight in the ability to pay in forward in mentoring younger scholars studying Black feminist thought now. Black feminist writing is a collective project to which we all contribute. My final point of advice would be to just keep writing. As bell hooks reminded us “No black woman [or non-binary] writer in this culture can write ‘too much’.”  

  1. Research on African American discourses online have primarily focused on oppression and resistance. While your research does deal with these concepts, you included optimism, joy, and pleasure into your scholarship. My question is can you discuss why it is important for scholars to study other aspects of Black life beyond pain and suffering.  

Studying Black life beyond pain and suffering is vital because our lives are more than pain and suffering. If we intend to truly see Black folks as whole human beings, we must contend with the wholeness of Black reality. Joy, pleasure, and optimism are not reserved for other groups nor Black folks living only in certain circumstances. All human beings seek pleasure, experience joy and have a right to optimism. So if we are to understand the fullness of Black life, then our research must encounter Black folks in the midst of their joy. We have to reframe old arguments about production and labor to make space for pleasure. We must consider how Black folks have crafted spaces to love, laugh, and find hope even amid pain, discrimination, hatred, and violence. I think hope and joy are some of the most profound and essential elements to studying social movements, activism, and social justice work. The creativity and perseverance of Black joy is the space I choose to situate my work.


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