The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
–Combahee River Collective, 1986
When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined.
–Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, 2014
Neoliberal narratives of digital technologies and the internet have flourished in information and internet studies and suggest that the web is a panacea of social liberation and empowerment. These ideas have been refuted with much evidence by critical theorists in the field, yet work remains to be done in shifting the complex, global patterns of capital that build the material infrastructures of the information and communications revolution at the expense of Black life diasporically.
Meanwhile, in other academic and political arenas, the struggle to recognize multiple, interlocking systems of oppression has been ongoing for roughly 40 years. Brittney Cooper has already offered a detailed analysis of intersectional theory, tracing the emergence of the term “intersectionality” and its problematics and possibilities. Yet the term remains highly pertinent to the field of information and communication studies, which has not sufficiently responded to nor benefitted from intersectional lenses such as Black queer feminist intervention. Indeed, systems of interlocking oppression have rarely been a framework of analysis in the field of internet studies, overlooked in favor of dominant and frequently technologically deterministic perspectives that ignore interlocking, structural, and globalized sites of oppression.
What is potent about Black feminism is its focus on the liberation of Black women globally, intentionally linking Black women in the West with Black women in the Third World, and making interdependent experiences shaped by race, gender, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism a driving imperative for liberation movements to end oppression. This through line–from the pan-Africanist movement of the early twentieth century, to the Combahee River Collective–powerfully resurfaced in the 2014 statement by the three Black and queer women who founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is this lens that I wish to invoke in theorizing whether a liberatory, intersectional internet is even plausible, when contextualized in a Black feminist tradition.
In doing so, I explore the ways that the internet and its infrastructure are central to the myriad oppressive conditions facing Black life in the US and in the African diaspora. The goal of theorizing a liberatory, intersectional internet is to heighten awareness of how the global communications infrastructure is not just a site of communications affordance, nor is it made equally and equitably available to all people. On the contrary, it is implicated in a number of environmental and oppressive conditions for Black life. By making these connections more visible, my hope is to shift discourses away from simple arguments about the liberatory possibilities of the internet toward more critical engagements with how the internet is a site of power and control over Black life–a perspective relevant to scholars working in Black Studies, gender studies, and information studies.
Intersectionality was developed by many feminist, antiracist scholars and activists of color as a framework for deepening an analysis of power and oppression across multiple axes. Intersectionality, however, has been woefully under-engaged as a way of thinking about the political economy of the internet and has, in fact, been separated from its Black feminist roots. To echo the critiques that Black women have levied at feminist movements over time, the pervasive under-commitment to the concerns of Black women as we intersect with, and are intersected by, technologies exemplifies a broader unwillingness among those promulgating mainstream discourses to engage with notions of racism, class, and sexuality in the fields of computer science, digital media studies, information, and technology studies.
We need more interdisciplinary research and theorizing about how a range of digital technologies are embedded with intersectional and uneven power relations, from the ways in which technologies are structured, through the range of engagements that happen on the web, to the materiality of digital communications infrastructures that include the role of the state and capital in the extraction, manufacture, and disposal of the digital.