Author: Dayna E Chatman

In Reply: My Reflections on Comments About Our Research on Black Twitter

This morning, I woke up to a number of tweets concerning the research on Black Twitter I’ve undertaken with a team of researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. For a run-down on the situation, please see The Root’s coverage. It’s been less than a day, and I am still processing and getting to the bottom of this situation, but I wanted to share my initial response.

Let me start out by clearing a few things up:

1. The project is lead by me, was devised by me, and contributes to my dissertation. There are others involved: my faculty sponsor, Professor Francois Bar, and two other doctoral students, Kevin Driscoll and Alex Leavitt, along with many other undergraduate and masters students who have participated in various ways. Like everyone else, I was surprised to see that my contributions to this project were minimized. This is no fault of my immediate team members. They have advocated my place as the originator of the idea for the research, and supported my position as the first author on all the work we have done. I have not been given a satisfying explanation for how this happened, but trust me, no one was more upset than I was.

2. I did not approve the description of the project that was on the Annenberg Innovation Lab website. It does not fully encapsulate the scale, methods, or full reasoning behind the project.

3. No one is making money. I receive a research assistantship from USC, which in turn receives funding to pay for these scholarships from various foundations, corporations, and other sponsors. But, I am a scholar, and my goal is to create anti-racist research that contributes to Black pedagogy and public life.

4. There are as yet no solidified “results” from this research. It is very much still in progress. This is not an easy topic to study, and I wanted to make every effort to avoid exploitation, inaccuracy, and misrepresentation of Black Twitter itself. I’d hoped to be able to take my time in publishing our findings. I have presented my work as part of a panel of other scholars at the International Communication Association conference earlier this year, and I am in the process of generating a manuscript for publication.

My research grew out of frustration. In academic scholarship the discussion around the representation of Black women in media often focuses on the pervasiveness of racist and sexist stereotypes. What is often left out of the conversation is how Black people actually consume, interpret, and deal with these representations. The way we make meaning from or interpret television is multilayered, complex, and sometimes contradictory.  For more on this, see my previous blog post.

One of the places that I observed and participated in public debate about media representations of Black women was on Twitter while watching the show “Scandal.” “Scandal” is the first network television show in nearly 40 years to feature a Black female lead, and it was created by a Black woman. On Thursday nights, when “Scandal” airs, Twitter gets real. Folks who are annoyed by the takeover of the site on Thursdays log off and express annoyance at having to do so. I say, their loss. Twitter functions as a public online forum for us to engage with people we know and don’t know. We often gain a sense of community from that engagement. We argue about Olivia’s love life, and embedded in those arguments is a larger debate about an important issue facing our community–how these representations inform others’ real-world perceptions of us.

In my dissertation research, I wanted to capture some of that experience. I wanted to build an archive of tweets myself, not rely on commercial data analytics companies to build it for me. I believe that this archive represents some of the ways we foster a sense of community, carve out a place to engage with other like-minded folk, advocate for change, and maybe most importantly, a way to build our sense of Black collective identity and politics. It may seem odd that live-tweeting about a television show can be about all of these things, but that really is what I see happening and it is a story that had not yet been told in existing scholarship.

Of course, Black Twitter is about a lot more than entertainment. We started with “Scandal,” but with my team I hoped to develop a methodology that could be used by myself or by other like-minded researchers to understand the full scope of Black Twitter and its capacity to benefit Black public life and articulate our perspectives on the society we live in. Black Twitter is a space for us to be heard, whether we’re discussing a television show,  the countless murders, harassment, and assault of Black men and women, or the everyday instances of racism and sexism that we experience, which go ignored and unacknowledged by others.  I want to write about it so that my students and future generations are able to read about it. I hope you all read it, too. And give me more critique.

I have been working to get to the bottom of how the misrepresentation of my work happened. I know that no one intentionally tried to do harm, but I am frustrated because this is indicative of the very same problems– erasure of Black people and their contributions– that my project is about. I am awe-struck (but not surprised) by the response from Black Twitter. People are angry, they are hilarious, they give a damn. Even though some are not tweeting in support of me, I count anyone who cares about Black voices and how they are represented as fighting the same battle I am. This has been a very difficult day for me, but it is one that I will continue to think about for the rest of my personal and professional life, one that has offered a story I hope to tell my future students. At the very least, I think I learned more about Black Twitter than I ever could have otherwise. So for that, I am thankful.

 

 

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Respectability Politics and the Academy

So eloquently stated. I wholeheartedly agree with these remarks.

king RJD

In the aftermath of the “Ratchet PhD” post, I realize how many black PhDs are concerned with respectability politics. This term, which has been used by bloggers in recent years, was originally defined by historian Evelyn Higginbotham. According to her, 19th century black Christian women promoted “temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” as a project of racial uplift and full inclusion into American society. 

However, in the 21st century, after we have at least theoretically gained equality, black folks are still concerned with being thought of as respectable, especially by other middle and upper class citizens. We prove we are good middle class citizens by policing others who have values which seem to be radically different from our own. It is easy, for example, to glance at websites such as http://www.hotghettomess.com, or ‘ratchet’ tumblr accounts to see pictures of half-naked people shopping at Wal-Mart…

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Researchers, Let’s Talk About More Than Stereotypes

My journey as a researcher has only recently begun. I make this statement while acknowledging that I have been a “researcher” since my senior year at Saint Mary’s College of California, when I was tasked with writing a senior thesis. However, I make this statement because, post-qualifying exams, I have become aware of my own perspectives in relation to prior scholarship that has been conducted in my field of study, and I have started to voice critical concerns. When you are a graduate “student” your goals are to acquire and make use of existing/established knowledge. What that has meant for me as a black feminist media scholar who studies representations of race and gender in popular culture is that I analyze and critique images within a framework that has traditionally been concerned with highlighting existing stereotypes, tropes, or archetypes. When I look back on some of my early work at USC Annenberg, this is what I did. At the time, I felt like the tools I was using to examine mediated representations of black women were a reflection of my own perspectives. Yes, True Blood‘s Tara is another iteration of Sapphire! Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Bailey is just another Modern Mammy! It is true, even when we as black women are visible it is only to reinforce and sustain these historical tropes!

I by no means want to be dismissive of this type of approach, especially because I continue to find it important and I admire many of the black women whose work inspired subsequent research in the area of black women’s media representation. However, by the time I began drafting my dissertation prospectus and preparing for exams last Spring, I had become increasingly frustrated by the limited scope of the literature I was finding about black women and television. Almost every piece of literature drew from the same theoretical orientation and analyzed and categorized images of black women in reference to “the angry black woman,” “Jezebel,” “Mammy,” etc. As someone who has written about the ways in which contemporary representations can fall into a pattern that reinforce racist and sexist assumptions about black women, I completely understood the desire to highlight the ubiquity of such tropes. However, I couldn’t help but feel like these analyses were missing something. What I ultimately decided–and what was eventually made clear through extensive research*–is that what is and has been missing is a way of looking at current depictions of black women that accounts for black women viewers’ negotiations of these representations.

As a media consumer, and as a researcher, I experience the representations I encounter in conflicting ways. I view them, interpret them, in conflicting ways. I am often able to see the “negative” stereotype, and that something else that defies categorization as such. I experience pleasure and revulsion, sometimes simultaneously. It is difficult to put into words, the multiplicity of the emotions and responses I have to what I consume. I do think my personal experiences are representative of the ways in which some black women viewers experience television, film, and other forms of visual expression. I just think that we, as researchers, need to get at that experience of viewing/consuming that I can’t quite make sense of and put into words. There may be something important there worth seeing, acknowledging, and making known.

I hope that the research I am embarking on will provide greater insight; insight that will expand our understanding of black women’s experiences both making and consuming contemporary visual representations.

*In my review of existing literature I was particularly struck by the dearth of black audience research. Robin Means Coleman’s African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor (2001), and her anthology Say it Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity (2002), are just two of the in-depth texts that focus specifically on black audiences. There is a similar absence in scholarship that address quesstions of production or creative development of black television programs. For some exceptions, see: Herman Gray’s (1995)Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness; Kristal Brent Zook (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution of Black Televsion; and Gregory Adam (2010) African Americans and Television: Behind the Scenes. 

Television and Film Narratives About the “Black Girl Curse”

A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to begin watching BET’s first original scripted drama, Being Mary Jane.* When I learned about the premise of the show some months ago, I was excited because the synopsis of  the series mirrored narratives I had been exploring in recent black women-centered/led films; narratives about successful, single, 30-something, career-driven black women who struggle not only to find an acceptable work/life balance, but also equally accomplished husbands. Though this particular narrative has circulated within entertainment media since the late 1990s and early 2000s, white women have often been the central protagonists as represented by Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Sex in the City, to name a few examples. 

When I began to take an in-depth look at recent black women-centered/led films like Something New (2006), 35 & Ticking (2011), Think Like a Man (2012), and Baggage Claim (2013), I found that they each shared a thematic premise: professional, single, middle-class black women are experiencing both reproductive and marriage anxiety. As a 30-something, single, educated, aspiring middle-class black woman myself, and as someone whose friends share a similar background, I can relate to these narratives and attest that yes, the anxiety is REAL. However, with that said, I do question both the source–whether external, internal, or both–of this anxiety and the investment of the media industry in bolstering this apprehension through framing it as a “crisis.” With respect to this latter point, I am specifically referencing how, a few years ago, several broadcast news specials aired, articles were published, and self-help books were promoted, all in an effort to bring to public awareness a “crisis” described succinctly by one black woman as “the Black Girl Curse.”

I question why women that are viewed as “successful” (measured frequently by level of education, profession, and wealth) are positioned as deficient and in need of “fixing.” (On a personal level–and I know I speak for a few of my black female friends–we are more that tired of being asked by family and “attached” friends the question of “when” we are going to find someone and get married.)  I also find it infuriating that the narrative solution is often that black women must do away with their ambition if they ever hope to achieve true happiness through finding a husband and having children. Thus, although the narratives of Being Mary Jane and these other films resonate with me on a personal level, I think it necessary for many of us black women to contemplate why we are experiencing this anxiety in the first place.

*In future posts, I will say more about my general take on the series, but for now I can say I generally enjoy the show as a viewer, and as a scholar, I am very intrigued by the varied viewer responses to the show’s depictions of black womanhood.

Note: I will be giving a presentation in March at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Seattle, WA) that will explore both Think Like a Man and 35 & Ticking.