By Francesca Sobande, University of Dundee
Black women in Britain and beyond are using digital content-sharing platforms in proactive ways, including to resist and remedy their stereotypical representation in mainstream mass-media. My PhD research involved interviewing 23 Black women in Britain (aged 19-47 years-old) about their media habits and everyday lives. The comments of three participants are incorporated into this post about identity, (in)equality and consumer culture (Henderson et al., 2016).
Most of my interview participants spoke of their disinterest in television, due to how Black women are under-represented and mis-represented on-screen (Bobo, 1995; Malik, 2002). In my quest to learn about the significance of Black women's portrayal in mass-media, interview participants directed my attention towards their online presence, persistence and productivity:
It’s really important that we carve out our own narratives and that we don’t shy away from creating spaces for ourselves.
Speaking to Black women revealed how they are turning to the internet to represent themselves, as well as to find content created by each other. The online connections that such women make can involve their participation in a digital diaspora (Everett, 2009), which relates to a form of online community between Black people around the world.
Social media and video-sharing sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are being used in ways that facilitate diverse depictions of Black women, as well as a sense of solidarity, which can transcend geographical boundaries:
We’re here and we exist here and we have been existing here! […] maybe some people will see it as something that is radical […] to continue in this space that doesn’t make a space for you […] I feel like recording and archiving our experiences [online] is very important, and probably helps us navigate who we are.
Amongst my interview participants’ narratives was an emphasis on their search for a connection to a global Black diaspora (Hall, 1990), and a collective experience of Black womanhood. Just as individuals may “incorporate the symbolic value of marketplace commodities into their racial identity projects” (Harrison et al., 2015, p.303), they may also do so when producing and viewing media imagery.
Online content, created by and for Black women, can offer them self-affirming and knowledge-sharing experiences, which relate to their intersecting (Crenshaw, 2015; Hill Collins and Bilge, 2016) racial, ethnic and gender identities:
Yeah, I use YouTube a lot actually. I watch a lot of hair tutorials, makeup tutorials, every tutorial [laughs] in terms of hair, it’s been a real lifesaver […] that’s where I basically learned to look after my hair […] I’ve found real comfort in a way, by meeting other Black and mixed-race women who are like me too.
Far from being trivial, social media can produce digital cultural artefacts. In addition to being a source of their entertainment, online images shared amongst Black women can be a means of cultural transmission, including in the form of detailed haircare advice which is absent in mainstream marketplace contexts. As Bosch (2011, p.30) observes, “old problems regarding representation still exist, but the rapid proliferation of new media, including online social networking and mobile phones, raises new areas of exploration”. My research highlights how Black women who feel (mis)represented in mainstream media and marketplace settings, may use online tools to “carve out our own narrative” and stimulate a sense of community.
Bobo, J., 1995. Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bosch, T., 2011. African Feminist Media Studies. Feminist Media Studies 11(1), 27–33.
Crenshaw, K., 2015. On Intersectionality: The Essential Writings of Kimberle Crenshaw. New York: New Press.
Everett, E., 2009. Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hall, S., 1990. Cultural identity and diaspora. In J. Rutherford (ed.) Identity: community, culture, difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 222–237.
Harrison, R. L., Thomas, K. D., & Cross, S. N. N., 2015. Negotiating cultural ambiguity: the role of markets and consumption in multiracial identity development. Consumption, Markets and Culture 18(4), 301–332.
Henderson, G. R., Hakstian, A. M., & Williams, J. D., 2016. Consumer equality: Race and the American marketplace (Racism in American institutions). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S., 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Malik, S., 2002. Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television. London: SAGE Publications.