Understanding Blackness Online: Race and Cyberculture

André Brock, Jr., aims to expand the study of Black digital practices beyond the simplistic oppression-resistance dialectic.

By Kamille Gentles Peart

Distributed Blackness: African American Cyber Cultures, by  André L. Brock, Jr. New York University, 2020. 288p, 9781479820375, $89.00, 9781479829965 pbk, 29.00; 9781479811908 ebook, contact publisher for price

Book cover of "Distributed Blackness," featuring an illustration of an African American individual reading a tablet.

Distributed Blackness explores the cybercultures of Black people in the United States. André Brock Jr. (Black digital studies, Georgia Institute of Technology) is not concerned with how cultural artifacts of Black people are displayed and accessed through online platforms. Instead, he focuses on the technocultural formulations of Black folks, interrogating the ways in which digital technology is mobilized and implicated in Blackness as a cultural practice and in Black cultural performances. Through examinations of web browsers and social media platforms, specifically Twitter, Brock illustrates the role of Black digital practices in maintaining, amplifying, and expanding Black communities and their “signifyin’” practices, highlighting Black folks’ nuanced engagement with digital platforms and rejecting the pathologizing of Black internet users in extant scholarship. 

Throughout the text, Brock revisits his previous works, putting past conclusions and analysis in conversation with contemporary theorizing around Blackness and Black digital practices. In doing so, he illustrates his own thought evolution as a scholar and the necessary fluidity of thinking about Black digital culture and practices. Far from simply rehashing previous research, the text proffers several primary points that deepen, complicate, and elevate current ways of thinking about and studying Black digital users. Admittedly, most of the ideas the author emphasizes have already circulated in various fields. However, they are nascent, marginalized, or largely absent in new media studies. One point is Brock’s framing of the internet as an inherently racialized, specifically white space. He challenges the prevailing notion of the internet as a neutral, democratic, libertarian space, a colorblind entity that allows people to find their own paths without the barriers of race and racism. Instead, Brock argues, whiteness is the defining and organizing feature of online spaces—white, middle-class people are the assumed audience and supposedly appropriate users, the internet privileges the content of white communities, there is a monoculture of whiteness in information technology fields, and anti-Blackness proliferates in online platforms such as Twitter. By marking the internet as implicitly and explicitly oriented toward whiteness, Brock frames it as a structuring form of power—echoing the work of critical media ecologists who argue that technologies cannot be understood outside of race, class, gender, and sexuality—and forces current and future scholars of digital practices to confront the racism embedded in the very artifacts, technologies, and discourses that surround digital platforms.

Black digital practices are “reflective and responsive to concerns of Black everyday life” even as their content is continually mediated through a racist framework.

p. 77

Brock also engages with digital manifestations of the notion of double consciousness throughout the text. Mapping W. E. B. Dubois’s canonical concept to digital practices, he argues that, similar to Black folks’ offline existence in the United States, Black digital practices are characterized by moving between Black communal contexts and white supremacist spaces, participating in “parallel yet discontinuous discourses” (p. 99). Black digital practices are “reflective and responsive to concerns of Black everyday life” even as their content is continually mediated through a racist framework (p. 77). This dualism simultaneously fosters Black folks’ hyperawareness of public perceptions of Blackness and their engagement in digital practices that affirm their self-worth and personhood. In addition, Black folks’ online activities are visible to intended audiences as well as out-group members who are always present as signifiers, due in large part to networked online identity. In this way, Brock debunks another side of the claim on new media studies that the internet is supposedly color-blind: Black communities are aware of the Black and white interlocutors that their messages may reach and cognizant of whiteness as a technical identity and how it is always present in online activities.

Another important point articulated throughout the text is the need to understand Black digital practices outside the binary of domination and resistance. Brock argues that the existing tendency of various disciplines to analyze Blackness and Black cultural performances through the singular lens of the oppression-resistance dialectic is reductive, locks Black existence in a perpetual state of struggle and suffering, and obscures the many other ways that Blackness can take form in white supremacist spaces. As a counter to this normative white, Western lens, Brock locates Black folks’ digital practices in discourses of Black pathos, highlighting the desire, enjoyment of use, pleasure-seeking, and playfulness that characterize the activities of Black users online. Brock refers to this framework as the “epistemological standpoint … of a libidinal economy of Black technoculture” (p. 36). Though this statement is admittedly obtuse, as are many areas of the text that require multiple readings to grasp the meaning, it highlights Brock’s overarching aim to center the “libidinal energies” of Black folks in his analysis and to explore the community building, humor, catharsis, pleasure, pain, joy, and “ratchetry” of the everyday lives of Black folks. In this way, Brock states that “we can understand Blackness as a discourse in conversation with, but not wholly subjected to, whiteness as epistemology” (p. 37). Brock’s Black pathos is reminiscent of the interjections of many Black feminists, such as Audre Lorde’s erotic, which challenge readers to rethink how they conceive of Blackness and Black experiences within American, white supremacist society.  

Of course, Brock does not, and cannot, cover the full story of Black digital practices, which leaves room for other scholars to fill in the gaps with more intersectional explorations, such as amplifying Black women’s, girls’, and femmes’ distinct digital cultures and anti-misogynoir online practices. Overall, then, Brock’s text is one corrective to Western pathologizing and to the misconception of Black subjectivity and agency in online spaces.

Summing Up: Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences

Kamille Gentles-Peart is professor of communication studies at Roger Williams University. Having written and edited several books, including Romance with Voluptuousness (2016), her areas of expertise include Black feminisms, critical race studies, critical communication studies, Caribbean postcolonial studies, and beauty politics.