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Bringing Racism to Matter

Jaclyn Hilberg


Considering Gries's methodology alongside Pimentel's manifesto, Hilberg explores the potential of digital environments to offer new and productive means of materializing the past and exposing systemic racism in the present.

Bringing Racism to Matter

In their introduction to this collection, Rick Wysocki and Mary P. Sheridan underscore the double-meaning of the term "matters" that links the chapters compiled here: the collected texts ask us to consider how, theoretically and methodologically, we materialize our work and with what consequences. These matters seem particularly urgent in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, an exigence examined by both Laurie Gries and Octavio Pimentel in their investigations of the surge in racial hostility that has accompanied Donald Trump's rise to the presidency. Gries's iconographic tracking of the swastika symbol illustrates a promising method for digitally materializing this phenomenon, while Pimentel's manifesto calls for the necessity of constantly and explicitly attending to systemic racism in our scholarly and pedagogical work. Read together, these pieces invite us to (re)consider the affordances of digital environments for materializing our understandings of the racial/racist landscape in which we live and work—deliberately bringing racism to matter in both senses of the term.

Pimentel's manifesto highlights the ongoing need to make institutional racism visible—to explicitly bring systemic racism to matter—in our scholarship and pedagogy. While the reality of systemic racism may inspire little controversy among scholars, Pimentel reminds us that our work needs to actively counter such racism because it operates more subtly than, for example, the overt acts of racial hostility tracked by Gries. Embedded within the institutions of daily life, racism can become normalized or appear overwhelmingly intractable, too often enabling us to pay lip service to anti-racism without engaging in the hard and constant work of developing and refining anti-racist theories, methodologies, and pedagogies.

Gries's work provides one example of what such an anti-racist methodology might entail. Blending qualitative and quantitative methods, her swastika monitoring project illustrates the promise of digital environments for materializing compelling representations of racist violence. Her project also works to disrupt complacent notions of racism as a primarily Southern and/or rural phenomenon, illustrating that major cities across the United States, and especially in the Northeast, have been recent hotbeds of swastika activity. Gries's iconographic tracking and mapping methods thus suggest one way in which digital environments afford opportunities to disrupt common though misguided narratives about the nature of racism in the United States. Reading Gries alongside Pimentel therefore pushes us to consider how this work can be extended beyond the realm of the overt racism involved in swastika activity to effectively materialize the impacts of systemic racism in digital environments.

Gries's methodology could be applied fairly directly to Pimentel's subject matter to create, for example, a compelling digital representation of racist policing practices. A "Police Brutality Monitor" that tracks and maps instances of police officers shooting unarmed individuals, categorized and coded by race, would reveal significant disparities between police violence against whites and people of color. The rhetorical work of such a project, however, would involve tracing and representing the circulation of and responses to those acts of violence—in other words, how these instances of violence become broadly consequential beyond their very serious consequences for the individuals, their families, and the communities directly involved. Using digital mapping tools to represent not only the prevalence of police violence against people of color but also the uptake of such events—possibly by allowing users to click on the mapped instances of violence to view videos, read news headlines, access Twitter feeds, etc.—could help to materialize the racism motivating the shootings themselves and, in many cases, the public response to these shootings.

Pimentel's manifesto also suggests that a central tenet of reworking our representations of systemic racism entails rethinking how we engage with constructions of the history of the United States. The United States as a "democratic experiment" was premised on a paradox that has had enduring material consequences; the framers of the founding documents of the United States invoked Enlightenment ideals concerning equality and inalienable rights while owning, enslaving, and seizing the property of people of color. Rather than calling attention to these incongruities, as Pimentel notes, school curricula whitewash and obscure them, treating myths such as that of Manifest Destiny as natural and positive features of our past. As a partial corrective, Pimentel exhorts us to at minimum acknowledge that our heritage includes people of color. Obviously, excluding the voices of people of color from dominant versions of United States history is a symptom of systemic racism that further promotes racist understandings of our history and culture. Not treating light-complected people of European descent as the default for what it means to be American can help us to engage understandings of history from an adjusted perspective, one that takes the experiences of people of color into account more appropriately.

Utilizing digital environments to engage with constructions of history could help to mitigate the problems described above by bringing multiple perspectives into the foreground of our historical narratives. Beyond bringing the experiences of people of color to the foreground of our historical narratives, a project that a significant body of traditional, print-based historiography has undertaken with much success, digital historiography can help us transcend the limitations of linear narratives that have unfortunately tended to treat the experiences of white Americans as normative. Traditional textual representations of history struggle to represent the simultaneity with which historical events and human experiences unfold. The affordances and limitations of genres such as print-based academic monographs and articles make it nearly impossible to materialize the multiple, overlapping threads of what we call history in a manner that does justice to their complex inter- and intra-actions. The strictures of print-based media thus favor linear historiography, despite its lack of fidelity to the ways in which we actually experience the passing of time. While not inherently racist, linear constructions of history can be conducive to masking the experiences of people of color due to their need to attend to only one (usually dominant) perspective at a time. Digital environments, on the other hand, can more meaningfully represent simultaneity by enabling users to track multiple narratives at once instead of relegating certain narratives to the margins while positing another narrative as central at any given moment (as traditional print-based historiography, even at its anti-racist best, cannot help but do); see, for example, Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica, an interactive website by historian Richard Dunn that documents the lives of two slave families across multiple generations. Moreover, digital historiography can productively materialize the sedimentation of institutional racism and the ongoing structural disadvantages faced by people of color as a result of past discrimination even after explicitly racist public policy has been overturned; for example, Redlining Louisville: A History of Race, Class, and Real Estate is a digital storymap by urban planner Joshua Poe that illustrates the lasting impact of de jure residential segregation during the New Deal. Put simply, digital environments provide possibilities for representing the passage of time that print-based genres—even when approached with considerable innovation and ingenuity—do not readily provide.

To more fully flesh out the anti-racist potential of utilizing digital environments to bring racism and its histories to matter, I follow Gries and Pimentel in turning to the 2016 presidential election as a watershed moment with tremendous consequences for how we perceive the margins and center of American society. Donald Trump's election, of course, resulted from a complex amalgamation of circumstances, including perceived economic stagnation among working class whites; the candidate's celebrity status; the historic unpopularity of and the widespread misogyny directed at his opponent; voter suppression targeted at minority, overwhelmingly Democratic voters; and Russian government interference, possibly with the cooperation of the Trump campaign. Yet it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Trump's appeals to a nationalistic, white identity politics in winning him the presidency. Trump's electoral victory despite his explicitly racist statements both before and during the campaign shocked many white Americans who, in the wake of the Obama presidency, believed white racism to have become a marginal phenomenon instead of a mainstay of American political culture. This sense of shock, considered in light of the readings of Gries and Pimentel offered here, stems from two related misunderstandings that materializing racism in digital environments could help to mitigate.

First, too many (white) Americans understand racism as a matter of overt hostility toward racial minorities as opposed to a matter of systemic inequality. For example, these individuals might understand particular usages of the swastika symbol as racist but remain skeptical of or oblivious to the institutionalized racism in schools, housing, and the criminal justice system that Pimentel discusses. As argued above, adapting Gries's methodologies to Pimentel's subject matter might help to dispel these misunderstandings of what racism is and how it operates in American society. At minimum, following Gries in developing digital methodologies for studying and materializing matters of pressing public concern—and what could be more pressing than the systematic devaluation of human lives in a country that proclaims itself the "leader of the free world"?—could create an opportunity for academic work to circulate and be brought to matter outside the academy. By doing more to bring academic understandings of systemic racism into the public realm, scholars can help to foster public understanding of how the institutions of American society are essentially and structurally racist, as opposed to potentially racist on a discretionary basis or at the whim of powerful individuals.

Second, utilizing digital environments to develop and materialize the messy and often inelegant histories that academic publishers may tend to eschew could provide an important avenue through which scholars can offer a publicly accessible corrective to the flawed school history textbooks that Pimentel critiques. To this end, promoting broader understanding of even very recent United States history can help to shed light upon the racial/racist climate in which we find ourselves in the present. For those Americans shocked that someone like Donald Trump could ascend to the presidency following the nation's first black president, digital historiography that tracks the "post-racial" narratives forwarded during the Obama era alongside the racist backlash to the Obama presidency—particularly as concerns the birther conspiracy advanced by Donald Trump himself to call into question the citizenship status of the country's first black president—could be illuminating. Of course, the birther movement has gained in historical significance with the assistance of post-2016 hindsight, but digitally materializing the simultaneity with which post-racial and deeply racist narratives circulated during the Obama presidency could productively complicate the linear metanarrative of racial progress that left so many (white) Americans blindsided in 2016.

To be sure, projects of this nature require digital literacies and technical skills that are not (yet) broadly taught or valued in English graduate programs and departments, and few of us have the time or luxury to pursue projects that are not (yet) secure in their departmental and institutional recognition as serious scholarship. But the exigences of the Making Future Matters collection and the 2018 Thomas R. Watson Conference invite us to anticipate how digital methodologies and literacies have come and will continue to come to matter in our field and beyond. Considering Pimentel's anti-racist manifesto in light of Gries's work on digital methodologies for rhetoric suggests that our efforts to materialize a broadly anti-racist disciplinary future through both our scholarship and our pedagogy may depend very much upon how we utilize digital environments to bring our country's racial/racist past and present to matter in both senses of the term.