March 28, 2023

The Negro Motorist Green Book, Black Twitter, & Futures of Black Gathering

Our inaugural speaker series opened with a talk by PhD Candidate Shamika Klassen. Shamika finished her bachelor's degree at Stanford University studying African American Studies. She is now at CU Boulder where she studies ethics, technology, and social justice issues.

Prior to her talk, Shamika opens with a land acknowledgement and labour acknowledgement - recognizing the invisible Black and Brown labour behind many of the things in our society, particularly when it comes to technology.

Her presentation opens with a discussion of the significance of - and backlash that came with - the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. Even in these fantastical spaces, Black women are under scrutiny. Despite the fact that there is a rich history of Black women working in the space of Afrofuturism and sci-fi - from authors Octavia Butler, N.K,. Jemisin to Marvel characters like Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Shuri (Black Panther) - there is a significant lack of representation in the tech world.

This lack of representation is not without consequences. As discussed extensively by scholars like Ruha Benjamin, this lack of representation impacts the actual technology that is being created. For example, as seen in the image above, a lack of representation can lead to issues like AI detecting Black women as men.

So, what's the power of Afrofuturism? As Shamika says "Imagination gives us agency: if we can dream it, we can change it."

Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation. It can help expose biases and open up new narratives for Black folks outside of stereotypes. Black Feminism, on the other hand, centres the struggle, liberation, experience, and wisdom of Black women in an effort to address the erasure of Black women and other women of colour.

Applying this to tech: Afrofuturist Feminism helps us create design research designs that recognizes the past, present, and future of Black life - how history has shaped Black livelihood to this day and where we can go moving forward. Moreover, Digital Black Feminism centrally situates Black women in the conception of technology and digital culture. Black women online as central to the future of communication technology.

Shamika's personal work focuses on understanding the potential harm of digital spaces, particularly in how it oppresses Black women, and what new technologies can emerge to help alleviate these harms. Her PhD research explores #blacktwitter as "a modern day green book," referencing the Negro Motorist Green Book that was created as a guide for Black travellers to stay safe during the Jim Crow era. The Negro Motorist Green Book was a directory of businesses that Black people could patron. It was, as Shamika states, centred around Black joy including things like Black-owned barber shops, businesses, etc., and, similarly, "#BlackTwitter is an ever-changing online community comprised predominantly of, and specifically for, Black people."

How have Black people used #blacktwitter to address racism? Does the platform help or hinder these attempts to do so? Black Twitter's benefits include community building and being able to easily get messages across to a wide community... but it comes with problems like (lack of) safety and appropriation by those outside the community. But, while the Green Book was made by and for Black people, Twitter was not... so what would a Twitter platform designed by and for Black people look like?

Black communities have always found ways come together, whether at churches or online bulletin boards. As tech evolved, the Black diaspora has crafted their own spaces across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Using design fiction, Shamika created "The Stoop" - a fictional social media app imagined to be both built by and made for Black people and what does this could look like:

Ethical Speculation can be a powerful tool for people to explore potential harms, while also embracing the uplifting possibilities of technology. Using the Building Utopia Toolkit, Shamika aims to continue exploring this question by asking Black women to directly engage with speculative thinking. By focusing on Black women, a doubly marginalized group, Shamika aims to help move toward liberation for us all. Until Black women are free, none of us will be free!

Further Readings

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