The World is Watching and You are Listening

“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…. We proclaim our devotion to [our passion or dream], but we sadly practice the very opposite of [its] creed. … This strange dichotomy, this agonising gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

 
Disney myths

 

This past week or two has been what I might call my test at confronting the tragedy of not crossing the gulf between practice and profession, between what needs to be done and what I do instead. It ended in giving the talk of my life at TEDxUofM on my Bottomlines YouTube research about the digital ‘net worth of black girls ages 13-17 and younger on YouTube. I talked about the racialized and sexualized disparities in search results, views as currency, and in the comments directed towards white girls vs. black girls. No one had to tell me I accomplished something spectacular when I left the stage. I’d done more than I ever imagined and felt it was some of my very best work as a writer, a speaker and even as a singer.

When I left the stage, my former voice teacher, the renowned MET tenor George Shirley with whom I studied for 2-1/2 years at the University of Michigan, was waiting to congratulate me backstage. What a joy that moment was!! I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years. He said “You sound good!” And we spent about an hour over tea talking about the work you must do to do you best and how that work will eventually pay off in whatever you do. Even if you don’t sing for a living. He intimated that the work he saw me do on the stage of Power Center in Ann Arbor was my life’s mission, what I was made to do on this earth. I fell and felt that way. It was like belonging and being all rolled into one and finally the place or my skin didn’t matter. I wasn’t diminishing my own voice anymore.

For 20 years I’ve been studying the intersection of race and gender in black expressive cultures through the lens of black girlhood and their musical play. For the last 2 years, my attention has focused on online black girls who are “messing around” on YouTube–uploading videos with editing, twerking to invisible audiences from the “privacy” of their bedrooms while others degrade their practices below their videos treating them like call girls and sluts. On YouTube you are who others say you are, or so it seems for online black girls. And so it has seemed for me as a black woman, as an African American citizen whose family has been in these lands for 9 generations and still suffers the effects of institutional racism.

The Life Course for Black Girls and Women

The black women in my family are not far ahead of the stats from 2010 that says we have zero or negative net worth and yet we come from an ancestral connection to middle class values. My grandmother was educated at the Mary McLeod Bethune Finishing School and almost went to the New England Conservatory of Music before she married my maternal grandfather, a Navy cook. My mother and her older and younger sisters had two parents at home. I was an only child but our lives were still touched by drugs, by gettin’ by cause the system didn’t seem to allow black folks after Desegregation to have a sovereign way of life or earn a real living that had comparable worth to white women or white men and their families.

So, for me to return to a stage where I’d had some of my worst moments of stage fright and give a talk that spoke to the self-worth and digital ‘net worth of African American girls who twerk!! It was a revolutionary moment for me and I hope for the 1300 people witnessing my shedding of skin and releasing of burdens. Mine and others. And not just black folk.

The view of the online adolescent black girls that I study in YouTube twerking videos are being shaped in ways I never was offline by interactions with people who don’t understand our history or the history of white superiority and hegemony in this country. They just adopt the stereotypical positions that black girls are ratchet, low-class, baby mamas or reckless and ignorant or that their parents don’t no know better. They are slut shamed and respectability shamed by whites and blacks online. Who will protect them from doing what all of us are doing online–playing with sharing our identities and trying on new things.

We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others. — Ralph Ellison (1986, 186).

This past 7 days I’ve given my talk on The Bottomlines Project: On Black Girls’ Digital ‘Net Worth in Ann Arbor, at the Nassau Community College in Long Island, and at City College (CCNY) in an evening of work about hip-hop by  my dear brother media assassin Harry Allen and fellow ethnomusicologist Tim Mangin.    The TEDxUofM talk should be available online soon.

Confronting the Weight Not the Burden

I don’t feel tragically divided this week and with that feeling I realize that 2015 must be a line in the sand for me about my life goals and my ethics and my mission as a scholar and professor. It also must be the year I handle my biology and my health since black girls and women are the top demographic for obesity and I know now how absolutely essential to where I am heading that my well-being is to my success. I know but there I am still a bit tragically divided. I haven’t been to the gym for almost 2 weeks. I know what I ought to do but the gulf is there between what is.

So when my old American U collegemate Ken Brown tagged me on this video this morning, I knew I’d post it here. The world is listening, Kyra, and that world includes YOU! As India Arie sang, “The words that come from your mouth, you’re the first to hear!”  #towerk  #twerk

So today, I werk. I write. I write articles to publish. To get back in a tenure track job. I am here and I’m bringing new knowledge for a weary world. New insights that inspire and challenge us to grow with online black girls. #whywecantwait

H/T to Ari Gagne, a fellow ethnomusicologist who writes and studies the bounce scene in NOLA. He pointed me towards the Ellison quote and is educating me about bounce and its queens.

♥ Watch Your Back! Stop Messing Around with Your Assets, Love!

 ♡ ♥ A Valentine Weekend Post ♥ ♡

Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval….[It is] a bid for the attention of strangers — … hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see. — Jon Ronson, NYT, Feb 12, 2015

If we’re going to be watched, judged and constantly commented on? We’ll choose just what that is, thanks very much. – Daisy Buchanan, “Anti-Selfie Day,” The Telegraph, Feb 14, 2015

Feminism is worthless without intersectionality and inclusion

One tweet. Just one off-handed tweet that was read at the intersection of whiteness, AIDS and colliding contexts of meaning (i.e., context collapse) cost a young PR director her job. It happened while Justine Sacco was “flying while white” from the United States to South Africa–the land where she was actually born. It took one tweet to have career to fall from sky of privilege. The NYT article about it is a must read for anyone interested in learning from social media blunders including literally-read tweets and the role of public shaming at the hands of your own self-generated digital content today.

My interest in the piece concerns digital self-presentation and the costs of such content. It speaks to two concerns that I’ll sum up in 140 characters (or less).

Number 1:  to the consequences of social media costs more than money and can last a lifetime. Wake up! Stop giving away your assets.

I witness indifference among black girls who broadcast while they twerk. What I notice is their indifference to their own digital ‘net worth — their social capital or assets. Not only what they could make from their content but the consequences of what others see or think about their content that may not matter now but may cost them later. What concerns me is their ecological fitness in a patriarchal, white supremacist, and capitalist world that was not and is not designed for their gain or growth and development. The impact that twerking videos may have on their future net worth — their monetary assets after debts owed — also concerns me. Both your digital and future net worth involve your online reputation now.

The music media of television and radio got us first. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing the struggle is and has been over being consumers of media.  Joshua Meyrowitz corrects this thinking in his book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985). We were not consuming TV, we were being consumed by it (to paraphrase a powerful expression from a young black woman at a conference I attended on gender, sexuality and hip-hop). We actually were and still are the products of media. Social media platforms sell us to advertisers. That is how the business model of media has always worked. So, even as black girls create their own content, they are being sold to media companies by the eyefull including rap artists like Wacka Flocka Flame, Juicy J and K-Stylis who create twerk songs by the dozen to advertise their “art”. We are all being bought and sold on Facebook and on YouTube to the highest advertising bidders which is … Facebook and YouTube along with VEVO and Amazon and many others.  This is the media ecology of online living. So the issue of your reputation comes second to what advertisers are selling on the back of your videos, tweets, likes and updates. If you lose your job, they still make it rain no matter what.

This is why the study of black girls twerking on YouTube can be insightful and go well beyond being about us vs. them. If a young white woman heading up PR at a firm can lose her job and threaten her future reputation from one off-handed and indiscriminate tweet, what do you think is the cost for you? Studying twerking YouTube videos, videos that will persist for years and years to come for black girls and others of any class or background has a lot to offer in thinking about digital reputations online and off.

Number 2: On social media, your assets can be your best friend and your worst enemy. Protect your future ‘net worth now! Beware 

The misogynoir — the anti-black sexism (as well as the anti-female racism) faced by black women in social media reflect forms of structural inequalities that young girls of color, esp. black girls, on YouTube may learn way too late not unlike Justine Sacco. Dare I say that “the stakes are highest for those who are darkest” in any visual social media on the Internet. They are highest for those who use their bodies to tell stories that strangers (even if black and female) may not be able to decode from your point of view.

Strangers — both people you’ve never met and those you call friends that you only know online–simply cannot decipher others’ behaviors, esp. adolescent play or the messing around that black girls who make twerking videos are doing just like other kids playing around with video production and content creation on YouTube. Black girls generally shoot and upload their twerking videos so their motives — their cultural as well as their technical intentions in making videos — are not apparent. If they were using filters and screen caps or adding verbal commentary to accompany their twerking, the context might be more apparent and more significant to strangers. Friends they know in real life tend to get it. But the issue of what advertisers and media figures get is a whole ‘nother conversation.

Kstylis_Twerk_Music-back-large

Most of us cannot read between the lines of twerking videos, or between the “bottomlines.” This is even more complicated when watching a black teen twerk or bounce her ass to songs like “Trampoline Booty” or “Kangaroo Booty” or even “Booty Hopscotch“–all popular songs by Memphis artist Kstylis.  His songs dominate the dataset of 1000 videos I have collected.

On Cognitive Assets: “The Booty Don’t Lie” (So Saith Monae)

Last summer while conducting this research, I suggested to a white male student that he allow himself to see these young girls are merely having fun online, messing around. He quipped, “I don’t see emotion in an ass!”

This student, in my view, was not trying to be funny or glib. This was not his modus operandi. In class he always demonstrated a slightly older, more mature mindset. He was open but he was also stuck.He couldn’t, at first glance, see past what he imagined was nothing more than sexual, nothing more than (and this is my take not his) “asking for it”; enticing the wrong kind of male attention; all he could see is the notion of soliciting sex with that ass, to be blunt. (Again, this is my take on his reaction, not his).

This is why I have been exploring what I call the “cognitive justice” aspects of digital media studies and media ecology. The part of the brain that is threatened by seeing things different than what we already know–the amygdala that does no critical thinking but does pull patterns from your past for usefulness in what it perceives is happening now —  is alive and well when we confront implicit biases of race and sex. That part of our brain keeps us thinking we are safe–safe knowing that “those” people are get short-shrifted because they are deserve it. Our mind is being confronted with a truth that is difficult to set free. That day that student was cognitively stuck by my suggestion that black girls were just playing. Yet, that moment of cognitive distortion eventually did set him free.  He became one of the best interpreters of the video micro-culture of adolescent black girls twerking in the entire class last summer.  He also did some of the best ethnographic vlogging, too.

We must teach ourselves and teach girls that their cognitive assets come first! That don’t mean you can’t make twerking videos anymore. But it we could see more geeking out in those videos, learning techniques that give you social and cultural capital as a content creator, the conversations which switch from your ass to your real assets.

Just Messing Around on YouTube

Sharing images of oneself is lingua franca for online adolescent and teen girls. It is shaped by hegemonic masculinity and femininity. When we consider issues at the intersection of race, gender and age, we who are older KNOW that some will pay a higher cost for the digital presence and views of their body than others. Reputation politics are not equal. AND the long-term consequences of one’s digital reputation and how others perceive you can lead to future shaming. Your digital footprint (the images you leave on line) as well as your digital shadows (the traces that others leave behind associated with you or your imags) can give new meaning to the expression “Your first impression may be your last” or “First impressions are the most lasting.”  These footprints and shadows can lay dormant for years and then surface during your adulthood when you least expect it 3, 15, or 30 years from now.

Why make life any harder for yourself in the future? Managing one’s future reputation is a hard lesson to learn at a young age. It is  perhaps even more difficult to teach adolescents and teens (without the experience of a significant failure or loss. The adolescent brain and its cognitive resources are operating on impulse and emotion as it begins to prune what it really needs to survive in life and online. Adolescents use social media they way I used to use a mirror. The difference is that black girls as well as their male and female counterparts on YouTube are trying to find themselves through social media, through a networked public of people they do not know in real life, they only know online, and alongside a tiny micro-public of people they actually know both off- and online.  The former trump the latter in the long run.

Watch Your Back: What Happens on YouTube, Stays …

Twerking to Nice and Slow UsherThose of us who are older face the same trouble. We are all must learn that online spaces are not our friends. We all must learn what it means to create a single identity that occupies space online and off, across time and space, between jobs and on-the-job, and find ways to create safe play spaces that do not diminish the marketplace reputation we must begin to build at a much younger age and one that last throughout our lifetime.

Let me tell you. I, of all people, have had my share of public humiliation via social media. I know first-hand regret from my own radical transparency. It matters now that I am noticing just how naive and arrogant I was during my work-life until about 3 years ago. I am still learning.  Your digital reputation requires a new kind of digital literacy for black girls and women that is about much more than what platform you are on and know how to use. We have not begun to fully take into account what our digital ‘net worth means in a racialized, sexualized patriarchal world. It’s about more than shaming we often discuss around respectability politics. It’s bigger than #BlackTwitter!