Diversity, Identity, and Technology - Defining ourselves—and each other—online

Diversity and ethnic identity were part of everyday life during André Brock’s adolescence in New York City.  But he didn’t grasp the analytical challenges of race until graduate school.

“My brother teases me, saying I didn’t get black until I went to graduate school,” says André Brock, a native of Alexandria, La., who earned a bachelor’s degree at the City University of New York, a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University, and a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.

An assistant professor at the University of Iowa with joint appointments in the School of Library and Information Science and Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) since 2007, Brock studies the complex interactions between race, gender, and technology.  

In one project, he examined the way African-American bloggers engaged media representations of race in the days following the hurricane in New Orleans. In February 2010, he was a panelist during POROI’s public rhetoric seminar titled, “Media, Space, and Race: The Case of the ‘Southeast Side’ of Iowa City.” Brock examined online commentary associated with an Iowa City Press-Citizen article about a local curfew.

“People go online to be themselves, not to be online people or digital citizens. People use technology, like many other things, to define who they are,” Brock says. Spectator spoke to him about the intersections of identity, politics, and technology.

What sparked your academic interests in race and rhetoric?

Carnegie Mellon was the first school I attended where I was questioned about my academic abilities because of my skin color. Before I even opened my mouth, they were sure I had received an affirmative action or special dispensation to get in, even though I was sure that I had better scores and better grades than pretty much everyone in my cohort.

That pushed me over the edge. I was like, “Let’s talk about this race thing and why it’s such a shaper of people’s opinions about any particular person.” Before I was just smart, but now I wasn’t smart. I was just lucky and black. That doesn’t make any sense.

What was the main point of your presentation during POROI’s public rhetoric seminar?

When talking about the blogs, I said people try to construct them as “not Iowa City,” but people who contribute to the Press-Citizen blog are your colleagues or next-door neighbors. People were shocked, because the Iowa City they had in their minds is not this place where people are close-minded and prejudiced. But that is Iowa City as well.

Black people weren’t welcome in the UI dorms until the late 1940s, maybe even later. There’s been a history of discrimination here that the southeast side only encapsulates because of changes in policing practices and perceptions. The state of Iowa has been progressive, but it’s still America, so it has interesting attitudes toward race and community solidarity that make it a good place, but occasionally challenging for people of color who decide to live, work, and go to school here.

Are race relations different in Iowa City compared to metropolitan areas like New York City and Pittsburgh?

It’s not in your face here, but it happens, and when it happens it’s more jarring. I had my own minor encounters walking into town and looking at apartments. I identified myself as faculty to the various landlords and renting agents and was told they didn’t accept Section 8. I looked at them like, ‘Really, they don’t pay faculty here?’ They didn’t even hear where I said I worked. That’s the idea that my physical appearance says something about me that my words don’t.

In your classes, you talk about being feminist. What does that mean?

It’s difficult to recognize your male privilege, especially in an environment like the University where male privilege is a norm. Fortunately I have pro-feminist colleagues who call me on my privilege every day.

It’s something I have to work at consciously: just because I can speak as a guy in class doesn’t mean I have to. If there are women in class, I should give them space and an opportunity to find an opening to speak in class and not just let guys jump all over it like guys want to do. That same attitude should exist toward race relations.

What is so interesting about online video games?

Many multiplayer videogames, like World of Warcraft, unfortunately allow players to use homophobic language and racial slurs in text and voice chat with other players. These are spaces where you don’t have to map race, gender, or sexuality, but we bring our own attitudes wherever we go.

A lot of online spaces are starting to demand that people register with their real names. Even that small gesture of saying my name is Andre Brock means if you go out of that online space you can Google me and find out where I work and what I do. That would introduce some consequences. It is two different things to have a fictitious name in an online game or having to use your real name. That small thing does change online behaviors.

What’s your take on the future of Facebook?
Facebook is a space where things happen, it’s not a space to make things happen. It’s become an equivalent to the school playground or the steps of the student union when I went to college. It’s where you find out the latest gossip.

For adults, Facebook is this great playground where we can re-discover old friendships. For the younger generations, it’s just another online place to express themselves. That will change because kids change.  I remember a time when people were worried about MySpace.  After dominating media and public attention with over 100 million members in 2008, Myspace today is as irrelevant as it can be.

Facebook will either become irrelevant because it’s so all-encompassing that we don’t notice it, or it will become irrelevant because it will die on the vine and no one will use it. They keep trying to stick their fingers in every pie to continue to be relevant. Many adults don’t understand the utility of it, and the kids are starting to move away from it.

John Riehl
photo by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009