Black feminism

The Virtual Sojourner: How Black Internet Users Influence Society

When people ask me what I do for a living, I explain that I am a Black feminist digital sociologist. My work looks at how Black people use digital technology to create or remix digital practices in ways that alter social processes and institutions in contemporary society. In the past, I have taken up methods of digital data analysis to explore hashtag activism on Twitter in relation to #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName. I think the approach to activism exemplified by #SayHerName, which I define as intersectional micromobilization, paints a picture of the ways Black internet users shift our contemporary understanding of race, gender, and sexuality. In these ways, Black people act as virtual sojourners when they generate content as users of social and digital media that communicate progressive or radical values that challenge the status quo.

I define the concept of a virtual sojourner in my essay published in the 2021 edited volume Networked Feminisms: Activist Assemblies and Digital Practices:

..while the use of information and communication technologies to document and amplify state violence mobilizes people to demand social change and systemic reform, the visibility social media affords these technology users also comes with harmful effects.

I refer to these technology users as virtual sojournersoutsiders within of the digital age who leverage digital tools and innovate digital practices to create new avenues for visibility within a sociotechnical system that also endows members of dominant groups to use the same tools to perpetuate marginalization through digital practices that facilitate co-optation, erasure, and appropriation.
– Brown (2021:50)

The definition above highlights the complicated positionality of the virtual sojourner. On the one hand, information and communication technologies enable Black people to generate images of themselves that contrast with the controlling images that emerge as negative depictions circulated within mass media. And yet, these very same technologies further their marginalization when taken up by those who seek to oppress them.

Take, for example, the near-instantaneous backlash to #BlackLivesMatter on social media with the phrase #AllLivesMatter. Despite the relative lack of political strategies underlying this retort, internet users that adopt this phrase engage in a form of counter-organizing meant to weaken the messaging of the original social media campaign. Nevertheless, virtual sojourners prompt us to reconsider dominant understandings of the identities and institutions that make up society through their digital activism and cultural production. While I cover a wide range of examples in my essay, for this blog post I highlight two: the Marsha’s Plate and the #FreeCece campaign.

Marsha’s Plate: Black Trans Feminist Thought in Digital Form

I briefly mention Marsha’s Plate in the section of my essay titled “Queering Blackness, Racializing Sexuality and Gender in the Digital Age.” I learned about Marsha’s Plate because they had linked to a blog post on Twitter several years ago. I began listening to the podcast and became an instant fan. I loved hearing Diamond, Mia, and Z talk about their personal experiences as transgender Black people living in Texas. Beyond that, their conversations took on an intellectual stance that revealed to me all that my doctoral training in sociology lacked on the subjects of race, gender, and sexuality.

I consider this podcast a form of Black feminist pedagogy, particularly the “Trans 101,” segment, where Diamond Collier, Executive Director of Black Trans Women Inc, takes the time to educate non-Black and cisgender listeners about the history and sociology of the Black trans experience. For this reason, I invited Diamond to participate in a conversation with me about sex work titled “Working Girls,” for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University in 2019.

For the most part, the dominant culture shaping podcasts perpetuates heterosexuality, cisgender identity, and whiteness as the norm. For example, the ten “Top Shows” on the iOS podcast application as of June 2022 do not feature any Black or (openly) transgender hosts. White podcast creators discuss violence under the guise of “true crime,” a pre-podcast form of entertainment. When Marsha’s Plate discusses violence, they highlight how Black trans women are disproportionately affected in multiple ways. Marsha’s Plate is entertaining, but it takes violence against Black trans people seriously.

While I consider podcasting as an extension of radio, sociological factors surrounding media production are critical to enabling Marsha’s Plate. Black trans people were largely barred from radio in the 20th century. Today’s digital version of talk radio corresponds with technology changes that allow everyday people to produce, edit, and disseminate media independent of corporations and institutions that once acted as gatekeepers that erased or excluded people who did not satisfy dominant cultural standards. Therefore, Marsha’s Plate members are virtual sojourners because their podcast unsettles understandings of gender and race in ways that rectify the invisibility or mischaracterization of Black trans people in mainstream media.

The #FreeCeCe Campaign: A Black Trans Feminist Approach to Prison Abolition

While Marsha’s Plate illustrates how Black people use information and communication technologies to shift culture, #FreeCeCe campaign pinpoints the use of digital media for Black trans feminist activism. Though I don’t write about this particular campaign in the essay.1, I think it speaks to what I wrote about in the section titled “New Tools, Old Traditions: Intersectionality in Social Media Activism.”

FREE CeCe! from Jac Gares Media, Inc. on Vimeo.

In June 2011, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald had been walking with friends in Minneapolis, Minnesota when a group of white people started to antagonize them. The assault escalated into a physical altercation that resulted in McDonald sustaining severe injuries. Despite trying to escape, the group of attackers pursued her, one of whom bore a swastika tattoo. Ultimately, this neo-Nazi lost his life after a fatal stabbing with a pair of scissors.

Despite acting in self-defense, McDonald faced charges of second-degree murder, a common occurrence when Black women seek to protect themselves from violence. Adding insult to injury, authorities incarcerated her in a men’s prison. In 2012, McDonald received a nearly four-year prison sentence after accepting a plea agreement.

In response to this injustice, supporters local to Minneapolis launched the Support Cece McDonald campaign. According to Moya Bailey, their actions included various actions such as letter-writing campaigns and a book club that educated participants about the prison industrial complex. However, Bailey also asserts that digital media played a key role in the expansion of the campaign into the broader #FreeCeCe movement.

For example, Bailey notes that Black LGBTQ public figures such as Janet Mock and HARTBeat publicized McDonald’s story. Additionally, McDonald herself made use of digital tools by maintaining a blog where she wrote about her experience, recounting everything from transphobic family violence, sexual fluidity, and popular culture critique.

Like much activism in the social media age, the #FreeCeCe campaign also involved offline action including rallies, marches, workshops, and fundraising. These actions took place on an international level. Bailey highlights that this advocacy gained the attention of Black writers including Akiba Solomon and Marc Lamont Hill, who documented McDonald’s story for Ebony magazine. Ultimately, this advocacy and organizing led to her sentence being reduced.

Since leaving prison, CeCe McDonald has become an outspoken prison abolitionist. I think her story indicates the ways internet technologies enhance longstanding practices of Black feminist activism. For example, long before the emergence of WordPress and Tumblr, during the late nineteenth century, Black feminists like Ida B. Wells used writing and speeches as a strategy to organize against lynching. Therefore, digital media offers marginalized people a means to communicate and connect, creating a network whose momentum can lead to change.

The Future of the Virtual Sojourner

In the part of the essay titled “Sanctions, Appropriation, and Erasure: The Pitfalls of Digital Technology for the Virtual Sojourner, I wrote about the ways information and communication technologies function as a double-edged sword for Black internet users. One of the examples I briefly note is the phenomenon of “Blackfishing,” where non-Black internet users appropriate the self-presentation practices of Black people, typically for profit and influence among social media users.

Virtual sojourners will continue to affect society by using digital technology to influence culture, but I’m also concerned about how these tools might be used against them. For example, YouTuber HARTBeat was known for her drama/comedy online series “SimLivNColor,” which included Black and gay characters. YouTube removed the channel after 2 million views and 50,000 subscribers. Yet, YouTube continues to host white nationalist and harmful propaganda. Most recently, the subway shooter who injured over a dozen people in April 2022 on a New York subway had uploaded material to the platform, implying that his actions were a follow-up to another mass shooting that had taken place in 2020.

Virtual sojourners work in a white capitalist media ecology. Until marginalized people with progressive beliefs control and run this ecosystem’s infrastructure, they will be disproportionately harmed by corporate and government policies that seek to minimize or erase them.

To read more about the virtual sojourner, check out my full essay in the volume Networked Feminisms.

  1. I highly recommend the chapter “Transforming Misogynoir through Trans Advocacy,” in Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir Transformed for a thorough analysis of the role of digital media in the #FreeCeCe campaign.