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Sociologist Examines the Contemporary Digital Culture of the Black Diaspora

photo of Brown seated on bench
Aug 17 2020

The Clayman Institute joined Postdoctoral Fellow Melissa C. Brown in discussing Black feminist activism in the 21st century for the final Faculty Research Fellows seminar of the 2019-20 academic year.

Brown presented on Black women and Black LGBTQ people using social media platforms to act as “virtual sojourners.” In other words, contemporary Black digital activists are using Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms to challenge misrepresentations, build international coalitions, and raise awareness around intersecting forms of oppression. 

Take, for example, the #SayHerName campaign. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Columbia law professor, executive director of The African American Policy Forum, and a past Jing Lyman lecturer for the Clayman Institute, launched #SayHerName in 2014. The campaign is meant to bring awareness to the names and stories of Black girls and women – including Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Aiyana Stanley-Jones – who have been killed by racist police violence.

“Black feminist activism in the digital sphere empowers Black women using social networking sites to raise consciousness about Black feminist political issues."

Drawing from an analysis of 400,000 tweets, Brown revealed how Twitter users helped raise consciousness about police brutality against Black women, the murders of Black trans women, and incidents of domestic violence against Black women. The results of this analysis were published in Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2017.

“Black feminist activism in the digital sphere empowers Black women using social networking sites to raise consciousness about Black feminist political issues,” Brown said. “This analysis shows that the adoption of Black feminist thought as a framework for the study of digital technology and producers of digital content offers valuable sociological insights about digital practices, users of digital technology, internet-based social networks, and the infrastructure of digital technology in the twenty-first century.” 

Virtual sojourners also use digital activism to actualize alternative realities for Black people whose identities exist along a spectrum of gender identities and sexualities, according to Brown.

One such sojourner is Dremon Cooper, who goes by the username @hesosoutheast on Instagram, which is a nod to his predominately Black, working-class D.C. neighborhood. Cooper rose to prominence in 2018 after he introduced social media to a queer superhero he calls “Super Bitch.” Today, Cooper continues to use his digital platform to speak up about a range of social issues – while doing impressive twirls and flips in his signature, hot-pink 6-inch heels. 

“By embodying the character ‘Super Bitch,’ Cooper gives his audience a vision of a hero that looks much different from Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne,” Brown said. “Black, gay, and working-class, Super Bitch shows up for the people often portrayed as wayward or violent in hero narratives that cater to the mainstream.” 

“To date, the primary contribution of social science to the literature about Black and Brown people as users of technology revolves around the ‘digital divide.’ However, this deficit-based model presumes white, non-disabled, heteronormative men as the model of technological competency.”

Brown graduated from the University of Maryland with a PhD in sociology in 2019. Her areas of expertise include intersectionality, digital sociology, social movements, and sexual politics. Her current project centers on how Black women exotic dancers advertise and network through social media and other smartphone applications. 

Throughout her work, Brown draws on the rich history of Black feminist thought to challenge mainstream assumptions about how Black women and Black LGBTQ people fit into modern digital culture. 

“To date, the primary contribution of social science to the literature about Black and Brown people as users of technology revolves around the ‘digital divide.’ However, this deficit-based model presumes white, non-disabled, heteronormative men as the model of technological competency,” Brown said.

By demonstrating how virtual sojourners are making creative use of their marginality, Brown’s work reveals how 21st century Black digital activists are creating spaces – both on and offline – to achieve more equitable social relations for all.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.