The digital rights movement needs to become deliberately and intentionally inclusive. We need to actively engage with how technologies and the internet are racist, as well as how they perpetuate other oppressions through silence. We need to actively engage with how our digital rights movements protect whiteness, and through doing so come to create the foundation for racism.
Those of us who work as activists and researchers in the digital rights movement, whether from a gender, feminist, sexuality and/or queer lens, often assume that our work automatically protects us from being considered deeply problematic. We think that if we are aware and conscious of structures and systems as they relate to gender and sexuality, such as sexism, online gender-based violence, and homophobia, that we are progressive. But we are not if our work is not intersectional. We need to be deliberately inclusive of the multitude of lived experiences, not only of gender and sexuality.
We think that if we are aware and conscious of structures and systems as they relate to gender and sexuality, such as sexism, online gender-based violence, and homophobia, that we are progressive.
We often speak of, and understand, technology to be embedded in socio-political contexts, and imbued with a number of power struggles and their violences. What we do not speak of is how we as the movement are also caught up in these contexts and struggles.
Our contexts, our politics, our organising, and our interactions with each other are informed by these structures. Some of us know this, and some of us cannot see this, just yet. When we do become aware of how we are woven into and informed by our contexts and structures, we do not necessarily bring it to the table. We choose to remain silent in case flagging this will dilute our movement, our work, and make us vulnerable to criticism.
We are hesitant to trouble the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, classism, and every other violence that may exist within ourselves, our work, our organisations and our movements because to do so is to reveal our weaknesses. But this is also our potential strength, to challenge the violences within, to look for them even if we do not think they exist (they do), and to actively work to be inclusive and just. If we know these violences exist and we choose not to trouble them, can we say that our work is just?
For instance, race is as much a part of technology as gender is, and we do not often speak of this, if at all. If we do point out the part race plays in technology and the internet, and the way it harms others, it is done in passing or added on as an afterthought. Each oppression has its own pain, and its own burden. When multiple oppressions intersect, the violence is amplified, and this means that the pain is amplified. Our work cannot be effective if we overlook this.
If we continue to overlook race, especially at this moment in global history, where we see the significant awakening to the multitude of racist oppressions and how they are reinforced or enacted through different structures and institutions, such as the case with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, then we are being strategic in our silence. It may not seem so, but we are actively choosing to remain silent.
Racists are dangerous, but those who remain silent in the face of racism are more dangerous. In not speaking up, they are building the foundation for whiteness and racism to continue unchallenged. But it is not enough to say we are not racist, instead we must be anti-racist. We must act, and not only speak, towards dismantling this violent structure. We must actively engage in anti-racist work.
Our silence is damaging
Racism is not something that is removed from us, as activists and researchers in the digital rights movement. Recently I have been aware of an increase in voices sharing their experiences through tweets, blog essays, and thought leadership pieces. These voices are overwhelmingly located in the global South and are drawing attention to experiences of racism within our digital rights movements – at the local, national and international level. This racism is not always explicit; sometimes it is nuanced, given the nature of how institutions come to privilege and protect whiteness.
Whiteness is what keeps racism firmly entrenched in our structures and our institutions. Whiteness privileges the lives of white people over everyone else.
We must trouble the dominance of white voices in the global South. Question why it is that white faces come to mediate between donors, to add legitimacy to projects. Can these white voices speak for the global South? Who is the researcher and the researched? Who gets left out of the negotiations with donors? Whose experiences are privileged in sharing of stories? Or do all experiences get white-washed, and presented as uniform?
As I write this, I fully recognise my whiteness and how it protects me, how it gives me the space to write this. The protection my whiteness affords me is in how white voices dominate conversations, and how white people often only listen to other white people. Even the most well-meaning, “good white people” come to favour the voices of the familiar, the dominant. If you are reading this as a white person, reflect on why you are reading this piece: Is it because you want to engage with your own whiteness? Is it because you recognised the author of this piece to be white? Interrogate the why. And listen to the answers.
As I write this, I fully recognise my whiteness and how it protects me, how it gives me the space to write this.
We need to look at who is in the room, who is representing whom. We need to listen to whose voices we hear, to ask who remains silent, and who is silenced. And why. Do we actively silence people, or do we speak over them? Or do they fear speaking up because of the consequences they may face for troubling the ways in which we come to perpetuate structural violence?
We need to strive to hold space for those we do not see or hear because we have not made the space for them to step forward or to speak. Or we have silenced them or ignored them or asked them to temporarily (but, actually, permanently) "park their issues" and to focus on the bigger issue at hand.
Inclusivity is active work
As digital rights activists, researchers and organisations, we cannot claim to challenge the neutrality of technology if we do not challenge ourselves. We cannot continue to essentialise in the name of being strategic. That time has passed.
Globally the fault lines are showing, something is shifting. It is now time for inclusive work. It is time to make space for more than one dominant and very white lived experience. We must step back and make space for the global South to lead; for people of colour to lead; and for transgender and queer people to lead.
We need to be deliberately inclusive. We must be prepared for it to get messy. It will. There is no clean and neat way to do deliberate and inclusive work. But we must begin, and we must begin immediately. Another day without doing intentionally inclusive work is another day that we are participating in keeping structural violences firmly entrenched. If we choose to continue as we have before, if we choose to look away, then we are part of the problem.
Globally the fault lines are showing, something is shifting.