The most recent attack on Dr. Safiya Noble’s scholarship has led me to write this post. I wish I had written this post much sooner.
Not this, but this recent attack on Safiya’s scholarship over the past week involves yet another male computer science professor who used Twitter to openly attack the claims found in Safiya Noble’s most recent book, Algorithms of Oppression, which he also hadn’t read. The book was just published by NYU Press (go buy it).
For those interested in the details, please head on over to Twitter to read this thread for starters. However, the details of the attack are less important than the overall point I am trying to make here, which is this:
We as men (particularly White cisgender heterosexual able-bodied men in higher education) must stop questioning women of color (WOC) — particularly WOC scholars who continue to be silenced and oppressed by men — for having ideas that require us to think differently about what we know and how we know.
I should know why it’s important for men not to attack WOC scholars for having ideas: I was one of those men. More to the point, I was one of those men who questioned Safiya’s scholarship in the past.
I later learned I was wrong.
A few years back, Safiya and I were doctoral students and Information in Society Fellows together at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During this time, I was one of those men (among others at UIUC) who questioned Safiya’s important work about what search engines say about women.
I know there were reasons why I questioned Safiya’s work, but the reasons did not have anything to do with the quality of her work.
Rather, I questioned her work because of my social location. I am a White cisgender heterosexual man from a privileged background. As such, my social location has allowed me to exist in and navigate the world in such a way where I have not had to experience forms of oppression, where people constantly question what I say and do because of my race and gender. In other words, my social location has assigned to me a significant amount of power and privilege.
In continuing to think back, daily, to why I even questioned Safiya’s scholarship at all, I would add another important factor:
During that time in my doctoral program, I didn’t have any men, particularly male academic role models, in my life that stressed how important it is to learn to listen to women of color and try to understand their everyday experiences.
I first learned to question not only what I know but how I know when I first heard Dr. Virginia Eubanks come speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during my time as a doctoral student and teaching assistant. During her talk, about her research for her book, Digital Dead End, Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, she shared three of the most powerful words that I heard during my doctoral program: “I was wrong.”
In her talk at UIUC, Virginia Eubanks admitted that she was wrong in the early days of her work with women at the YWCA in Troy-Cohoes, New York (which you can read about in her book). In response, she learned how to think differently in order to more deeply understand and respond to the everyday technology experiences of the low-income women at the YWCA. Eubanks explained how this approach opened up possibilities to highlight what she referred to as “alternative articulations” of the digital divide, which continues to offer — particularly for those of us who care about digital equity — ways to look at the strengths of women of color as a starting point for digital equity initiatives.
Hearing these three words from an academic, also a female scholar, was incredibly powerful for me at this time. I am still indebted to another woman of color scholar, Dr. Seeta Peña Gangadharan for introducing me Virginia Eubanks’s work.
This was a profound experience for me, particularly as a White cisgender heterosexual male emerging scholar from a privileged background, because it allowed me to question not only what I knew, but how I came to know.
I then began questioning my own past experiences including my failures. I began asking myself many questions about whether the decisions I had made were fully informed, and thus the most correct or even ethical at the time. As a result, I now know more deeply that many of my past decisions were not correct, ethical, or respectful. And, to those who I have hurt in the past as a result, I am sorry.
How to Stop Questioning and Start Listening to Women of Color
After admitting and accepting that I was wrong, I discovered a few ways to move forward.
I began reading the work of Black feminist scholars who Safiya and other women of color were citing and discussing in their scholarship. Through this process, which continues today, I began learning that there are multiple ways of knowing about the world. By understanding the perspectives of women of color, I could begin to see why men continue to question women of color and why it needs to stop.
I also began to recognize that I, as a White cisgender heterosexual man from a privileged background in a position of power in higher education, can use the powerful platform that I have to work toward changing these stereotypes and addressing oppression in academia and beyond.
More recently, I have begun to assign Black feminist scholarship in my classes at Simmons. This is because, as Patricia Hill Collins (2000) explained, “It is more likely for Black women, as members of an oppressed group, to have critical insights into the condition of our oppression than it is for those who live outside this structures” (p. 39). Collins’s writing, as well as the writing of many other Black feminist scholars, can be an incredibly important starting point for library and information science students in learning to develop the tools, skills, and knowledge needed to challenge the oppressive systems and structures that continue to impact our profession and the communities we serve in harmful ways.
My hope in writing this post is that it will ultimately serve as a call to other men, like myself, to begin questioning not only what we know but how we know. More importantly, I hope this post will cause other men to stop questioning women of color and to start asking ourselves critical questions such as, “maybe what I know is wrong.”
In her book, titled Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Collins (2000) calls attention to other powerful Black women, such as Alice Walker and former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who embraced a humanist perspective in working to support Black women’s empowerment. Men can and must join this effort to resist common stereotypes of Black women and embrace “the oneness of all human life” (p. 46).
I also hope this post will inspire other men to share their own stories describing when they realized that their way of thinking, and thus their actions, were wrong, as well as the steps they continue to take everyday to actively challenge the oppression of women of color.
Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Thank you to Vanessa Rhinesmith for encouraging me to write this post.