We are so happy that D.A.K. hit us up to take our minds on a post-colonial journey through media simulations to uncover the powers that selfies can hold for women of color, in a way that other selfie articles either are too naive to think of or too scared to dive into.
From body hair, to exotic postcards, to Geocities, D.A.K. breaks down the anxieties of a melanin gurl, arguing that a ~*specific*~ look at *women of color* taking selfies reveals a unique decolonizing power to change the stereotypical truths, and create your own visibility.
“Look at Me: Selfie Culture and Self-Made Visibility” by D.A.K.
It’s a Tuesday night, and I’m bored and feeling risky, so I fire up my webcam. I’m getting away with a crime. From my torso upwards, I look calm and collected…and like I’m wearing pants. I find that transient, late night webcam sweet spot, take a very grainy photo of myself, and publish it on my tumblr. This photo is something much bigger than nocturnal vanity. When we take selfies we are trying to say, ‘This is me. Look at me.’ And honestly? This behavior needs to be encouraged. I believe that all women of color, be they cisgender, transgender, queer, non-able bodied, fat, thin, or neither, as well as gender fluid and gender variant people of color should feel comfortable with and engage in taking selfies. We must be visible. That visibility must be on our own terms.
So, why invest so much energy into discussing selfies? For marginalized communities, these signs of life are important. Self-publications are flickers of life, assuring you that there are others out there like you, surviving and thriving. I am here. Look at me. Those who experience difficulties or dangers in finding and associating other members of their community in real life can now find and communicate with them on the internet. We can find people like us who exist in one or multiple communities, and engage in discourse and provide support. Learning about past and present narratives is easier than before. Social media sites have led to the creation of safe spaces for people of color to manufacture their own visibility and share their narratives in the face of erasure and forced silence. A far cry from the untended and anonymous frontiers of Geocities, these already coded and lovely looking sites make it easier than ever to share the words and images that makes the banal magical. Technology,like smartphones and webcams, also allow us to become much more active participants in our visual culture. (It’s important to note that not everyone has equal access to the internet and related technology, which limits their visibility and control over their image within this space. On a positive note, there are projects that work to counteract this invisibility.) With the help of these technological advances, selfie culture is a new platform for self-made visibility.
Selfie culture garners a lot of negativity, but what’s interesting is the dialogue around the justification of selfie culture. Most articles that respond to the backlash over selfie culture, like this, this,this, and this (disclaimer at bottom) talk about only a select group of women – young, conventionally-attractive, cisgender white women, and use their images and discourse to define the positive aspects of selfies culture. These discussions defending white women taking photos of themselves are couched in a feminism that excludes women of color in their analysis. I’m not saying that white women shouldn’t be taking selfies, but I am saying that it’s important to be critical of cultural phenomenons and examine their historical and cultural basis. The specific identities and experiences of women of color reflect specific underlying anxieties within the act of taking a selfie that should be taken into account.
When a women of color publishes a photograph of herself, it uniquely challenges the intangible but still commodified space of the Internet. These photos give us control over why, when, and how we are photographed- allowing us to reclaim our physical and visual bodies, while restricting who can access them. The autobiographical nature of the selfie gives us access to reconfiguring how we are actually seen, also known as subverting dominant assumptions or “truths.” We can directly challenge stereotypes and imposed invisibility with the click of a button. This alone may not cause empires to crumble, but it is an act of defiance and a potential space for decolonization. Above all, it is a self-made visibility that proudly proclaims ‘I am here. I am mine. Look at me.
In contrast to this, the selfies most articles laud as radical acts justifying selfie culture are immersed in the buzzwords and buzz-aesthetic of 1970’s white American feminism, tempered with a modern, sentimental version of the 1990’s Net Art aesthetic to appeal to current trends. This nostalgic, hyperrealistic feminism is an aesthetic where the political and historical are a series of contextless virtual symbols to declare “I am enlightened.” But how inclusive is this? Proponents of this aesthetic and accompanying politic claim to be evoking a universal experience and defining a generation, yet this lens excludes everyone who isn’t a white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered, middle class, heterosexual woman. This omission is no surprise, given the problematic history of white American feminism. Yes, these supposedly radical selfies do promote visibility, but they portray people who are already highly visible in our culture. Do gross selfies really challenge Western beauty standards? Attractive or not, due to their whiteness, these same individuals will still benefit from a system put in place to denigrate the appearances of non-white peoples. For white communities to engage in discourse through a white lens that they perceive as neutral and declaring it all encompassing is nothing new. How revolutionary are these selfies, then?
One example of differential privilege is body hair-often purposefully made visible in the aforementioned “radical” selfies. Body hair is used as a political symbol, but it’s meaning is different for different bodies. On a white female body, body hair can and has been a signifier of radicalism with the privilege of still being viewed as feminine – saying, “hey we actually have hair, and are still women”. For women of color, body hair selfies are a whole other game. Within a Western context, a form of oppression for women of color is being rendered masculine. Hairiness, associated with masculinity in the West, has been used to cement the “otherness” of women of color. Having body hair has a whole other dynamic now- are you justifying or defying this imposed masculinity? Because of this, a woman of color embracing their body hair, with or without celebrating it with a selfie, is far more radical act in comparison. (On a personal note, much love to all you bbys struggling with body hair. I hope you find hope in the fact that you are socialized to feel bad about your hair and there really isn’t anything wrong. No matter what you do or don’t do with it, you are radical and beautiful and everything good and I mean it. I’m sending positive vibes. I’m on that same bumpy road to self acceptance with you.)
This difference in experiences has its roots in the creation of Femininity to define Of Colorness by the white hegemony. White femininity was developed to actualize the status of white womanhood by being the opposite of the realities of colonized and enslaved women. White femininity was (and in many ways, still is) defined by delicacy, motherhood, not having to engage in physical labor, and desexulization. This standard of femininity was pitted against non-Western women through the violences of colonization, enslavement, and Western imperialism, in order to dehumanize them and justify their oppression. The imposition of Western gender binaries and sexualities also worked to delegitimize the reality of non-binary, fluid, and transgender people, as well as demonize queer sexualities. As you can see, context is really important when analyzing these images!
So, why am I even mentioning white women selfies in this article about women of color? Simply put,we need to have this important conversation about why our visual culture values certain images over others. These supposedly radical selfies of white women are being embraced as the positive side of selfie culture because they depict people who are already visible. We’re comfortable with seeing them because they are the norm. In comparison, the selfies of women of color, consciously or not, are significantly subversive acts. They confront our culture with the images of those it tries to blot out, defying widespread silence and invisibility imposed on them by the Western white hegemony and the systematic dehumanization of women of color, who are routinely put on display and dehumanized into black and brown bodies that are manipulated, raped, and murdered, then hidden away.
Even when women of color are visible in popular and high culture, ranging from roles in film and theatre to high fashion shoots, they are often defined and policed by racial and sexual stereotypes rooted in the West’s long standing history and culture of colonization, enslavement, and subjugation. Media and representation is not a just-so-story, but rather, the culmination past and present narratives of oppression and of privilege. The power of images is indisputable, whether it’s a painting on a wall or a photo on a computer, images and their content and distribution are in reality ideas that can be suspended and manipulated to convey specific information. What we believe to be true is learned through our exposure. If you haven’t been somewhere or interacted with certain people personally, then your idea of those places and people are just reflections of the media you’ve consumed about them. These images define our perception of and interactions with those being stereotyped, as well as being used to justify and enable violence against them. One example of this erasure is that, often, women of color are not even there, and are replaced by aesthetic elements of non-white cultures are incorporated into fashion or design, often spearheaded by white women, dressed to signify the other (HERE IS A WHITE LADY IN A SARI, ON A SAFARI. WOW) in order to cement their status in the hegemony, and create a palatable and consumable version of the other. Women of color can be spotted in this visual culture, but we’re not truly seen because we’re not meant to be truly human.
This lack of visibility has roots in the historic exploitation of the images of non-western women. For decades, colonized and enslaved women have been the subject of ethnographic photographs, collected to duly inform the western world of those they were oppressing and to titillate with their appearance, their implied sexuality, their otherness. Posed for or captured surreptitiously, these photographs were used to justify racialized and gendered stereotypes; rationalize colonialism; illustrate inherent inferiority; and, to dehumanize. When depicted, non-binary, transgender, and queer individuals were presented merely as oddities. “Here are these backwards people, open to us. Learn to recognize them. You may do as you wish with them.” The way they are made visible renders them invisible — nameless, subhuman, submissive, eroticized, and exoticised.
Within this context, the selfie is a new framework for women of color to create their own visibility and subvert dominant truths. Regardless of the content of the image, it is made with the subject’s own volition and published with their consent. It is a genuine image, created privately with minimal filtration. The selfie represents a marginalized human being as a human being, instead of countless dehumanizing stereotypes. To control our image and how it is presented is one of the many ways we reclaim our bodies and celebrate our identities. We are converting a tool used to erase us into means to fashion our visibility. Look at me.
D.K.A. has some degrees. She also has some FISTS and she is not afraid to use them. She manifests herself in your internet psyche here: http://ghostcafe.tumblr.com.
*disclaimer: I’m beginning to imagine the comments for this. I acknowledge that whiteness is not a monolith, and there are different levels within it like queer, transgender, fat, different able bodied, gender variant etc.. However, oppression and violence manifest in a different way for a person of color than it does for a white person. As illustrated in this article, intersectionality is important.
Similarly, the historic and present experiences of people of color are different within each community/communities, and the levels within them too. For example, the violences transgender women face differs from those of cisgender women. However, these histories intertwine and influence one another in relation to white supremacy.