Recently, I went to Portland at the invitation of ACRL, to talk about my forthcoming book (NYU Press) on why we get misrepresentations of women, girls, people and culture in commercial search engines — and why we should care. Many thanks to Laurie D. Borman for covering the talk for American Libraries magazine, which can be found here.
It’s been a difficult year facing the crisis of brutality and watching images of unarmed African Americans being killed by law enforcement circulate in social media over and over.
One of the highlights for me in this abyss of sadness, is that I’ve made the move back to California to join UCLA and am experiencing consciousness, caring and commitment by my colleagues to talking openly about social justice in our profession, and why “Black Lives Matter” to them too. I am grateful for our collective call to our colleagues around the world to move conversations about systemic power and oppression to the forefront of our conferences, meetings and professional practice. It has made me slightly less sad and anxious as a Black woman, with a Black husband, and Black children in my life that I love deeply. On some level this is difficult for me to communicate with words. I have needed to know that I am working and walking with people who have a heartbeat of concern, and even despair, over the state of race relations in the United States and the random violence we might experience walking down the street or driving home from the gym. Even African American judges are not insulated from racial profiling at UCLA, and I have an antenna up that never comes down, knowing that no amount of education will protect me and my family.
This statement from some UCLA faculty, of which I am proud to have been a part of leading with my colleagues: http://criticallis.com/ reflects where some of us (not all) are so far in our local conversation about our role as professors and practitioners in taking a stance on police brutality and the rollback of civil rights and protections for African Americans.
Working on organizing the faculty to support a statement has also been an important prelude to a panel I’m doing with some colleagues at ALISE in January 2015 about teaching and talking about social justice as Assistant Professors, when the stakes are higher, and the rewards and risks can be greater than as a tenured professor. I’ll blog more about that in February after the conference.
Dr. Michelle Caswell, who organized this forthcoming ALISE panel, was recently quoted in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio journalist, Willis Arnold, about the ways in which archivists are playing an important role in documenting the events in Ferguson, and how the community is speaking back to the injustice of Mike Brown’s murder by law enforcement. It was through her that I first learned about “Documenting Ferguson,” a phenomenal response by activists and academics at Washington University.
I’m grateful that many of us have been deeply thinking and talking about the incredibly important role of the record, and how those of us in the field of LIS are responsible for many aspects of documentary evidence. We are thinking about how our work can help us reclaim power in service of humanity, fairness, and social and economic justice. Documenting Ferguson is an example of the role we play in living our commitments within our profession.
I can only say that one should read the names of those who have signed our statement to get a beat on some of the amazing people who care deeply about a variety of power-based injustices. Follow their work. Follow them on social media. Cite them. Invite them. Although every single concern that we wanted to share in our statement ultimately got refined such that each detail might have been consolidated into broader language, I can tell you that our deliberative process on developing a declaration that “Black Lives Matter” to LIS spans concerns over torture and human rights abuses by the State, the proliferation of guns and the violence and devastation to our humanity by U.S. gun culture, and the intersectional ways that violence occurs across class, race, religion and gender, and how we need it to end.
For the immediate future, I will be managing the critical LIS website, and I invite colleagues supporting social justice in our field to send me an email about posting your petitions or statements to the site.
We need to generate ourselves. We need to generate justice.
We need to #staycritical
I can’t express enough how thrilled I am to (hopefully) spend the rest of my career in the Department of Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA! I truly enjoyed working in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but the opportunity to return to California to one of the most important departments in the U.S. in Information Studies is without a doubt, a dream come true. If you are interested in the announcement, it’s here.
I must add that the recent egregious violations of academic freedom at Illinois have left me concerned about my colleagues like Professor Steven Salaita and the future of scholars who research and write about the grave consequences of racism and oppression, locally and globally. I am doubly grateful to have moved to UCLA as the academic boycott of Illinois continues to gain momentum, and rightly so. If you are unfamiliar with what’s happening, Professor Corey Robin has carefully documented the case at his blog. I encourage you to sign a petition to support academic freedom and the threats against critical thinking in higher education.
The most important and relevant organizing I saw in our LIS community was to #supportsalaita, led by my colleague Dr. Sarah T. Roberts at the University of Western Ontario. Sarah authored an important petition for the LIS and critical information scholarly community that puts theory into practice. If librarians, archivists and information workers are not at the forefront of calling for academic freedom, we should revisit our role in fostering democracy. You can still sign on at her blog, Illusion of Volition. Follow her work. There were so many faculty and graduate students at Illinois working to reinstate Dr. Salaita, and you can see a lot of the action by following the #supportsalaita on Twitter.
Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be writing here regularly toward the end of 2014. Right now, I’m working on a book for NYU Press on Google and search bias, and co-editing a collection of work by emerging and established scholars writing about intersectionality and the Internet with Dr. Brendesha Tynes at USC. In more good news, I’ve also recently been appointed the Associate Editor for The Black Scholar Online. If you are interested in contributing to TBS Online, please email me at noble at the black scholar dot org.
Here is a recent article published in InVisible Culture, an electronic peer-reviewed journal of visual culture from the University of Rochester. The article explores the ways in which racialized and gendered identities are often misrepresented in commercial search engines.
This ongoing research looks at a number of identities: Black girls and women, Latinas, Asian women and girls, and White women to complicate how social identity implodes in online commercial environments where identity is for sale to the highest bidder through advertising models. I am hopeful this research will have impact on public internet policy as I continue to explore the loss of political agency and representation afforded to communities on the first page of Google results. This broader research on multiple identities is forthcoming in a book stemming from my dissertation.
Here is an article I recently wrote for Bitch Magazine, which details the ways in which commercial search engines serve up problematic representations of women on the web. This work could be considered a the public press version of research I have been engaged in for the past two years for my dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In addition to reading the article, you can conduct your own searches on combined racial and gendered identities like Black girls, Latinas, Asian women, etc. and you will see not only a plethora of pornography as the primary representations of women, but you will also see a host of other stereotypes with just a smattering of information that might be helpful.
I conduct research in this area to understand how much information in the first pages of search engines are reliable or credible representations of marginalized groups — communities that have traditionally been maligned in old media traditions like television, radio and print. The Internet, as the new common medium of the United States (as declared by the FCC in 2010 in the national broadband plan), is increasingly positioned as a public good that the nation should rely upon for its communications infrastructure. Given this, it’s important to know if the information surfaced in search results can be trusted.
04/15/12 Update: after two years of research on the pornification of Black Girls in Google, and with the publication of this article, Google recently changed its algorithm and pornography is no longer the primary source of information about Black girls in a keyword search. Thanks, Google.
Today was an amazing day of meeting and hearing from African Americans in technology at Focus100 presented by DigitalUndivided. If you aren’t familiar with this conference, you can see the lineup of speakers. The morning started with Maxine Williams, the Global Head of Diversity for Facebook who gave a smart talk on the history and challenges facing the largest global social network platform in the world. I gave a talk on my research on search engine bias, sexism, and why we should care, which was well received by such a warm and generous audience who tweeted me @safiyanoble.
What is most striking about this conference, which is so different from the traditional academic meetings, is that there is a great mix of contributors from FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to super-successful entrepreneurs including Heather Hiles, CEO of Pathbrite, and online media-makers Issa Rae and my shero, Franchesca Ramsey.
There were so many fantastic experts present and it’s deeply enriching to see entrepreneurs, community leaders, media experts, marketers and academics in one room. If you are looking for an innovative, small and compelling conference focusing on issues directly impacting African Americans and people of color in technology, this is a conference well-worth attending next year. Kudos to Kathryn Finney for an important contribution and a counter-narrative that fully dispels the notion of African Americans as “digitally divided.”
You can follow the conference hashtag Twitter stream at #Focus100
Dear University of Illinois Board of Trustees Members,
I spent the last eight years of my life building community at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before recently accepting a faculty position at UCLA this Fall. I write as an alumna of the University with two degrees from Illinois, and as a person who will have a lifelong interest and commitment to the U of I.
When I first moved to Champaign, I was hired as the Director of Development for the Department of Computer Science. During that time, my job was to interact with donors and cultivate gifts in the form of endowments, fellowships and scholarships. I write to you knowing first-hand the kinds of pressures the University is facing and why you might be compelled to follow the direction of wealthy donors, or feel sensitivity to their threats. I also recognize the powerful role that the advancement directors and deans hold in influencing the administration to take various courses of action that serve these interests. As the State decreases its contributions to the University, I know you find yourselves increasingly beholden to corporate and private interests that are able to use their resources to further influence the direction of the University.
Having seen these things happen while a development officer, I opted-out and pursued a master’s and doctorate so I could join the faculty instead of having to endure these challenges to support my family and myself. I truly believe that the expertise in educating students, as a public land-grant university lays in the hands of people who can produce evidence-based research — not six- and seven-figure endowments.
It is the faculty who are grounded in research and deep expertise, which should be at the forefront of shaping the future of the University with students, not people who can make extraordinary gifts tied to their ideological stances. I say this after hearing a potential donor from a famous family tell me once that he would not make a major gift to support fellowships for underrepresented students because he “knows for a fact that Latinos and Blacks are not intellectually capable of doing higher level math and computer science.” I shudder writing it. I also had a donor who wanted his gift to only support White students, and wanted this provision to be enforced with any gift he made to the University. One must gracefully navigate the strategies and beliefs that are tied to advancement, as I am sure you are now experiencing.
You see, wealthy people may or may not tie gifts to things that make sense. Certainly, this is not the vast majority of donors to the University, whom I am sure are generous, incredible people, as are most of the development professionals on the campus. Their jobs have become incredibly difficult now due to the firing of Professor Salaita. No matter the ideological ties some may put on their gifts, we do not want the workings of the University, and the scholarship it produces, to be tied to these kinds of whims — or to racism, to be frank.
It is interesting timing for a crack-down on “civility” at Urbana, and an interesting interpretation you hold about who is (potentially, hypothetically) fostering harm, and who isn’t. You may recall that the campus and its students were not exempt from ACTUALLY fostering hate-speech on Twitter, most recently directed at Chancellor Wise last Fall when she did not cancel classes due to inclement weather. The students responsible for the petition that circulated against her, and many who participated in the activities on Twitter, were some of my students. They confessed their participation to their classmates and me the next morning. I spent considerable time helping students make sense of the ways in which “harmless pranks” and “childish behavior” (as some administrators deemed it) fit into larger systems of structural racism and sexism. It was a teachable moment.
I probably need to point out that tweeting racist and sexist statements, including a thinly veiled death threat at the Chancellor, is not the same thing as tweeting critiques of war and state-sanctioned violence, just so we are clear. No students were expelled from school for using the campus IT infrastructure to tweet racism and sexism. Professor Salaita should not lose his career at Illinois over critiquing racism and apartheid.
Many of my students were incredibly reflective about their participation, passively or actively, in those events last Fall, which also made the national news much to our collective embarrassment. Being contrite and admitting to being caught up in the moment, and doing the wrong thing, can happen to anyone. When students were able to reflect in the broader context of their actions and the actions of their peers, their opinion of the matter changed in the case of tweeting hate at the Chancellor. Many people realized that they did not have to double-down on the mistake, rather, they were able to process the broader impact of the petition and the harm it had caused the institution. Many students modeled reflective leadership and corrective action.
What we learned in the classroom over the racist and sexist tweets directed at Chancellor Wise, which we could use in the case of the firing of Professor Salaita, is that it is never too late to say I’m sorry and do the right thing. If students can do it, certainly the Board of Trustees can.
You could demonstrate what having an education allows for — an opportunity to reverse a course of action based on new information, like the incredible outpouring of concern over academic freedom and what this mistake costs our institution, my alma mater. You could consult the Constitution and the First Amendment experts for a closer reading of Federal law. You could deliberate on what it costs Illinois when hiring safeguards are abandoned, and why faculty governance is important to ensuring experts evaluate other experts, rather than donors (or faculty in other departments) capriciously weighing-in on hiring and firing decisions. You might model the most important lesson of all — that we do not have to hold on to a stance just because it’s too hard to face the surmounting evidence that our position is incorrect.
In the face of evidence about the outstanding scholarship and teaching record of Professor Salaita, there exists a crisis of common sense.
As to the future, I cannot express enough how chilling this firing is, as there are so few underrepresented voices in the academy and we are now fearful in our own intellectual commitments. I have seen many faculty of color leave Illinois because of the hostile environment it fostered toward them in their pursuit of tenure, in their research endeavors, or in their desire to find a greater sense of community and inclusion, and these practices persist today without much regard by the Trustees. Your firing of Professor Salaita does the exact opposite of creating a safe and welcoming campus. These actions have created fear, anxiety and incredible stress for many brilliant scholars and students at the U of I, who now fear that capricious whims of donors and administrators will set the tone for our civic engagement in our communities.
I know it pains many people to cast votes of “no confidence” against Chancellor Wise, and it pains me to watch it from afar. Don’t let the kind of whims I heard as a development director persist. All money is not good money. I urge you to take corrective action and reinstate Professor Steven Salaita to his tenured job in the Department of American Indian Studies.
It’s never too late to say I’m sorry and do the right thing. In fact, it might be the real teachable moment we need.
Safiya Umoja Noble, Assistant Professor, UCLA
Ph.D (’12) and M.S. (’09) Graduate School of Library & Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Safiya Umoja Noble, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Cinema Studies
Institute of Communications Research
Faculty Affiliate to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, Center for African Studies, and the Center for Writing Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
I’m looking forward to my upcoming TEDx Talk on Sunday, April 6th, presented by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The focus of the conference is In Pursuit, produced by students and faculty on campus. My talk will focus on a goal I have of pursing the development of an “Imagine Engine” — come back to see what I mean!
Here’s a link — I was a bundle of nerves and my slides got mangled, but I tried to convey some ideas that I think are important: TEDx Talk: Social Influences on Technology
Professor Sarah T. Roberts at the University of Western Ontario has written an excellent article about the ways in which university ethics test primarily serve the interests of administrators desiring to create a culture of surveillance on campus. She writes:
Amelia, an employee at the university, takes on a teaching job at another state school and is reprimanded when her supervisor (presumably told about this by a coworker of Amelia’s?) learns that Amelia is using her university-issued computer to complete the work. There are two possible choices from which to pick in order to answer the question regarding Amelia’s situation, but none of them ask the one so obvious to my colleagues and to me: why does Amelia need to take on a second job to make ends meet? Why doesn’t the university pay her enough so that that isn’t necessary? And what do we know about the terrible, and often tragic, precarity experienced by people who adjunct full-time? More than the makers of the ethics test, it would seem. Is it any wonder that these ridiculous questions become the punchline to social media posts, or fodder for frustrated blog posts?
This is a must read post, featured in abbreviated form in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for anyone who cares about the shifting culture of the university. It underscores the loss of trust and community as a result of corruption and increased policing.
This is a great op-ed in the NYT by Nikiskia Drayton, discussing the implications of giving her Black child a name that reflects Black/African-American culture. It’s a great complement to Dr. Latonya Sweeney’s article about racial profiling of Black names in Google.
“An image search might not be the only way a “black” name is a disadvantage online. When the Harvard University professor Latanya Sweeney set out to investigate whether race shaped online ad results, she found that searching for her own name on Google.com and Reuters.com, both of which rely on Google’s AdSense for online ad delivery, brought up an ad from InstantCheckmate.com that read, “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?” and “Check Latanya Sweeney’s Arrests.” So-called black-identifying names were “significantly more likely to be accompanied by text suggesting that person had an arrest record, regardless of whether a criminal record existed or not.” (Her research, and responses from the companies concerned, were described in The Huffington Post.)
Reuters and Google have only made concrete an underlying issue that has always existed in America.”