Everyone Watches, Nobody Sees: How Black Women Disrupt Surveillance Theory

Our picture of surveillance needs to factor in not just tech developments, but the cultural standards that have bred surveillance, especially towards black culture, as part and parcel in our world.

by Sydette Harry on October 6th, 2014

What the hell is you looking for? Can’t a young man get money anymore?

It kind of pains me to call Mason Betha prophetic, but 17 years ago when “Looking at Me” hit the Billboard charts, the Harlem native pretty much described the current state of surveillance and tech in America. Especially for black people and doubly so for black women.

Surveillance is based on a presumption of entitlement to access, by right or by force. More importantly, it hinges on the belief that those surveilled will not be able to reject surveillance — either due to the consequences of resisting, or the stealth of the observance. They either won’t say no, or they can’t.

Discussions of stolen celebrity selfies often miss the “by force” aspect of the breeches, instead focusing on salacious details. Surveillance is part of the information age, but it has always been part of abusive dynamics. As opting into surveillance becomes increasingly mandatory to participate in societies and platforms, surveillance has been woven into the fabric of our lives in ways we can not readily reject.

Being watched is not just an activity of Big Brother-style surveillance, but also fannish adulation and social enmeshment. As Black women have been historically denied the ability to consent to surveillance, modern discussion of watching and observing black women needs better historical context. When I’nasah Crockett points out how black women online have constantly been portrayed as “raving amazons,” one of the unspoken through lines is how easily media, even on the left, believes dissecting black women, tracking their online habits, consuming illegally obtained images of them, and demanding education is a “right”. Black women cannot say no, and do not need to be in any way respected or fully informed about how they will be studied or used. Media collects the data of black activity and media production as a weapon, without black participation. The lack of black participation can be unintentional or intentional, but usually ends in gross appropriation, clumsy “admiration”, willful erasure or a troublesome combo of all three. Combined with historical blindness, racist condescension and content desperation, the modern surveillance of black women too often results in the same historical abuse and erasure of black women.

When Patricia Garcia says the that the big booty era has finally arrived as a “high fashion” moment, but credits Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaelea, it erases the very real abuse that black bodies have suffered for those exact body types, that were surveilled to produce the standard that Garcia hands over to Lopez et. al. She writes:

“Rihanna shows up to the CFDA Awards practically naked with her crack fully on display and walks off with a Fashion Icon Award. Perhaps we have Jennifer Lopez to thank (or blame?) for sparking the booty movement.”

Suggesting the way to Rihanna’s 2014 moment was paved by Lopez shows a dangerous laziness towards the stated goal of body positivity. Rihanna’s moment was a direct tribute to Josephine Baker, another black woman often sexualized and placed under surveillance, not just for celebration of her uniquely black body but for her participation in World War II and the civil rights movement. Garcia’s “cultural surveillance” ends up being a contextless mess that insults both Rihanna and Baker.

Tweet from user @rihanna: Happy birthday to the late Josephine Baker! You have and will continue to inspire us women for decades to come! It has an image of Baker juxtaposed with a photo of Rhianna at the CFDA awards.

Writing for Salon, I pointed out that Media has no idea how to talk about race, and more recently I am convinced they do not actually care to learn. Unfortunately when covering Black women, this inability or unwillingness to learn defaults to common stereotypes at best and complete cultural propaganda at worst. That unwillingness create a vacuum of knowledge, as history repeats itself over and over.

Take Alessandra Stanley’s profile of Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times: a cringe-worthy attempt at “complimenting” Rhimes’ stereotype-breaking television output that instead relies on empty surveillance of black characters while Stanley offers no evidence of having actually watched the shows she cites. Stanley’s descriptions of Rhimes and her work are filled with words like “angry, terrorizing and sassy,” recalling Crockett’s angry amazons perfectly while perpetuating and prolonging logic that for decades kept Viola Davis from being the leading lady Stanley describes. Her piece ignores multi-year plot developments as well as a wonderful opportunity to discuss Rhimes’ accomplishments as possibly the only non-white-male with multiple, simultaneous network TV hits. Her surveillance provides little in the way of edification and a lot in codifying uncomfortable catch 22’s for black women and privacy: visibility is part of achievement in media, but is it worth it when even at the pinnacle of your success the only thing made visible is the racism of those observing you?

Even more difficult, how do you fight back?

Photo of Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis on stage.

Photo CC-BY Disney/ABC Television Group, filtered.

Under Surveillance, Over Exposed

Steven Mann’s concept of sousveillance centers on wearing portable cameras and technology to record activity, but I would like to expand it to include all forms of using tech to jam surveillance. Mann, a pioneer in the field of wearable computing and computation photography, framed the concept of wearable cameras functioning as recording data for the user, not an outside network. Hashtags, street recordings, phone taps can all be looked at as ways of using tech to push back against surveillance. #Yourslipisshowing in particular was used to fight #4chan surveillance of black women. Crockett, user @sassycrass, and a community of black women (myself included) used the hashtag to expose 4chan board members who declared “war” on black feminists by tracking and attempting to infiltrate their “ranks.” The attempt was foiled mostly by how their racist caricatures of black women (much like Stanley’s) were so jarringly incongruent with reality.

However, sousveillance often requires large amounts of disclosure to be effective and ultimately negates privacy even more. Hasan M. Elahi responded to being incorrectly surveilled by making a project of displaying his personal information. Similarly, Black women’s responses to abusive surveillance has often been heart-rending accounts of personal trauma and exposure of personal networks. What goes unmentioned is that social capital and safety are often key to being able to go public with sousveillance as a strategy. Mann and Elahi – credentialed, well-known professors – have a much easier time of saying they agree to be watched than those on the margins.

Stacia L. Brown offers a beautiful examination of the ramifications of ahistorical surveillance, discussing representation as well as more diverse media sources as counter-tactics. As Brown points out in response to Garcia’s flippant mess: “It isn’t about who gets credit for popularizing the ‘big booty.’ It’s about who is erased and minimized in the process.”

Her recommendations are solid but also bring up a very real question: for populations whose fundamental problem under surveillance is the inability to declare privacy and boundaries, what kind of solution is being made to expose one’s self “voluntarily,” to invite more observation into one’s life?

The response to these articles and continued moments of ahistorical abuse and sometimes outright violence are a version of cultural sousveillance. Black women must lay themselves bare, exposing trauma and constantly excavating painful historical memory to gain sympathy and respect. Surveillance must be used as sousveillance, with the records generated by the intrusive observation of blackness, used to bolster black testimony.

Buzzfeed has an article that is a triggering reminder of the murkiness of this dilemma. While being one of the few places to acknowledge how Daniel Holtzclaw, a predatory policemen targeted black women, it also notes how he used surveillance, and even the more stringent sousveillance to track black women to abuse. To emphasize the gravity of his offense, once again black women’s trauma is made public with overly specific details on the abuse of his victims.

More disturbingly have been the deaths of three black men: Eric Garner, Michael Brown and John Crawford III, all murdered by police. In all three cases there was video /photo evidence of the deaths that circulated the internet, and in Brown’s case, even AFTER the mother requested it stop. Crawford’s death is a disturbing illustration of the interplay of surveillance and sousveillance with historical discrimination. The police who ultimately ended his life were responding to a report, via citizen surveillance, that he had been observed with a gun. The surveillance video which showed him being shot? Still not enough for indictment.

Why must black death be broadcast and consumed to be believe, and what is it beyond spectacle if it cannot be used to obtain justice?

History Repeating

A broken television.

Photo CC-BY ibkod, filtered.

When Janay Rice was assaulted by her husband, it became a rallying cry for domestic violence and resulted in job creation for white feminists. What stuck out immediately was the ease at which the surveillance aspects were skipped over. Echoing a similar leak of a private moment that targeted the Knowles-Carter family, little discussion was made of how a culture of intrusion seemed to focus on the abuse of black women as breaking news without asking about breaches of boundaries.

That the same online communities that continually prodded and mocked black women are incubators for sex criminals who expose private pictures of celebrities isn’t shocking, it’s inevitable. They watched the world not care, why should they anticipate consequences now? Predators are often wrongly pictured as targeting the defenseless, when they also target the undefended. Black people, women particularly have historically been able to defend themselves, but have also been shown to be undefended. The problem is not that they can’t fight back, but that their fight and the record of what they were fighting is erased and sanitized for easier consumption.

When Laurie Penny and Lola Okolosie claim a victory over racist and sexists online, they willfully erase the original problem of targeted women not wanting to be surveilled, and shut down conversations about how that issue can be addressed. If they have won already, what does the trauma of the women used in that success matter?

Just recently, threats to “expose” Emma Watson’s nudes turned out to be a prank to “draw attention” to attacks on feminists. The very real trauma of women — who even after they were transgressed were asked to answer for it like they had committed the crime — becomes a “gotcha” moment. A time to ask what factors lead to the abuse of women and where it starts — usually with black women expressing feminist or anti-racist ideals — becomes covered in really uncomfortable racist/classist overtones, namely: “What happens if this happens to a white woman we actually care about?!” Even as women of all colors have been fighting for years to make legislation against revenge porn.

When Janay Rice was assaulted by her husband, it became a rallying cry for domestic violence and resulted in job creation for white feminists. It’s a cry that does not truly encompass the necessary complexity of the problem in the NFL, or give anything at all to the attacked woman. This major step to “address issues” still hinges on making a black woman’s personal affairs heartbreakingly public and assuring that no one who represents her voice — which has asked for very different things than advocacy — will be heard.

What We Call Surveillance

Photo of surveillance cameras.

Photo CC-BY Andy Roberts, filtered.

What we have decided to call surveillance is actually a constant interplay of various forms of monitoring that have existed and focused on black people, and specifically black women, long before cameras were around, let alone ubiquitous. Surveillance technology is a dissemination of cultural standards of monitoring. Our picture of surveillance needs to factor in not just tech developments, but the cultural standards that have bred surveillance, especially towards black culture, as part and parcel in our world.

Elahi can use the intrusion into his privacy to further his work. But if all you want to do is have space to mind your own business, handle your family issues in private, or exist without interference, sousveillance isn’t an answer… it’s a reminder of defeat. If what you want is representation as you are, what do you do when the reality is ignored for the easy win, even when it leaves you worse than before?

What is the solution for being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?