By Tania Uruchima
Introduction: Why Tumblr?
The summer I returned home from my first year at college, I dealt with the beginning of a long run of growing pains. I am a first-generation college student from a low-income immigrant family that was thrilled, and a little perplexed, at my enrollment in a prestigious liberal arts college. My first summer break, I spent days telling my family everything, trying to put into words how vastly different were the things I saw, the people I spoke to, even the things I ate. To my increasing disappointment, I realized that those I had left back home didn’t have the context to understand what I was going through. I learned to pull back, learned that talk of structures and theories had to stay at my college. Home was not a place where I knew how to translate this new knowledge.
My second year of college, I began uncovering race and ethnicity in an academic setting, encountering a language and a way of thinking I had never imagined. What had at first been only vague suspicions and frustrations were finally given names, and I wielded my new language as much as I could. Unfortunately, this meant nearly constantly pestering my wealthy, white, and infinitely patient roommate with phrases like “check your privilege!” and “you’re being really white right now.” After a few months of studying race, I dropped this habit to focus more on the structures around me and less on individually harassing my white friends. Though many of my friends were people of color, they did not seem to share my interest in race and were likely relieved to see I stopped speaking on it. Though among my friends we had created a home, it was not a space where I could experiment with understanding race and ethnicity in my daily life. Ultimately, I found the theories on race that I wanted to discuss were in words too esoteric for home, and not quite right among my college friends.
It was in my third year that I began to be formally involved on Tumblr. I created an account to follow blogs that were sharing a variety of posts on race, treating what was deadly serious in the classroom with an irony, sarcasm, and humor that was a refreshing change from impenetrable academic texts. Through Tumblr, I was keeping up with voices who spoke on race and ethnicity in ways that felt fresh and compelling and made sense in my life. Though I still valued the theories I learned in the classroom, it was through Tumblr that I encountered a language and an attitude that gave me the conviction I needed to see society through sharper eyes.
Despite my experiences, I struggled to put forward my interest in Tumblr as a concrete research topic. I was struck primarily by a powerful push to act within the confines of what I understood to be proper academic norms. Studying any form of social media did not feel like a serious topic worth consideration. This feeling was only exacerbated by the content that I was looking to write about, words and thoughts that were likely not ‘appropriate’ by academic standards. However, I’ve come to accept modern life as inseparable from the online realm. As such, speaking of the internet as a vice of younger generations is to blindly ignore the reality of the world in which we live (Deuze 2012). Tumblr may be messy and outside the academic sphere, but no more so than the realities of our day-to-day life.
My belief in the potential of Tumblr leads me to focus my research on exploring how young people of color are developing and expressing a sense of critical awareness regarding race and ethnicity through Tumblr. Regarding my earlier hesitation regarding Tumblr’s legitimacy, I also ask how other youth are considering the benefits, limitations, and importance of doing so on this platform. Focusing on a small sample size means that this exploration is not a generalization of people who use Tumblr, but instead simply an effort to illuminate how two student bloggers are using this space.
Becoming A Researcher
Despite my newfound enthusiasm for the possibilities of this project, I soon realized that I would need to give significant thought to a number of considerations that would limit the way I carry out my work. My concerns were threefold: the personal doubts I had about my changing role as a participant of this community turned researcher, the ethical considerations of maintaining anonymity and a sense of respect for my respondents, and the practical manner of choosing blogs to focus on and recruiting busy students to talk with me.
I was initially very cautious about recruiting respondents. I’ve seen firsthand how bloggers can be highly dismissive of those who ask ignorant questions or those who (un)intentionally made demands of the bloggers and their time. I worried that if I approached potential respondents and appeared to be a pretentious ‘scholar’ I would ruin my chances of recruiting willing participants. Therefore, it was important to me to identify who I was to potential respondents to show that my interest is not an idle curiosity and that I would not make tedious and predictable comments about how they were blogging.
In approaching potential respondents, I struggled to acknowledge academic norms of objectivity with my belief in the need to contextualize yourself in your identities. I needed to maintain some sense of professionalism in my interactions, a tricky balance to maintain considering the personal investments I had to Tumblr and this ‘community.’ As Driscoll and Gregg (2010: 16) state, “Ethnography is powerfully affected by an inevitable blurring of work/life boundaries in the act of research, but virtual ethnographers must remember the degree to which, as academics and citizens of contemporary culture, we are already participants in online culture.” It was this blurring that led to my eventual compromise: to keep my communications with my respondents in semi-professional language, but link my personal Tumblr in my initial messages. My decision to link to my personal blog was so that, should these bloggers have questions about whom they were talking to or what my beliefs were, they would have the option to look over my Tumblr and see my history of reblogging content on race and ethnicity. This additional information could have influenced what they said to me, but it was ultimately necessary for me to create a healthier power dynamic than approaching anonymously allows.
To influence my work, I turned to Drager’s (2012) study of the trans* youth on Tumblr that are forming online communities. I looked to Drager’s methodology to see how they handled critical questions of privacy, respect, and the nuances between the public and private dynamics of the internet. It was surprising to see that they decided to embark on an in-depth study of four trans* youth without informing them that their blogs were the subject of extensive research. The blogger’s names were also included, alongside links to their personal Tumblr. Drager’s decision was based on the fact that the blogs were public and easily accessible information, and posts could be traced back to the blogger, regardless of attempts at anonymity (Drager 2012: 17). I understand the logic behind this, and taking this approach would have made my project much simpler to carry out. However, I decided that I am ultimately not comfortable following a similar methodology. I agree the public aspect of blogging means that the information is out in the open, yet I don’t feel as if it is respectful to use their words for purposes that are likely far outside their original intent. This decision made the ethical responsibility of maintaining anonymity challenging.
To collect data, I took two approaches – reaching out to bloggers personally, and examining the content of their blogs as a separate entity. Though blogger and blog are connected, many of the blogs are managed by multiple moderators (mods), and are thus not the product of one person’s opinions. Focusing only on blogs run by multiple mods was a necessary decision but one that limited my options. It was important to me to be able to directly connect the person’s thoughts on Tumblr to their blog, but if I studied a blog run by only one person, the anonymity is no longer there. Unfortunately, the consequence of referring to an unidentified mod on an identified blog is that I am unable to provide more than a very cursory description of the respondent, and further, I cannot directly reference quotes from the blogs, since this information is easily searchable. In this paper, all names are changed, but blog names are not.
I reached out to twenty-six mods total, and received positive responses from five in return, ultimately maintaining sustained responses from two bloggers. To these moderators I sent out a survey with a set of open-ended questions via email. My goal was to carry out an in-depth Skype interview based off of these initial questions; however, the feedback I received suggested that personal obligations would make it nearly impossible to meet, keeping in mind the difference in time zones that limited our available working hours.
To analyze the blogs, I checked the Frequently Asked Questions pages, the information posted on the sidebars, and checked the sub-menus to see what quirks each blog had in terms of content they wanted to present. In order to examine a range of posts from each blog, I decided to record approximately 70 posts collected over three separate sessions, choosing different days of the week and different times of the day across approximately a two week period. These I grouped into loose categories based on the message of the posts. There was some overlap for the posts, but it was ultimately a useful exercise that allowed me to sort through what types of themes each blog was engaging.
Rachel on Taking Back Our Culture
I was very enthusiastic about reaching out to my first respondent, Rachel, because of her work as one of the mods on a very active blog called “Taking Back Our Culture” (TBOC). Rachel identifies as a woman of color and is a college student in the United States. She started on Tumblr a few years ago, joining because within her social circle it was the newest alternative to other social media like MySpace and Facebook. Before working on TBOC, she maintained another blog but eventually quit to take a break for personal reasons. Upon her return to the social networking website, she began working on Taking Back Our Culture, and has been doing so for a year now.
Using social media to engage contemporary social issues is not a new phenomenon. Consider the state of one’s Facebook feed after a major event, like the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 or the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the US. The majority of youth have a public platform from which to express themselves, and are often expected to do so, in order to at least appear politically aware or active. This is referred to by some as slactivism or armchair activism, and is a frequent point of contention among those who point out the negatives in the ease with which we discuss social issues on the web. Those who argue against the validity of this online activity say that simply hitting “share” to broadcast an opinion to your social circle is not a legitimate engagement with social issues.
However, Tumblr URLs are rarely publicly known within one’s social circles, not to mention to the larger “friend” (read: acquaintance) circle that is maintained through Facebook. It is true that we are constantly managing the performances of our online selves, and when we act online, we do so with our potential audiences in mind (Deuze 2012: 247). However, if one keeps a personal Tumblr URL private, and if there isn’t the pressure to look politically savvy to one’s social circle, what is the incentive to post extensively on race and ethnicity? It appears as if there is little motivation to perform among strangers who are hardly able to hold us accountable offline.
Considering this debate, I examined the content of Taking Back Our Culture. It is entirely social justice-oriented, but perhaps more notable is that it is updated much more regularly and extensively than many other blogs of a similar nature. Therefore, I wanted to know why Rachel participated in a blog with such a specific focus, and what motivates her continued participation on a demanding blog. She notes that her interest in issues of race and ethnicity began at least a year ago, and came about because of her position as a person of color (POC). “I wanted to learn more about what other POC went through, since I was ashamed to be [a POC] with internalized racism.” She states that these issues are things she goes through “mostly every day of my life.”
Unsurprisingly, like many other users, Rachel logs in to Tumblr when she’s bored or procrastinating. However, what came as a shock to me was her response to the question of whether her motivation to continue participating in a blog has changed. I expected to learn more about her reason for committing to this as an online project, when it is all too common for blogs to remain stagnant after an initial burst of use. Her response, rather than addressing what kept her motivated to work on the blog, instead spoke of a declining interest in engaging with Tumblr. With regards to her motivation, she writes, “It changed because most of my friends are growing up… deleted and got on with their lives. It’s not as interesting as it was before, and deleting [her first blog] before helped me find out that it’s just a social media network.” At the same time that she expresses a personal declining interest in Tumblr, she writes that she “learns a lot” and, with the aid of Tumblr, is able to keep up with the social justice issues she cares about and shares opinions with others.
How do we work with this discrepancy in action and feeling? Her current personal motivations seem to be lower than what one would expect for a mod in such an active blog. Some may argue that a moderator in a highly developed blog claiming Tumblr to be “just a social media network” is evidence that online social and political expression is truly just meaningless slactivism. However, I think here it’s necessary to separate the person from the blog. While Tumblr isn’t so much of a preoccupation in Rachel’s life anymore, she goes on to clarify that she thinks the blog is important, “in its own way.” Even if Rachel’s interests are developing beyond what Tumblr can offer her, she states that there’s something in this blog that has value in what it provides, even if it’s limited by being “just a social media network.”
Nora & Mixed Latinxs
As another respondent’s survey came back to me, I was prepared to drastically rethink my original assumptions about Tumblr as a potential tool for encouraging a critical awareness of race. Because I was so involved in Tumblr, and because it was so informative for me, I had based my research questions and underlying assumptions off of this optimism. It seemed that being involved in the space first and a researcher second had given me a skewed perspective on what was really going on when people logged on to the site. While this was disappointing, I realized that it was an important experience to go through, since my original questions posed had leaned towards a neutral or positive perspective on Tumblr, without allowing the respondent to veer the other way.
With this in mind, I approached Nora’s responses with a more open mind. Nora is another US-based blogger attending university, and is a woman of color of mixed racial and ethnic origin. It was with this background that she participates in Mixed Latinxs, a social activist blog that she says “focuses on the marginalization of people of color.” Like Rachel, she also did not have a social activist lean in mind when she began using Tumblr; rather, she wanted to use it as a space to share photos and express herself. She has been involved on Tumblr for a long period of time, using it for five years and at least once a day.
Nora’s upbringing and the proximity of “a majority of privileged people” that were white and wealthy led to her struggle with race and ethnicity. Much like Rachel, she came to the realization that she had “a lot of internalized issues,” due in part to people’s jokes on her ethnicity. She remembers that she would laugh off the jokes, not knowing that they were actually harmful until she began college. It was there that she learned about different forms of oppression and made the connection to her personal life, recognizing the importance of these issues. This interest peaked in early 2014 with a class on intersectionality, and it was then that she began to lean towards blogging about these issues and following people who were interested in the same.
When asked about Tumblr’s ability to serve as an important, useful, or effective place for these discussions, Rachel had succinctly agreed and stated that it was the amount of Tumblr’s users that made it an important space, although again, it was not as important to her. Nora on the other hand responded with a much more enthusiastic viewpoint, noting that it provides an easy and simple way of spreading information, particularly to those who don’t have access to this type of information otherwise. She emphasizes the educational aspect of it, saying that people can educate themselves, and it serves as a good start for those who wish to do so.
Though she and Rachel both express similar intentions in joining Tumblr and both express some reservations about continued usage, they diverge significantly in what the website means to them. For Nora, the more she uses Tumblr, the more important it becomes to her. It seems as if the primary reward for her involvement is the opportunity to read other people’s experiences and learning from them. While she acknowledges some negativity on the blog, she says “every time someone messages me, letting me know how I’ve helped them in some way or another, it motivates me to stay.”
How do we make sense of how two bloggers with high content overlap end up with very different notions on Tumblr as a general activity and as a personal one? Again, this research doesn’t intend to make generalizations about the young people who work on these blogs, but instead present a close look at how online activity among youth concerning race and ethnicity can occur. In order to understand more about what is happening, I examine both blogs separately to see how youth are expressing themselves, what they are choosing to say and how they say it. In doing so, I argue against the notion that online activity is necessarily superficial or illegitimate because it is not couched in academic terms.
Tumblr and Critical Race Theory
My experience with following Taking Back Our Culture leads me to understand the atmosphere of the blog as unapologetically blunt in dismissing racism and racist actions, and run in an almost business-like fashion. The blog is complex in its layout, with multiple sections to navigate to, like Men of Color Monday, Racists of Tumblr, and White Nonsense. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section is much lengthier than other blogs’, providing answers to many common questions about racism in a way that is at times supportive, but mostly very abrupt. The head of the FAQ page features a quote attributed to Steve Lockes stating that POC can’t talk to white people about race anymore, and afterwards, provides a description of each of the 12 moderators before leading into the actual FAQ. We can assume that many people are demanding some type of dialogue with TBOC, as the FAQ ends with a call for patience regarding user-submitted questions. The moderators give a range of explanations for why someone may have not had their question answered yet. These include: “We have lives that doesn’t (sic) revolve around this blog and obeying your every whim,” “It doesn’t deserve our attention,” and “Google has thousands and thousands of answers for your very simple question.” The FAQ reminds visitors that the mods “receive hundreds [of questions] every week” (Taking Back Our Culture, FAQ).
Also noteworthy about this blog is the way it deals with negative aspects of whiteness. For example, examine the profile image, which is the main image on the sidebar of TBOC (see left). The image is of a bottle of mayonnaise wearing a Native American headdress, with the word ‘Namaste’ on the label, a bindi on the front, and dreadlocks. This image is easy to understand for those familiar with the blog and how it tackles issues of appropriation, and the language and tone it employs in doing so. The FAQ states that they do not ‘hate white people’ (“We hate white supremacy, racism and the actions of those racist white people”), yet they approach issues of appropriative whiteness through humor and irony (Taking Back Our Culture, FAQ). In this image, we see the bottle of mayonnaise since this blog at times refers to white people who are being ignorant or racist as “mayo,” because of the habit by white people of referring to darker skin colors by foods (chocolate skin). The ‘Namaste’ label, bindi, dreadlocks, and Native American headdress are featured in the image because of how they are appropriated by white people who selectively embrace the aesthetic aspects of a culture. This image is likely offensive to some, but is an accurate representation of the way that the blog uses dry humor to make negative aspects of whiteness visible, when it is all too invisible (Perry 2001: 84).
Noting that the general attitude projected by the blog is one that is (arguably) offensive and abrupt is not to suggest something negative about the blog itself. Instead, we should consider the discourses used in this blog in terms of theories of agency. If we argue that youth agency encompasses activities such as humor and simply hanging out, then it’s necessary to take seriously the type of language used in this platform (see Willis 1977, on “having a laff”). As Bucholtz (2002: 535) states, we should not focus on problematizing youth actions as social violations, but instead as “agentive interventions into ongoing sociocultural change” and as “acts of cultural critique and cultural production.” I argue that this blog is a source of online agency, in that they have created a space where they can speak in ways that resonate with them, reclaiming power through language. This blog is a space where language and ideas that are traditionally shunned by the mainstream are able to exist in a collaborative space that legitimizes the value of this type of purposeful humor. In this space, the moderators become the authorities and the experts, and are able to teach race and racism in their own manner to an audience that clearly seeks dialogue through submitting hundreds of questions a week. In this space, they set their own rules, rather than following the rules of discourse set by mainstream society.
This type of language, a tongue-in-cheek dismissiveness of damaging whiteness, will likely remain housed in small niches, like the environment created within TBOC. Just recently, incoming Boston University professor Saida Grundy recently Tweeted comments like “why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” (Wells 2015). Unsurprisingly, the backlash was severe. However, if we’re able to read past the abruptness, we can understand from Professor Grundy’s words her pointed effort to call out the invisible problem of damaging whiteness, which she says in terms that the mainstream itself uses in describing populations of black and brown youth. This interpretation was lost on many, who remained stuck on the idea that the words simply expressed distaste for all white males. Though Professor Grundy has legitimacy through her title and authority, it’s still controversial for her to express herself outside of academic discourses, and we can imagine that bloggers without her title find it even harder to do so and get respect outside of these circles.
Though the type of language TBOC employs may always remain outside mainstream recognition, the content shared through the blog can’t be easily dismissed, if we look past the words and utilize an existing theoretical framework. After examining the 70 posts from TBOC and grouping them into loose categories, it appears that the most common types of posts were those that engaged with current events in a critical way. This includes posts that challenged the way current events were framed by the media, posts that contextualized current events in a long history of racism, and posts that raised awareness to issues or events that were ignored by the public. This type of awareness of the nuances in race today is best understood with critical race theory (CRT). Critical race theory is a movement that studies race, racism and power dynamics in terms of “economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious” (Delgado 2012: 3). It questions the liberalism that exists today, noting that, despite the prevalence of colorblindness, racism is still “ordinary, not aberrational” and is persistent because of the functions it has in preserving the dominant group (2012: 7). Additionally, it argues for the value of storytelling by people of color as a method of challenging dominant narratives (2012: 10). Importantly, CRT holds activism as one of its key values, stressing the necessity of transformation alongside understanding (2012: 7). It’s clear from my survey of posts reblogged by TBOC that the content is very faithful to the ideas advocated within CRT, despite being converted into the language of this community.
Examining the second blog, Mixed Latinxs (ML), reveals a completely different focus and environment than TBOC. Mixed Latinxs lacks the complexity in visuals and content that TBOC utilizes because it appears to fulfill a different purpose than TBOC. ML’s main page simply states that it is a place for “mixed Latinx people to discuss their experiences,” with a photo of Latin America. Indeed, the tone of voice that the three moderators use is generally neutral but often supportive and even comforting. Examining the FAQ of this blog, it’s clear that it lacks the brisk, businesslike demeanor that TBOC has, choosing instead to answer a few basic questions on being Latinx and being mixed in a language that was neutrally informative. Instead of being a place to engage in potentially controversial debate, it feels instead like a supportive space.
Though both blogs deal with race and ethnicity, the content of ML is not at all similar to the type of message that TBOC sends. The vast majority of posts that I recorded were part of something called #Latinxtuesdays, a weekly movement where people of color submitted selfies and brief biographies of themselves to the blog, discussing their experiences being mixed race and generally praising the blog for being a place to celebrate their origins. These brief autobiographies speak of some process of coming to terms with mixed race status, and speak of a transformation to feelings of pride and self-discovery. If we conform to the binary thinking of social media as superficial, we completely miss the meaning of these purposeful selfies, where young people are using the internet to celebrate and embrace the race and ethnicities that are often unavoidable in being in their physical features.
While ML also at times reblogged current events, the majority of the content posted are images that appreciate Latinxs, the history of Latinx people, and images of Latinx nations of origins and their cultural practices. Though it doesn’t engage in the same type of heavy societal critique as TBOC, it appears that this blog also speaks to the ideas in CRT, specifically the storytelling aspects. Instead of focusing on the racism in society that acts against people of color, it seems as if the majority of posts focus on the self, on what Nora refers to as “internalized issues” concerning people’s personal relationships with their races and ethnicities. Their stories about learning to embrace their race and ethnicities despite mainstream narratives against people of color speaks to a struggle that, as critical race theory suggests, white people may not be able to understand themselves. Ultimately, this can be regarded as an empowering space, as youth can discuss their personal development with others who are going through the same thing, or have gone through similar things already.
Imagining the Potential
If we establish that the content of both blogs follow the tenets of critical race theory, then we’re left with the promising idea that youth on Tumblr are creating and shaping spaces in which they are able to question the world and themselves on their own terms. On these blogs, youth are able to speak amongst themselves in discourses that are humorous and abrasive or earnest and comforting, leaping back and forth between the strength of academic theory and the relevancy of personal experience. However, as promising as this seems, what do we make of Rachel’s attitude towards Tumblr as just another social media site?
One way that we can potentially understand this discrepancy in experience is by turning to Stuart Hall’s (1992) theories on identity. Hall describes the post-modern subject as someone with no essential or permanent identity, noting, “the fully unified, completed, secure and coherent identity is a fantasy” (1992: 277). Though he discusses this in terms of cultural and national identity, the same holds true for our changing emotional and intellectual identities. Because race and ethnicity are such personal subjects, it makes sense that as young people progress through university and engage with different people and different experiences, their interactions with race and ethnicity change as well. Perhaps as Rachel approaches the end of her time in university, her emotional and intellectual needs are outgrowing what the online realm can offer her, in comparison to the offline potential.
If this is the case, then the question of how Tumblr aids in developing a critical awareness must reflect the personal contexts of the youth who are using it. At what stage in our personal development can engaging in Tumblr be most useful? Those who are just beginning to recognize their internalized racism may benefit most from discovering a community on Mixed Latinxs that is working through the same things, while those who have already done so may benefit most from hearing voices that encourage youth to challenge what they see in the world around them.
Critical race theory advocates for an activist dimension to theory, to actively work on transforming the world and its injustices. Yet one common critique of the internet in general is that it fails to do so meaningfully. Working through this debate requires moving past an either/or dichotomy and looking instead at the in-between. Developing a generation of activists who have the critical awareness to even believe that the world is open for transformation requires giving youth the space to engage in the in-between. As Rachel said, Tumblr is important “in it’s own way,” and I believe its value is in serving as a space where youth have the opportunity to come into contact with ideas that may be unfamiliar and strange to them, on their own territory. Here they may encounter ideas that have the potential to become foundational seeds in their minds. The fact that this is done over the internet doesn’t mean it’s inherently superficial, as our offline lives are inextricable from our online ones. Perhaps the most important understanding I’ve come to is that when we speak of Tumblr and of the internet, we should remember the agents behind it. Tumblr as a piece of technology cannot itself create activists or racially aware young people. It’s the young people who make up Tumblr, who are creating and sharing, that give it its potential to become a tool for education and transformation. The promise of Tumblr is in providing a platform for different types of students to experiment in creating online worlds that suit their needs, and have the chance to swell out to the environments around us.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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