Learning Race and Ethnicity, in the MacArthur Foundation/MIT Press Series

Learning, Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media is the fourth book I’ve read in the MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Digital Media and Learning. This volume, edited by Anna Everett, is the furthest from my own field — law — and, for me, the most challenging.

Prof. Everett’s opening essay, (which follows the excellent foreword by the series authors, as with each volume in the series), is an effective overview of what follows in the volume. She takes up the familiar debate about the term “digital divide” and why it now rankles more than it helps. She also reminds us that the old joke about how online nobody knows you’re a dog is no longer true, with the advent of rich media and other “advances” in digital technology and how it’s used. I was left, from her chapter, with one line resonating in particular: “the color of the dog counts.” (p. 5)

The rest of the volume consists of three clusters. Future Visions and Excavated Pasts is the first. Dara Byrne leads off with a piece on the future of race. She pulls in and incorporates a series of great quotes from message boards and other online public spaces; takes up (and takes on) John Rawls on the public/private question that runs through so many of our discussions of online life, (p. 22); and digs deep on the future of whether there will be dedicated sites for different races as we look ahead. The punchline is that yes, “minority youth must have access to dedicated online spaces, not just mainstream or ‘race neutral’ ones.” (p. 33)

Tyrone Taborn’s “Separating Race from Technology” is the other essay in this first cluster. Tayborn compares the likelihood of any group of students (“majority white or minority, rich or poor”) knowing Kobe Bryant and Dr. Mark Dean, the African-American engineer involved in IBM’s development of the first PC. His point is clear. As one of a series of possible solutions to the problem of too few minority youth having mentors and heroes in the technology world, Tayborn calls for Digital Media Cultural Mentoring (p. 56).

The second cluster of essays take up art and culture in the digital domain. Raiford Guins guides the reader through a tour of the ways that hip-hop culture, art, and use of technology come together online in the form of “black cultural production in the form of hip-hop 2.0.” (p. 78) It’s a must-read essay; heplful to read with a browser open and a fast broadband connection on tap. Guins has an intriguing segment on the future of the music label, among other take-aways (p. 69 – 70).

Guins’ essay is well-paired with Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre’s celebration and contextualization of Judy Baca’s work at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in LA. (One wonders why LA gets more than its fair share of intriguing digital media production experiments and narratives?) Among other things, Sandoval and Latorre challenge the notion of “digital youth” and the challenges of overly delimiting based just on age — a helpful reminder of a point too easily forgotten. (p. 85) In the final essay of the cluster, Antonio Lopez offers insights into (and concerns about) digital media literacy with respect to Native American populations, told largely in the first person.

Jessie Daniels opens the third cluster with a jarring piece on hate, racism, and white supremacy online. Daniels picks up on themes about the fallacy of colorblindness established in Anna Everett’s introduction. With a link to Henry Jenkins‘ work, Daniels argues for a “multiple literacies” approach to shaping our shared cultural future online and offline. (p. 148 – 50)

Yet more jarring, to me anyway, is Douglas Thomas’s piece on online gaming cultures, called “KPK, Inc.: Race, Nation, and Emergent Culture in Onling Games.” Thomas draws us into gaming environments only to reveal a culture of wild adventure, first-person shooter games, acquisition, treasure, money, and hate all rolled together. The crux of his argument centers on the “Korean problem,” (p. 163-4), a blend of bigotry, nationalism, and competitiveness. The racists that Thomas exposes “are usually Americans / Canadians and white” — and gamers. (p. 164) Along the way, Thomas distinguishes his approach from that of our Berkman colleague Beth Kolko. (p. 155-6)

The final essay, by Mohan Dutta, Graham Bodie, and Ambar Basus takes us in a new direction, further afield, toward the intersection of race, youth, Internet, health, and information. The authors synthesize a great deal of disparate information in unexpected ways. The essay left with an expanded frame of vision, and a frame that I never would have come up with on my own. Their punchline: “disparities in technology uses and health information seeking reflect broader structural disparaties in society that adversely affect communities of color.” (p. 192)

On balance, this collection of essays hangs together very well. Each essay takes a on strong point of view. Overall, the collection both informed my thinking and provoked more by raising hard issues about the impact of growing up online for race, ethnicity, identity, and health.

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