Digital Colonialism

My mind has milled around the term “digital colonialism” and what it actually means for feminist and political discourse online. My visions of this term go beyond the simple social dynamics between little blogs and big blogs, jealousy and book deals, anti-essentialism and white normativity. The way in which we discuss social issues around the world, formulate activist goals, and promote broader internet access facilitates the dynamic of colonialism in digital discourse generally. This is going to be a sloppy piece; but this is what I thought of when I saw the term and why I wound up being so disappointed with what I read. Here’s a bit of the wider lens I referenced.

I’m thinking of my international sisters. The American presence online permeates discourse about issues affecting women in different countries and continents. An example is the passivity projected on women of color in discussions of war and fighting cultural forms of patriarchy in their nations, and how these passive notions affect American feminists’ perceptions of international women of color. The online dynamic reminds me of something that happened to me in class.

Recently, I had a nasty clash with a professor in my perspectives course on gender about taking an anti-essentialist approach to rape dynamics. She argued that the law is normative, and attempting to study the different ways sexual violence affect different women would be too taxing on the system. I countered that the study of women’s cultural backgrounds and creating resources that took these cultural differences into account while helping women cope with violence is NOT a daunting task; it’s common sense. She then gave me an argument on cultural relativism (a completely DIFFERENT attitude than cultural respect and cultural self-determination) as an attempt to refute my argument about these approaches. Say there is a woman who practices Islam who is killed by her father after she is raped, because according to their cultural beliefs, she is impure. How would the court system respect the cultural norms and handle the offense? I balked.

Why she assumed in this example I would default to a cultural standard that inherently goes against women’s interests out of cultural respect, I don’t understand. The argument would proceed that because a culture has an objectionable practice morally in American normativity, all and any other cultural grants must be dismissed during the handling of the crime. When it comes to our international sisters, American-tinged feminism defaults to the patriarchal systems that kill women as evidence that we need to swoop in and save with our “humanism” without true challenge or efforts to preserve the facets that women may cherish and revere. It is a common trope of American feminists — white feminists especially — to appropriate discussions of issues affecting women around the world, and move the discussion away from looking to the women on the ground, formulating solutions, protecting other women, and needing networks of aid and support — not networks of rescuers.

And it’s not uncommon to see this dynamic repeated online. If feminism does not step in wearing the guise of the Western world, the poor brown women of the world will suffer and die because they have not devised the tools to fight the patriarchy where they are. The patriarchy will permanently reign supreme unless we declare war or specifically teach the brown women feminist tenets. This level of discourse does nothing for respecting the women’s groups, initiatives, and community efforts that are already fighting and working on the ground. The groups, networks, and support systems lacking internet connections — or, in some cases, the many prescriptive Western voices are drowning out the voices of the women and activists already present and speaking their truths online.

How do we remedy that dynamic? How do we as women remain accountable to each other without overpowering each other’s voices?

It is not simply an international problem; it happens here in America as well. There are countless people without access to the internet, and who find themselves at the mercy of those who do have access to speak their truths to power. How often do the voices of feminism or the voices of Main Street, for example, reach the ears of the people behind the keyboards? Do people who write and use this medium for contributing to transformative change have an obligation to work for broader internet access and broader outreach?

There is also a broader presence of cyber-discovery, as seen in the recent hoaxes of finding new “tribes” or tracking “dead’ or “dying” languages using digital tools. There’s a distinct Western, anthropological gaze at work that reminds me personally of something out of the 19th century. How is the internet changing how we relate to each other geographically and politically, beyond the idea of having more people to date? How do we address these ways of relating?

I want to read Césairè. Fanon. Colonize This! I want to look at the dynamic that tells me that because I write about myself and my perspectives on things, I am among a coalition of folks who speak for black women, black America, bisexual women, lower-class women, professional women, educated women, women with disabilities, and all things that envelop my identity. I want to talk about the tacit assumptions and erasures that pull into these concepts. I want to learn if anyone feels the same way or if I’m writing with feelers here.

How do we break the idea of claiming digital title on the struggles and identities people possess and own utterly through living?

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