Imagine Otherwise: Catherine Knight Steele on Black Feminist Extensions of Grace
About the episode
One of the most common refrains heard across the past year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic is how unbalanced our work and home lives feel. As work tools take over kitchen tables and schedules become even more difficult to coordinate, many of us hope that a new app or platform can deliver us more balance in our daily lives.
The very concept of a digitally mediated work-life balance reveals the faith we are encouraged to place in technology to fix the problems of capitalism as well as the racially gendered labor that props it up.
Queer technologists, Indigenous hacktivists, and feminist scholars of color, among others, have long pointed out that power dynamics are built into the technologies we rely on to do this fixing, even if we’re encouraged to assume tech is somehow neutral.
So how can we approach work-life balance and technology differently?
In episode 142 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews digital studies scholar and professor Catherine Knight Steele.
Catherine’s work reveals the central role Black women and Black feminists have played in developing, challenging, and transforming our digital technologies.
Approaching Black digital studies holistically, Catherine shows how marginalized groups build lasting community through online, in-person, and hybrid practices, including sustainable models for mentorship and mutual support.
In their conversation, Catherine and Cathy chat about why extensions of grace and collaboration are so crucial to building the future of Black digital studies as well as a supportive world more broadly.
They also explore the nonlinear paths that bring us to our areas of research and how learning to value that nonlinerarity can often be the key to writing a book or creating a project that feeds your soul, not just professional requirements.
Finally, they close out the episode with Catherine’s techniques for redefining the history and future of technology in ways that place Black women at the very center.
Guest: Catherine Knight Steele
Catherine Knight Steele is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Maryland, College Park and was the founding director of the African American Digital Humanities Initiative.
She now directs the Black Communication and Technology Lab (BCaT) as a part of the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, and Optimism (DISCO) Network funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Her research focuses on race, gender, and media, with a specific emphasis on African American culture and discourse in traditional and new media. She examines representations of marginalized communities in the media and how groups resist oppression and practice joy using online technology to create spaces of community.
Catherine’s research on the Black blogosphere, digital discourses of resistance and joy, and digital Black feminism has been published in such journals as Social Media + Society; Information, Communication and Society; and Television and New Media.
She is the author of Digital Black Feminism (NYU Press, 2021), which examines the relationship between Black women and technology as a centuries-long gendered and racial project in the US.
- Extending grace to ourselves and others as Black feminist praxis
- Building a pipeline of Black digital studies scholars across geographies, institutions, and generations
- How to take time and space to turn your dissertation into a book that feeds your soul, not just professional requirements
- Building a Black feminist digital future
Learn more about Catherine Knight Steele
Click to read the transcript
[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.
[00:00:19] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
[00:00:22] One of the most common refrains heard across the past year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic is how unbalanced our work and home lives feel. As work tools take over kitchen tables and schedules become even more difficult to coordinate than they were before, many of us hope that a new app or a new platform can deliver us more balance in our daily lives.
[00:00:43] The very concept of a digitally mediated work-life balance reveals the faith that we’re encouraged to place in technology to fix the problems of capitalism, as well as the racially gendered labor that prop it up.
[00:00:56] But queer technologists, Indigenous hacktivists, and feminist scholars of color, among many, many others, have long pointed out that power dynamics are built into the technologies that we rely on to do this kind of fixing, even if we’re encouraged to assume tech is somehow neutral.
[00:01:13] So how can we approach work-life balance and technology differently?
[00:01:18] My guest on the show today is digital studies scholar and professor Catherine Knight Steele, whose work reveals the central role that Black women and Black feminists have played in developing, challenging, and transforming our digital technologies.
[00:01:32] Approaching Black digital studies holistically, Catherine shows how marginalized groups build lasting community through online, in-person, and hybrid practices, including sustainable models for mentorship and mutual support.
[00:01:46] In our conversation, Catherine and I chat about why extensions of grace and collaboration are so crucial to building the future of Black digital studies, as well as a supportive world more broadly.
[00:02:00] We also explore the nonlinear paths that bring us to our areas of research and how learning to value that nonlinearity can often be the key to writing a book or creating a project that feeds your soul, not just professional requirements.
[00:02:15] Finally, we close out the episode with Catherine’s techniques for redefining the history and future of technology in ways that place Black women at the very center.
[00:02:25] Thank you so much for being with us today.
[00:02:28] Catherine Knight Steele: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:02:30] Cathy Hannabach: I was very excited to have you on the show to talk about balance because I’ve had so many conversations lately with friends, colleagues, and it feels like everybody about the challenges of finding balance during a pandemic, and what on earth does that mean, as if it were not hard enough before.
[00:02:48] But I’ve also noticed some really creative ways that people are learning to adapt their writing routines, their daily routines, or teaching practices to deliberately create more space for balance. So I’m curious, how are you approaching balance in your various endeavors these days?
[00:03:08] Catherine Knight Steele: Great question. I think this pandemic and all of the events of the last year and a half have really forced all of us to think about how we make space for what’s important and carve out time for ourselves.
[00:03:22] I don’t know that I believe in the concept of balance as much as I used to advocate for it. I do absolutely advocate for people finding the space to do the things that they love alongside the things that they must do. But I have been thinking a lot about how the striving for balance has created such an additional burden, particularly on women and people of color, because society doesn’t really give us the space for it. And yet we’re always striving forward and feeling like we’re failing at it.
[00:03:51] I heard a really interesting audio book the other day from Gabrielle Union, who talked about instead of striving for balance, how she really is focused on extensions of grace to herself and to the people around her. And I liked that framing so much that I might steal it for myself and just say that I think that instead of finding balance, I have found ways to extend myself the grace of knowing that I am not going to accomplish all of the things all at once.
[00:04:19] I have the space to decide on a given day what things fill me up and what things don’t. And I have the fortunate privilege of having a partner who also extends me that grace, so that we can give it to each other, between finding the space to raise kids and write and teach, all at the same time from home in the same year.
[00:04:43] Cathy Hannabach: I know one of the things that you’re juggling or balancing or extending grace around for yourself and for your colleagues is a really exciting new endeavor, the Black Communication and Technology Lab. This is, I think, a really exciting new initiative that takes a different approach to building a pipeline of Black digital studies scholars all the way from high school students to senior faculty and industry folks.
[00:05:09] The holistic approach to Black digital studies that this lab takes is, I think, one of the most intriguing things about it and one of the things I think has the most potential to change how this field emerges. I notice you’re emphasizing things like mentoring and writing, these very practical, mundane, daily practices that often drop out of the conversation in favor of research or teaching—both of which are very important but aren’t the whole thing.
[00:05:39] What do you hope that that holistic approach will bring to digital studies as a field and maybe to technology more broadly?
[00:05:47] Catherine Knight Steele: I had the opportunity to direct the AADHum Initiative for a few years at the University of Maryland. It was the first big administrative thing I did. I had the freedom to figure out for myself what that would look like and what we would focus on.
[00:06:05] Not surprisingly, instead of focusing all of our attention on training people with tools or creating a pipeline for publishing, we focused most of our attention on creating community for folks doing the work because so many people at the graduate student level and at faculty levels are existing in spaces and departments where they’re by themselves.
[00:06:28] Doing work in a way that is fulfilling, in a way that is sustaining, by yourself is really hard to do. I think some of the best things that I learned from that time of working in that program, and from digital humanities praxis more generally combined with Black feminist praxis, is the idea of community as the way to sustain oneself and to push forward agendas toward justice and equity.
[00:06:55] So the BCaT Lab, the Black Communication and Technology Lab, our main focus is really going to be on creating a space of community for people at different stages of their career, whether they’re already in the professoriate or applying for programs but also, as you mentioned, going all the way back into high schools, hopefully, in our area.
[00:07:13] To really allow people at the same time that they’re receiving mentoring help to be providing that to folks who are coming behind them. I think it’s just such an integral part of what I was taught as Black feminist practice in terms of how we advance forward toward more equity and more justice in our world. I hope that we bring that to digital studies as a field because it’s what I’ve experienced.
[00:07:37] I think I’ve been really fortunate, many of us have been very fortunate, to have people take us under their wing and bring us along for the ride, but they’re really informal networks and you are lucky to happen upon them.
[00:07:49] What we hope to do with BCaT is to institutionalize these kinds of networks and these kinds of mentoring practices, so that one, people have access to them, but two, they become a part of the way that we are trained and the way that we’re judged in our scholarship.
[00:08:04] We are often promoted on the basis of research alone at major research institutions, with teaching being a small part of it. But so much of the work that folks do, particularly women, particularly Black women, in the academy is in the quiet spaces of mentoring and community building. What if we actually rewarded and recognized that labor as being really an important part of our future as a field, as a discipline, but also more broadly in the academy.
[00:08:33] I’m hoping that we can make some inroads in not only providing that space for students and faculty right now but also in the way that we think about how we reward that and how we treat the labor of mentoring.
[00:08:48] Cathy Hannabach: I know this project is toward its beginning and it has a really exciting future. Have you found that the pandemic has shifted how you and your colleagues are thinking about BCaT or maybe the practicalities of literally how you’re putting it together during a global pandemic?
[00:09:07] Catherine Knight Steele: Definitely. BCaT is part of a larger network called the DISCO Network, you know we love acronyms. So the DISCO Network, which I’m fortunate to be a part of with the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, Purdue, and Stony Brook University, our partners at all of those institutions are starting their own labs.
[00:09:28] We really came together completely online. We’ve had every single meeting online. We have not had the occasion to meet in person, some of us ever. But we know each other’s work and have developed a really great community of support for one another as we begin this project of these separate but interrelated labs, these collaboratives.
[00:09:48] I think what the pandemic has taught us, aside from a level of resiliency that I think none of us hoped to know that we had is, how we can make things accessible and how we can create networks and community in disparate geographic areas. So what we’ve done with BCaT and what we’re hoping to do with the DISCO Network more broadly is to see how our resources at some of these really well-funded institutions, to be frank—because well-funded institutions are the ones that tend to get even more funding, and I just want to be very transparent that that’s what’s going on here. We were very fortunate to be funded by the Mellon Foundation—to be able to take the resources that we have and extend them beyond this.
[00:10:32] So we learned during the pandemic that teaching online is not anyone’s favorite task. It wasn’t our ideal situation, but it worked out well sometimes for some folks. And so how can we extend that? How can we offer graduate seminars that people can access from different places around the country, around the globe?
[00:10:51] How can we offer people the opportunity to have mentors at different institutions, where they can receive a cohort of other folks working in the same area and receiving this regular follow-up. We’ve gotten a little bit used to being in front of our screens and, not to give us more reason to do that, but to find the places where it actually makes sense for us to continue to extend our resources beyond our institution.
[00:11:15] I’ll be frank, I’m really excited to see students in person again, and I’m excited to have a physical space for the lab. But I’m equally excited to see how that lab can be a broader reach into communities that aren’t in Maryland and aren’t in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
[00:11:31] Cathy Hannabach: I think this initiative is a really fabulous example of what you talk about in your exciting new book, Digital Black Feminism, which is the central role that Black women and Black feminists have played in the emergence and the transformation of digital technologies.
[00:11:47] What got you into studying this? I’d love to hear. I always love to hear people’s journey into the things that they study, because it’s often not linear. It’s often full of stories and it’s full of things we love or things that make us mad.
[00:12:04] Catherine Knight Steele: Sometimes a little of both.
[00:12:06] Cathy Hannabach: So what got you into studying the ways that Black women and feminists use digital tech?
[00:12:12] Catherine Knight Steele: Oh, it’s totally selfish. It started because I was in those spaces in graduate school. As I got my first job out of graduate school, I was doing brand marketing for an advertising agency, and I felt more alone than I ever had in my life in that role because I was surrounded by folks who were living a very different life than I was.
[00:12:33] They had different popular culture references. They had different politics. Often they had different places they went after work. They lived in a very different part of the city. And so what I did each day as I finished my work was jump into the blogosphere where there were people who were living lives that looked a lot more like mine. Who had jokes that sounded a lot more like mine and listened to the music I did and had the kind of conversations that were really relevant to me in ways that my colleagues and I weren’t having over water coolers.
[00:13:05] The blogosphere became that for many of us, I think, in the early 2000s, this space to connect with people who were closer to us in many ways than the folks that we encountered on a day-to-day basis.
[00:13:18] My beginning of studying the blogosphere was because I was there. I was starting graduate school and my graduate program was giving me literature that suggested that Black folks weren’t online. I was reading everywhere that Black folks were deficient and even deviant in their use of technology that they needed to overcome all of these barriers to become better purveyors of technology.
[00:13:48] And it didn’t sit right. It didn’t feel right. So it really began from a place of like, I’ve got to find out more about this and why doesn’t everyone know how rich and beautiful the cultural experience is of blackness in digital space.
[00:14:03] That was the beginning of studying the blogosphere, which turned into a dissertation on the blogosphere later and then progressed in really interesting ways from there because the dissertation is quite different than the book turned out.
[00:14:19] Cathy Hannabach: I was hoping to talk about that process because we have a lot of listeners who are in the middle of doing that dissertation-to-book transition or are about to come up to it and have so many questions about whether they’re doing it right, is there a right way to do it, what are different models that folks have taken?
[00:14:38] So I’d love to hear about your process. Do you have any advice for early-career scholars who are looking ahead or toward the beginning of transitioning from a dissertation to a book?
[00:14:52] Catherine Knight Steele: Sure. So my dissertation was called The Digital Barbershop and focused broadly on the Black blogosphere in ways that was thinking about how folks online talked about political things that are politically important but weren’t on political blogs. So kind of tracing the ways that Black folks have done the same work, always, which is finding spaces that are outside the purview of the dominant group.
[00:15:17] But as I got to the end of the dissertation writing process, I was titling my dissertation and was excited about defending it. I recognized that just in the naming process of calling what I was studying the digital barbershop, I was doing some work of erasure of the Black women and the Black women’s spaces that initially brought me to that field of study.
[00:15:37] There was a small subsection in my dissertation that was about Black feminism and about spaces where Black feminist discourse was circulating in the blogosphere, but it was not the main argument of the text. So I had this weird feeling at the end that I had really messed up here and that I wasn’t doing the work that I set out to do.
[00:15:59] I told myself then, this has got to be the next project. Then I have to actually go back and really think about the people and the thoughts, the theories, the praxis that made this work possible and not continue to do the work of erasure that I think is really easy for us to do when we homogenize groups in the way that I did in that case.
[00:16:21] So I decided I wanted to work on digital Black feminism and really expand on what was a small, twenty-page, fifteen-page section of the dissertation and really think more broadly about what it was about the blogosphere that made it possible for this new kind of understanding of Black feminist rhetoric to circulate online, what that meant for us moving forward.
[00:16:45] So my path was a little bit of a crooked one. I didn’t turn my dissertation into a book, so to speak. I turned it into a couple of articles. I was really kind of done with it, I thought, completely with that topic. I wanted to talk about Black feminism instead, which I thought of as something really separate. I see now that they’re very much a part of the same path.
[00:17:06] I decided that I had to start fresh in a lot of ways with something that I was passionate and excited about after the dissertation, because I wasn’t passionate and excited about that particular manuscript, that project, anymore. This provided me a space for the next, four or five years to dive into some new areas of research for me and to really think about things differently.
[00:17:30] I was able to actually go into the archive and think about histories and legacies of enslavement in the US, which was not something at all I had focused on previously. I’m really grateful that I took the time to start over with it because it ended up being a much better project than it would have been if I had tried to just start from where I left off with the dissertation. I think it would have been a much shorter, less rich look at the long history and trajectory of Black women’s relationship with technology.
[00:18:01] So the advice I would give would be to make sure that the book project is something that you really love. I think it makes the first years after graduate school exciting. I think it gives you reasons to keep learning in ways that are really wonderful. It gives you opportunities to collaborate and to talk to scholars outside of your field. For me, that has been so integral to having the kind of book I wanted to, that would be situated in an interdisciplinary space, that people from different avenues within research would appreciate and enjoy. So it’s a longer path, I will concede, but it’s one that I am really grateful that I took.
[00:18:41] Cathy Hannabach: I know that’s something that a lot of folks struggle with, particularly if they, for instance, are just starting a new tenure track position. That pressure of, I need to get this book out fast because they’re already looking ahead to a third-year review, especially with the ramped up service expectations, and certainly teaching stress these past couple of years.
[00:19:05] So I think your advice about needing that distance and figuring out how to take that time to look at this thing in a different way is really smart as, as is making sure it’s something that makes you want to get up in the morning and do it, right?
[00:19:22] Catherine Knight Steele: Right. I mean, it’s so hard after the dissertation to want to keep working on that project. Like I just want to stuff it in a drawer and not see it for a while.
[00:19:32] Cathy Hannabach: Totally. So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask folks which gets at the why behind all of the work that you do and that’s that world that you’re building when you collaborate with folks, when you write your books, when you teach your classes. What’s the world you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?
[00:19:53] Catherine Knight Steele: I’m working toward and hoping to contribute to the world that I wish that I had at all the various stages of life. So in my teaching practice, in my mentoring and building the lab, I’m thinking about the ways along the way that made things a little bit easier for me.
[00:20:13] It was the relationships that I was able to build with senior colleagues who were generous and kind. It was people who stayed after to provide the extra help that wasn’t required of their job. It was folks going outside of their way to really create spaces where I was comfortable, where I felt supported.
[00:20:34] So in many, if not most, of the projects that I take on now, I’m trying to create that space for folks to be able to find their people, to find their passions, and to drive themselves forward in avenues that they’ve previously been boxed out of.
[00:20:51] And to be frank, I’m really interested in doing that for Black women because that’s what was done for me. I think as we all know, our representation as women generally, as Black women specifically, in higher ed is abysmal. The rates at which we receive promotions and tenure is not something that we should be proud of at all in our country.
[00:21:15] So I think that those of us who have been very fortunate and very privileged and have had a laundry list of opportunities to get to this place have a sense of responsibility and a debt to pay to those who are on the same or similar paths.
[00:21:31] With the writing, I think it’s very similar. What I tried to do in this book was carve out the space for us to reflect and to rethink some of the definitions that we ascribe to things like technology so that the women, the Black women, who have been integral to building up this country, to building the tech future that we hope to have, are actually noted in our history, are respected and valued in our history.
[00:21:58] That will change the kinds of ways that we create rooms and who’s in those spaces and who contributes to conversations. When we value what folks have done already, and we see the possibilities for what they can continue to do, it will change who is in the room, who asked the questions, and how power is balanced in those spaces.
[00:22:19] So ultimately I just want to create the kind of world that I would like to live in and the kind of world that has been really powerful for me in advancing what I’ve tried to do so far in my career and in my life outside of work.
[00:22:34] Cathy Hannabach: Thank you so much for being with us and for sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
[00:22:41] Catherine Knight Steele: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been great.
[00:22:48] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.
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