Imagine Otherwise: Simone Browne on the History of Anti-Black Surveillance

by | May 4, 2016

How is the history of slavery tied to modern-day surveillance systems? Is surveillance always a negative term? How can a gendered lens change the way we perceive privacy rights and policies?

In episode 9 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with feminist scholar Simone Browne about how Black communities have resisted and interfered with the surveillance practices that target them, the multiple lenses through which to consider privacy, and the joys of collaborating with academics, artists, and activists.

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Guest: Simone Browne

Simone Browne is an associate professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

She teaches and researches surveillance studies, digital media and black diaspora studies.

Her first book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015) examines surveillance with a focus on transatlantic slavery, biometric technologies, branding, airports and creative texts.

Simone is an Executive Board member of HASTAC. She is also a part of Deep Lab, a feminist arts and research collective.

Pixelated photo of Simone Browne. Text reads: I wanted to put surveillance studies into conversation with Black diaspora studies. I wanted to trace a different genealogy, to think about the historical and social formation of surveillance as not being outside of the social and historical formation of slavery.

We chatted about

  • How the genealogy of slavery is closely linked with the genealogy of surveillance (1:52)
  • The influence of of surveillance theories on canonical authors like Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon (05:58)
  • Why adopting a broader definition of surveillance is essential to understanding its impact on our daily lives (13:20)
  • How a gendered lens can help us understand surveillance and privacy (16:43)
  • The work that HASTAC does to connect and support academics (23:25)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:45)


The inspiration for Simone’s book Dark Matters

I wanted to trace a different genealogy and start with transatlantic slavery, and to think about the historical and social formation of surveillance as not being outside of that of the social and historical formation of slavery.

The trend of forgetting Black history in relation to surveillance

There is a forgetting for some of COINTELPRO, or federalized anti-blackness in terms of fugitive slave laws. That’s what I wanted to insert back into the conversation.

The gendering of privacy

Privacy gets seen as something that has to with only the Fourth Amendment or drones. When we think about whose bodies have always been publicly available for discussion or scrutiny, and we put a gendered lens on understanding surveillance, then we have different kinds of questions to ask and demands to make.

Imagining otherwise

I want a reduction of sadness, of debt racketeering—a world without prisons, without racism and sexism and antiblackness.

More from Simone Browne

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

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. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Welcome to episode nine of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Simone Browne, who’s an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches and researches surveillance studies, digital media and black diaspora studies. Her first book, Dark Matters on the Surveillance of Blackness, which was published by Duke University Press in 2015, examined surveillance with a focus on transatlantic slavery, biometric technologies, branding, airports and creative texts. Simone is an executive board member of HASTAC, as well as part of Deep Lab, a feminist arts and research collective. Simone is here today to talk with us about her book about gendered and racialized surveillance, and about how communities of color have imagined otherwise to resist state violence. So thanks so much for being on the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Simone.

Simone Browne (01:18):

Thank you so much for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (01:20):

So let’s just dive right in. You are the author of a fabulous book called Dark Matters on the Surveillance of Blackness, and I’d love for you to tell our listeners just a little bit about what that book is about and what it’s designed to do.

Simone Browne (01:34):

Oh, thank you so much. So I began with asking a question of what would happen if some of the questions and concerns that were shaping the field of surveillance studies right now, were put into conversation with some of the questions around black diaspora studies. And so, if you think about what’s interesting to surveillance, now we think of Snowden or WikiLeaks or biometrics or airports or closed circuit television, all of these things. And I wanted to kind of trace a different genealogy. And to start with, or a transatlantic slavery, and to think about the historical and the social formation of surveillance as not being outside of that, of the social and historical formation of slavery. And so by putting these in conversation together, I thought maybe that would offer something new, and a way for social theorists to kind of… And even people that are not necessarily social theorists to ask different questions about surveillance, and in terms of how we can either contend with it, challenge it, refuse it, or just get by.

Simone Browne (02:41):

And so, especially I was also focused, and when we think about the idea of getting by or resisting, is the role of creative and expressive practices, particularly from artists. And I talk to… Each chapter is maybe inspired by some type of creative text or work.

Cathy Hannabach (02:59):

Can you give our listeners a few of those examples?

Simone Browne (03:03):

Okay, so I think even just the front cover of the book is a South African artist named Robin Road, and it’s a piece called Pans Opticon. And I used that one, really kind of was interested in putting the panopticon into conversation with black looking practices of looking back or what might have been termed reckless eyeballing at some point, to put the panopticon into the design, or in conversation with the design of the slave ship schematic. Both of those were produced as diagrams in and around the same time.

Simone Browne (03:37):

And so, this piece by Robin Road, he is looking back and it’s a kind of a machinic gaze. He has a caliper coming out of his eyes and looking at a wall. And so to look at black division practices as repossessing some of these surveillant gauges, it’s pans with a possessive opticon. And so, that’s one piece that I look at. But I look at things like Solange’s Twitter feed, to an episode of South Park to other texts as well. So some of the things that I probably should’ve explained a bit more. Some of the sites that I look at and examine in the book include… Well, I attempted to get CIA and FBI files on Frantz Fanon, and I was not particularly successful, but it led me to ask questions about security theater and redaction and the kind of app scenting of a phenomenon within citation practices around thinking of surveillance.

Simone Browne (04:43):

And in other spaces I look at biometric technology, contemporary ones, and the ways in which it is sold and marketed, but tracing it through a genealogy of the marketing, and marketing of blackness. And you know from anything to Will Smith’s films to other sites, but spaces of resistance. And I can talk maybe a bit about biometrics more. I think it’s something that’s important for us to think about because of the ways in which it’s becoming kind of everyday. Some people use it to use their fingerprints as an access point to get into your phone or your computer, or to secure to store documents. So that’s why I thought it was an interesting space to look at. And another space I looked at was the airport.

Cathy Hannabach (05:32):

Wow. There’s so much there that I want to talk about, because this is painting. First of all, Fanon had CIA and FBI files on him?

Simone Browne (05:44):

Well, I just kind of imagined and I just decided to put in a freedom of information at the foyer request. And so, when Fanon came to the US for treatment for leukemia, it was something that had to be vetted, organized through the CIA. And so I requested… I had the name of the agent that was apparently visiting him every day, I had the name of the hotel he stayed in, the hospital, the dates. This agent even took his body, returned his body for burial, and I got nothing. Not that the idea that I got nothing, but they used an executive order section, such to say that, “We can neither confirm nor deny, or whatever the language is around that time of the existence of such records.” So I know that something is there, it’s just that, could it be released still? Because it could not be released to me because it was said that it was still intelligent sources and methods that were still kind of, I guess, in play. And with the FBI file, I only got a few documents that the FBI had.

Simone Browne (06:53):

It was a book on this, I can’t remember the name of it right now, but about the ways that the FBI would conduct book reviews of different kind of what might be considered at the time, radical texts. And one of them was a review of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and some other kinds of things around his death and this some documents around his travel to the US. So all that long story is to say that I used the way that Fanon became a non nameable matter within these, whatever documents that I received. They were redacted, hardly very much information. And used that to think about that as a metaphor for how the absenting of blackness within the study of surveillance, or even within how it’s talked about now in the mainstream press, whether… Or Twitter, whoever.

Simone Browne (07:54):

But whether it is the ways in which there’s a kind of forgetting for some of the role of COINTELPRO, or the forgetting of, say, federalized anti-blackness in terms of fugitive slave laws. And so that’s what I wanted to insert back into the conversation. And I think for me, it’s been… One of the neat things for me, I think, is that this year for the high school debating team, the theme is surveillance. And so I receive, sometimes a lot of… Not a lot, but some emails from students, high school students that are debaters asking me really intriguing and important questions, and I think that has been really touching or important, or really kind of cool intervention, I think, that my work has made. Or at least that it allowed them to ask, to form different kinds of connections with our relations to contemporary surveillance, to say that it’s not something inaugurated with WikiLeaks or drones or whoever becomes the face of surveillance and privacy and whatever.

Cathy Hannabach (09:01):

This is fascinating.

Simone Browne (09:02):

That was a shade.

Cathy Hannabach (09:04):

And, I mean, the book, the number of examples that you go through is just staggering and it’s fascinating. The Fanon thing, in particular. I did not know that history, so that is really cool. Now I’ll have to go look that up.

Simone Browne (09:19):

Yeah, because one, and it’s kind of in a footnote. It’s interesting because Fanon, while he was at the University of Tunisia, he gave a series of lectures, I think called Surveillance and Social control. And he talked about close circuit television, he talked about the kind of psychiatric effects of surveillance on the body of people who were working as shop keepers or shop workers in a store that would be under close circuit television surveillance, or operators who might be snooped or listened on. These are phone operators by their bosses. And to think that six years later, Miquel Fuko was also at that same university. But still, kind of… At least at this moment, no kind of recognition of the possibility of any of Fanon’s theorizing of surveillance much earlier than Fuko at that same university, if there’s any kind of citation of his work or influence of Fanon’s work on Fuko’s thinking and theorizing. And so, that is again, a kind of moment to question the kind of accenting of certain types of knowledge production.

Cathy Hannabach (10:27):

Awesome. So one of the things that you do in the book is not just focus on the ways that black communities and black individuals have been disproportionately targeted by surveillance practice, but also how those communities have historically resisted that surveillance, or messed up that surveillance, or intervened in that surveillance in whatever way was possible. So what are some of those ways that black communities and individuals in different historical moments that you focus on have resisted surveillance technologies? Maybe both individually in individual people’s lives, but also in coalition with others?

Simone Browne (11:04):

Yeah, I think for the book I mainly focused on individual acts or very small groups in terms of a question of escape, but that those individual acts functioned as a kind of hope technology, or a practice of hope that there is something else. And so for example, I looked at these diaries of a planter, a slave owner in Jamaica, I think in the 1700s. And particularly for this woman named Cuba that he would write about in these diaries, and the ways in which she would continue to escape, even though she was subject to rape, torture, branding, and that this kind of drive to survive or to resist or still continue. Or even in more contemporary ways, a class action lawsuit that was, I guess the prior iteration of the TSA. This was in 2000 or so, and it was black women who had been subjected to heightened scrutiny at the Chicago/O’Hare airport, black, African American women, citizens of the US who would have a higher likelihood of being searched, stopped and subjected to all kinds of invasive searches at airports.

Simone Browne (12:30):

And so because of this systematic negation of black women’s ability to travel and to cross borders unmolested by whatever the security apparatus was at the time before the TSA, it’s slipping my mind. Well, border controllers, with the ACLU, had a class action suit. So some of those moments of looking back of challenging, whether through legal means or through recorded means, like handheld cell phones or so, I think offer them spaces for us to think about living outside or resisting contemporary surveillance apparatus. Apparati, sorry.

Cathy Hannabach (13:14):

That’s fascinating. And it’s a great example too, about how surveillance is a really broad category, right? It’s easy to think about moments of surveillance that are bad, and surveillance as a term has a kind of a negative connotation. Like, you’re supposed to be against this thing called surveillance without any kind of specification as to what it means. But what so many of your examples show is the ways that it seeps into our everyday lives, right?

Cathy Hannabach (13:40):

It’s not just this thing coming down from above, although it can manifest in that way. It can come from the state, it can come from the military, it can come from the police, these kinds of large entities in a rather top down fashion. But you also show quite deftly how we surveil ourselves. This is kind of classic Fuko, on the one hand, but also coming out of the lived experience of the individuals and communities that you’re writing about. The ways that surveillance is something that we do to ourselves, that we do to each other. That we don’t call surveillance, necessarily all the time, even though we might critique it when it shows up in that top down format. Yeah.

Simone Browne (14:22):

That was a really good explanation. And so yeah, I tried to maybe at one point do a short lit review of the various ways that people have theorized and thought about surveillance. Maybe giving different kind of names to it, so for example, you have Steve Mann, who has an entire of valence plane where surveillance itself is a neutral type of watching. And so he was the one that came up with the term souveillance, but there’s kind of mekveillance, or countervaillance. And those are one ways of looking at how one person has cited it. Or I looked at this term, or I guess I developed this term called Redditvaillance to think about the kind of ways that surveillance was crowdsourced at the time of the Boston bombing, using publicly available photo feeds. The Reddits page that was set up and this kind of gamification of surveillance with up votes and down votes as one space in which it happens.

Simone Browne (15:25):

But I just don’t necessarily want to see surveillance as having something that always has a negative valence to it, I guess V-A-L-E-N-C-E, but we need surveillance in spaces like Flint to see what kinds of waters and what kinds of the politicians are doing in that space. And that might be something that’s not necessarily bad. One thing, so you had, I think just this weekend, the death of the Supreme Court justice in Texas killing quails, he was found dead in his bed in the morning. And I saw… So I spent a bit of time on Twitter, this is the story to talk about the ways that… An expanded look at thinking about surveillance might help us understand systems of oppression. So I was on Twitter and I saw someone post this thing about, “Don’t speak ill of the dead. He was really good on privacy laws and surveillance.”

Simone Browne (16:28):

But then to think about, was he good when privacy came to women’s bodies and reproductive rights?,And so to think we have to champion this person because privacy gets seen as only something… Well, not by everybody, but by privacy dude bros, gets seen as something that has to do with the 4th Amendment, or drones or whatever. And when we think about whose bodies have always been publicly available for discussion and for scrutiny. And when we put a kind of surveillance lens, or gendered lens on understanding surveillance, then I think we have different kinds of questions to ask, and demands that we make of, say, a new Supreme Court Justice.

Cathy Hannabach (17:14):

Absolutely. This reminds me a lot of Carla Holloway’s book, Public Bodies, Private Texts, where she talks a lot about that question of, “Whose body’s have always been public property?” Legally, culturally, individually, familialy, if that is a word, in the family. And she traces this history of legal privacy as it has been defined in US law stemming from 19th century cases that essentially say that privacy is only available to… The laws themselves, the court cases themselves say privacy is something that is only available to white men. And so if that’s the beginning of privacy law in the United States, that’s where we start, that’s how it was originally defined. We’re all screwed, right?

Simone Browne (18:07):

Well, exactly.

Cathy Hannabach (18:09):

I mean, to be blunt.

Simone Browne (18:13):

Yeah, what are we going to do?

Cathy Hannabach (18:15):

Exactly. And so many of the examples that you talk about in various kinds of communities who are not white men, and who don’t have access to that form of racialized masculinity and never will, have thought about privacy differently, right.? Have been forced to think about privacy differently, where it’s not this legally protected category because it never has been for most of us. But instead, kind of thinking creatively about what consent means, what informed consent, or enthusiastic consent might mean. I think about feminist activism, particularly women of color, feminist activism around informed consent and enthusiastic consent. The anti sexual violence movement. Another example, obviously reproductive justice movements, kind of thinking about, well, when your body has never been considered private, how do you argue on behalf of privacy, on behalf of autonomy, on behalf of justice?

Simone Browne (19:19):

Yeah. And then how do you even have a space at the table to talk about this when those that are making the laws don’t necessarily look like you, or think about you, or see you in the category of someone deserving of the rights, to have rights around decisions around their own autonomy?

Cathy Hannabach (19:35):


Simone Browne (19:35):


Cathy Hannabach (19:37):

Wow. So I think you’ve kind of demonstrated this, but I’d love to hear you talk about it more explicitly. How you see your work combining art, activism and academia in the service of social justice?

Simone Browne (19:52):

So I guess I was saying I’m kind of a recluse. I wouldn’t quite say that I’m an activist or so. But when I met you in Philadelphia, I got a copy of an amazing a book called Octavia’s Brood, and I just started reading it quite recently. A friend of mine had told me that she was reading it in conversation with Dark Matters, and so I thought I would finally crack open the book. And in the forward to the book, the writer cites Tony K. Bombar, and says that the writer’s role is to make revolution irresistible, and, well, that’s a big kind of claim for me to make, but I would hope that in some way it could be inspiring to think about a revolution being possible and irresistible in the work that I do.

Simone Browne (20:46):

And I think for me, what’s been inspiring for me as a writer, to think about revolution being irresistible, is the work of some of these artists. But I don’t necessarily look at in the book, but I think that continued to be inspired by some of the artists that I do look at, including Adrian Piper and Keith and Mendi Obadike. And so for example, there is a new project that, Well, not quite new, but something that had… A collaborative project called Unstoppable, produced by an artist, an artivist, activist, academic, amazing person all around, Misha Kenaris. And also with Katrice Cullors, who I think was one of the co founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. And this is a… I think the question was what kinds of technologies are for black lives, and it is a do it yourself production of bulletproof clothing for black people.

Simone Browne (21:57):

And so it is something that is abolitionist or against carcerality, the idea of not calling the police in times of danger or so, because the danger might actually be the police in many cases. And so this is one space in which I think these kinds of possibilities for art activism and the service of social justice combined. And I feel like there are many more, but there’s still the hope that they give to make revolution something that’s unstoppable and irresistible.

Cathy Hannabach (22:34):

It’s so funny that you mentioned that. I just interviewed Misha yesterday for the podcast. So she’s going to be on another episode, I think a couple of episodes after yours. So this is a nice foretelling. Yeah, that’s wonderful. And she talks a lot about Unstoppable, so this was a good connection. And actually the Tony K. Bambara quote that you mentioned in the writer’s job is to make revolution irresistible. Actually another one of the guests on a later episode of the podcast cited that precise thing, Aisha Shahida Simmons, who’s a filmmaker and cultural producer. So it’s all kind of coming full circle here.

Simone Browne (23:16):

Like a puzzle.

Cathy Hannabach (23:17):


Simone Browne (23:18):

I like that. It fits together.

Cathy Hannabach (23:20):

Nice. So you’re also on the executive board of HASTAC, so can you tell our listeners what is HASTAC, and what kind of work do you do with them?

Simone Browne (23:30):

Yeah, HASTAC, it stands for humanities, art, science and technology alliance and collaboratory. And it was founded in 2002 by Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. And so, 2002, so this is two years prior to the founding of Facebook, which makes HASTAC the first academic social networking site, and it’s free to join. And so for me, I think I’m on the executive board now, and one of the things about HASTAC, the motto is… Or one of the mottos is, “Collaboration through difference,” or the idea that… Fiona Barnett came up with this one where she said that, “Difference isn’t our deficit, it’s our operating system. And so-

Cathy Hannabach (24:16):

I love that.

Simone Browne (24:17):

And so, the most thing I learned about is collaboration. And working together with an amazing group of people, one of the key things that we do, is HASTAC scholars who basically take over the website and have different seminars, whether it’s on Trolling or Gamer gate or whatever it is that there is of interest. And I think that’s one of the contributions there. And I’ve also gotten to… Did I say gotten? Sorry. Also got to work on the digital media and learning competition that we run once every, I think every year. And that’s been another way to kind of think about these alliances that we make within education when it comes to new technologies.

Cathy Hannabach (25:09):

HASTAC is fantastic. I’ve participated in their feminist, what is it? Feminist Digital Scholars Conference. I think it has another word in there somewhere, but that happens every summer and it’s fantastic. It’s a chance to workshop works in progress and give feedback to others, get feedback for yourself. And it’s just this kind of really fabulous supportive space.

Simone Browne (25:30):

Yes. And I think that’s one of the foundational things about HASTAC, it is as been very supportive.

Cathy Hannabach (25:37):

Absolutely. This podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and one of the things that I talk about with guests is their version of a better world. That world that they’re working towards when they do their research, when they teach their classes, when they create their art, when they create whatever it is that they create in the world. So I’ll ask you, and this is my favorite question that I get to ask people. So what’s the world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Simone Browne (26:03):

Yeah, this is a very good question. Like what it means to kind of imagine something different. I guess maybe to quote Dion Brand, what we all long for, what we should be hoping for. I want one that’s a reduction of sadness, of debt racketeering, without prisons, a space without racism and sexism and anti-blackness. And so again, back to that quote of making revolution irresistible. How I work towards… And I think maybe the ways in which you can kind of smuggle, or maybe not smuggle these kinds of ideas into teaching practice has been very inspiring for me to see the work that students have done in, say, on the campus that I am on now. And say, like the removal of some of the Confederate statues, or the changing of… We have a dorm here named after a Confederate soldier who was a law professor, but also a grand dragon of the KKK.

Simone Browne (27:13):

And so, to see the work that they did to have that removed from campus eventually, or at least the name changed, has been one small intervention into imagining something otherwise on the campus. And so when we say, I think the motto of UT Austin is what starts here changes the world, and so hopefully they leave here, and maybe through my classes thinking differently about surveillance, about digital technologies, having a more broader definition of these things and their access and rights and challenges to them. And so that’s what I hope that we long for.

Cathy Hannabach (27:50):

That sounds wonderful. And your book is a great way into that, as well as your teaching.

Simone Browne (27:56):

Yeah, I mean, I don’t really teach the book in my class.

Cathy Hannabach (28:00):

It’s always kind of weird. Like it makes sense too, because this is how you approach these issues. But I totally understand why it’s weird. I also have that feeling, yeah.

Simone Browne (28:11):

And for students in a surveillance class, I mean, they’ve seen iterations of parts and pieces of it, and so they have more to say. But yeah, I think maybe that’s something that this podcast can maybe introduce people to, so thanks for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (28:26):

Sure. Well thanks for being here.

Cathy Hannabach (28:30):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.


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