Chris Rabb’s life as a blogger started with an e-mail. For four years, he sent out an e-newsletter to thousands of names in his address book. The newsletter eventually became his blog, Afro-Netizen, which provided Rabb’s commentaries on politics and news, with a focus on Black communities. Since then, Rabb has become one of the most outspoken voices on the racial divide in the blogosphere.
"As bloggers of color, we are such a smaller number of people than our white counterparts. That makes reaching the volume of traffic much harder, and the lack of social and financial capital also makes this harder," Rabb said.
People of color make up 40 percent of bloggers, but only 26 percent of Internet users. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s "Blogger" report, which was based on findings from their February through April 2006 tracking surveys, 11 percent of bloggers are Black, 19 percent are English-speaking Hispanic and 10 percent are some other race or ethnicity.
There are no bloggers of color with the kind of exposure and influence of superstars Matt Stoller of mattstoller.com or Duncan Black of atrios.blogspot. The result, according to Rabb, has been a typical white liberal/left dialogue in the political blogosphere.
"They won’t talk about the racial element of anything that’s been deracialized by mainstream media. They’re not going to talk about affirmative action, about the racial element of the immigration issue," Rabb said. "Whenever issues of race come up, it’s seen as a distraction."
Meanwhile, people of color face more barriers to accessing web-based technologies and are less likely to have the type of jobs with the flexibility and support to, for instance, blog as part of their work. As Rabb puts it, a bus driver is probably not going to blog as much as a professor.
The Internet’s element of anonymity has allowed both relief from racism (people of color who shop and do business online don’t experience the racism they do offline) and, at the same time, emboldened racists hiding behind the mask of virtual reality.
For bloggers of color who reveal their racial identity and whose blogs tackle race and cultural politics, this has meant contending with hate mail.
Kortney Ryan Ziegler, 25, shut down her blog, Blac(k)ademic, because of the onslaught of negative comments she received last summer. Ziegler, who lives in Chicago and is pursuing her PhD at Northwestern University, blogged under her alter ego, Nubian, about the racism, sexism and homophobia she experiences and observes in her life and in the media.
"I just think people really don’t want to hear the truth They instead attack you on your character, your writing style, and not your argument. They distract from what you just said by saying you can’t spell, or that you should have put a comma there," said Ziegler.
There have also been hateful comments when she posted about her frustrations with being asked by a white grad student whether her Black skin tone attracted heat. Then, Ziegler reached her breaking point. She did an interview with Feministing.com discussing her experiences of "Blogging While Black." As a result of the interview, she was accused of believing that race trumps gender, and mistaking "plain assholishness for racism."
Ziegler took a leave of absence after the posting of that interview and then stopped blogging altogether.
"Every time I would log on to read the comments, there was always something hurtful," said Ziegler. "And it got me thinking, Wow, I put myself out there. There’s my photograph. There’s my school information ‘ I felt more vulnerable, not being anonymous. I now don’t have any pictures on my blog, or my name."
Ziegler acknowledges that for all the distress, blogging also proved to be beneficial to her. She has made multiple academic connections and met many women of color from her participation in the Radical Women of Color Carnival, which she helped to start. A carnival is a collection of writings on a specific topic that is usually hosted by alternating bloggers. There are multiple carnivals throughout the blogosphere focused on different themes. The Radical Women of Color Carnival dedicates itself to publishing women of color who write for social change.
Susana, a 32-year-old Chicana who doesn’t want to give her last name, goes by brownfemipower on the Women of Color blog. Her writing has been published on the Radical Women of Color Carnival. Pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Writing at Eastern Michigan University and a single mom of two, Susana usually blogs late at night. She started blogging late last summer, but didn’t start making community until sometime in September.
"I was like, there’s nothing else going on staying at home with my kids. So, I decided to start trying it. As I figured out more about how to actually use blogs, then I started to get more into it," said Susana.
Blac(k)ademic was the first blog that Susana found, and she connected right away with Ziegler. Susana was always interested in how different forms of media can contribute to a social movement. It was after attending workshops at the Color of Violence Conference hosted by Incite! that Susana was inspired and armed to make her own media contribution.
"I consider my blog to be within the context of a movement," said Susana. "Whether I make posts, I’m always thinking at the back of my head how could this be used to further a movement, and focus on radical women of color It’s more of the idea of transferring that discussion that academics get to have into a real-world setting."
Susana blogs regularly about social unrest and disparities domestically and globally. She’s written extensively about the Oaxaca protests and the organizing of women in the Middle East. Susana’s discussions have also received numerous critics and attacks. Like Ziegler, Susana leaves her blog open for comments. One highly disputed post on her site received 113 comments. Susana had commented that criticizing what a woman chooses to wear in the United States is not the same thing as imposing a burqa on Afghani women. Susana thought such a comparison derided the choice and agency of many Afghani women.
"I pointed out some different things, and right away I got some really positive feedback from feminists of color who read my blog. But then I also got really, really, really challenged all over the place by the liberal white feminist bloggers who came over to my site," said Susana. "It was a constant, I’m not going to believe you until you prove it to me. Prove that Afghani women are aware that the burqa is viewed as misogynist and oppressive.’"
Many discussions on popular blogs often spread like wildfire all over the Internet. This discussion spread from Susana’s Women of Color Blog to other blogs.
"I didn’t personally comment on a lot of the other boards because they were just personally offensive to me," said Susana. "But I did go over to a bunch of other boards to see what other people were saying, and they were violently defensive: I don’t care what any of these Afghani women have to say. I’m looking at it this way because I know better, and I know that this is oppressive.’ They really didn’t even care what women of color had to say. Like women of color don’t really understand that they’re being oppressed. They took away any work women of color have been doing for years."
According to Susana, many liberal white bloggers attack her because they don’t want "their precious movement" to be overtaken by "stupid identity politics." Susana also feels many white feminists view her as a threat to the "sisterhood" they are promoting. It is this disconnect that has frustrated Susana as well as kept her blogging.
Susana and Ziegler attended the Women of Color Blogging Caucus meeting at the Allied Media Conference this past summer where they were able to vent and mobilize with other women-of-color bloggers facing similar issues. Strategies that came out of that meeting include mobilizing together as a community of women of color bloggers to market each other’s blogs, protecting each other’s blogs from trolls (a blog terminology for obnoxious commenters), and helping each other to bridge the technical divide.
Lack of social capital and the wealth gap stand as the real obstacles to people of color accessing the blogosphere, according to Chris Rabb. Despite these challenges, he said, blogging is an important tool, given the corporate control of most media and the lack of independent outlets owned by people of color.
"Blogging is very low-hanging fruit that will allow us to have a broad range of expression without great expense and offers us the control, autonomy and creativity we’re not getting elsewhere," Rabb added. "This is a great benefit to underrepresented groups."