There’s been an increasing recognition of how racial regimes are mediated by digital technologies, particularly through things like computational policing practices that target communities of color and automated hiring platforms that exacerbate employment discrimination. But so far, the discourse about “algorithmic bias” largely treats race as an aftermath of technology, as a downstream effect. Further, it treats race as a problem—race is the way you add up the bad things that technology does to people. Race is a way to measure harm.
Both premises need to be challenged. Racial regimes aren’t downstream of technology—they’re present from the very start. They centrally shape the design, development, and deployment of the computational systems that govern our lives. And the obsession with calculating race as a function of harmful impact institutionalizes Black people as objects of suffering without agency or political subjectivity that extends beyond advocating for social remedy.
To overcome the limitations of the algorithmic bias discourse, we need to ask a completely different set of questions about technology, drawing on the traditions of black thought and black freedom-dreaming. To help formulate these questions, and begin to sketch some possible answers, issue editor J. Khadijah Abdurahman talked with SA Smythe, an assistant professor in the Gender Studies and African American Studies departments at UCLA. Smythe is a poet, translator, and scholar of black European literary and cultural studies and Black trans poetics, and is deeply invested in the coalitional project of black life, black study, and relishing nonbinary experiences across the diaspora. Abdurahman talked to Smythe about abolition organizing on Turtle Island, statecraft as reproduced in humanitarian technologies, and orienting toward “otherwise possibility.”
The joke I always make is that techno-capitalism puts people who have never taken the humanities in charge of humanity. In that vein, the driving motivation behind Beacons is thinking about how we “call in” Black studies and abolitionist organizers into this technology discourse. Even as I say that, I want to be careful to not reify technology as the property of white, cisgender male tech bros straight outta Silicon Valley because we are all already using, interacting, and modifying techniques and technologies all the time, right?
This time that we are asymmetrically experiencing has been intense and overwhelming due to the convergence of so-called “crises,” which are of course interrelated. So, I’m really grateful to be taking up those questions in this format. I’ve felt insecure about how to jump in and have a conversation about “tech” even though it’s so pervasive and is foundational to much of our relationship to modern life/modernity. How do we think about technologies as various techniques, tools, or modalities for collective liberation or for black freedoms? How do we get humanists and humanities adjacent folks—especially people who engage in various black radical traditions and Black feminist practices—to think more urgently about Technology in the capital T sense? I’m not quite sure, but the invitation is key. Of course, as we’ve talked about this ongoing invitation, with scholars like Simone Browne, Katherine McKittrick, Safiya Noble, and Ruha Benjamin, plus many of the other folks in this issue who have been working against “algorithms of oppression,” data, and technologies of liberation through a Black feminist lens for some time—you’ve reminded me to answer and amplify this call.
I’m thinking about the movement and solidarity work that I joined in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and global Black rebellions in the summer of 2020. For the Cops Off Campus Coalition organizing both regionally and locally across Turtle Island, 95 percent of our convening, strategizing, and public campaigning was unthinkable without Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype, and apps like Cryptee, Google Docs, Canva, and Lucidchart, inviting one another to amplify our campaigns and build shared demands across different time zones to mobilize people and share resources. This was of course true for the Black Abolition Futures political education group and political organizing spaces in Europe that I was able to re-enter while physically in the US. It’s challenging, trying to think about what we need to imagine liberation tools and technologies beyond our current capacities, particularly when we’re in movement work or, like you, directly confronting these questions of technology on a day to day basis, and considering what otherwise can materially mean and how to bring that to bear in our present.
When we’re inundated with technologies perceived to be “our only hope” à la Star Wars, where that’s the last chance that we’ve got to get ourselves free; that’s where I think we need to take a second to pause and double down on an acknowledgment: that this is precisely the time where we must mobilize for something else beyond our current capacities. This is when I orient towards the replenishable resource of otherwise possibility, a framing I first came across in the work of Ashon Crawley. Anyone telling you that new technological expansion is our last chance, that there’s no other way, or that this is the easiest path if you want to do the work that you’ve set out to do, I think we all need to reflect and think about our intentions, aspirations, and who among us is really out of time. What options do we have access to or must create?
Smaller Scales and The Digital Sea
What stands out to me is the idea of thinkability. Mariame Kaba says this a lot in reference to abolition. You know, that organizers worked for a very, very long time. And you know, organizers, including incarcerated people and people who were formerly incarcerated, right? Because sometimes there’s a weird binary—the organizer becomes the one who is separate from incarcerated people. But they work to make the idea of abolition thinkable, something that people, in a decentralized way, practice in their own lives and in their own scholarship.
Exactly this. And I’m thinking about scale—digital, corporeal, and geopolitical scale all entwined together. While holding the need for global political revolution and exchange, I wonder if we might make the scales smaller and have the kind of impact on the ground that might lead toward a shift in digital space. So to put it more concretely: What’s really great about certain kinds of mutual aid is that I can send money to someone right now in Senegal or in Tahiti. It’ll get there roughly at the same time. But I wonder what this means in terms of rapid gentrification and displacement and dispossession of Black, brown, and indigenous peoples. I’m wondering about the capacity for a digital that is the people’s right, belonging to the people on a smaller scale, and without western attachments to property.
What would that look like—if that’s even a useful way to start thinking about it—so that it’s not governed or even governable by a large scale, monolithic, usually evil enterprise? On a smaller scale, say you live in apartment 5B and you need a babysitter, one of your kids has an ear infection. You have to run out and go take care of them real quick. You can’t bring the other kids with you because that will be too hard to manage alone. Is someone available in the building right now to babysit? It would be cool to think from smaller scale mutual interdependence that abolitionists talk a lot about, that doesn’t look like TaskRabbit, that doesn’t feed into the gig economy which provides care as service for compensation independent of human, communal investment and accountability.
One instance that comes to mind is the Watch the Med Alarm Phone project, a self-organized hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. For example, if you arrive at the Port of Tripoli in Libya and join a voyage attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe but the boat capsizes or something goes wrong, you could call the hotline which would then point rescue operations to your relative location and come to your aid.
On the one hand, this is a project on a relatively small scale, which is unfortunate in this case because it should be the work of governments whose borders are leading to catastrophe. As Harsha Walia says, the border is the crisis. But you know, government neglect is what it is. There are no real mechanisms then, digital or otherwise, that are consistent and hold the community of those rendered refugees or asylum seekers making that treacherous journey.
The ephemera of the large-scale digital space has made it such that, at the end of the task, of the act, there is nothing, you fall off of the cliff from support after the GoFundMe gets circulated. The lives are anonymized and lost in these spaces while we do the (to be clear, very necessary) work of redistributing wealth to the oppressed, away from the Global North, etc. So, I’m wondering what would happen if the digital realm (which feels to me really large and nebulous, like a sea in its own right) can come down to a smaller scale such that we can collectively navigate our way through. Or does that seem idealistic in a non-useful way, because someone will need to administer it and technology is not value neutral in terms of how it produces and exacerbates material asymmetry?
I’m just pausing to think, because I’m like, “both and neither.” Both in the sense that yes, I think that we do need to find better relationships to administer mutual aid or social support through digital infrastructures. I’m not a nihilist or saying, “Cash App is corrupt,” therefore die slow. I think that it is what it is and we have to help our people. I’ve also been in situations, in my own life, where I needed people to help me. I’m not going to be so dogmatic to the point that I’m saying, “Now you are complicit with capitalism because you have a wage and you’re going to send it to me on this commercial app.” But, I guess the “neither” part is recognizing how these apps are infrastructure and are controlling us as populations. I mean, it’s not so linear like that. I think about the algorithmic flagging of fraudulent transactions resulting in any money being sent to Palestinians on these platforms being suspended and frozen without recourse.
We are in a situation where we must have mutual aid. We must send money back home. We must send money to Texas when the state has failed to take care of people. But in that must, we’re relying on these apps or these infrastructures that were designed not in service of us. Not to produce that livability, right? So how do we think about whether there is something qualitatively new manifesting in these technologies? What is new about predictive policing? Before the prediction, policing was still bad, still needed to be abolished, right? Is it just automating that same practice or is something different happening? I think about Virginia Eubanks’ comparison between the 20th century brick-and-mortar poorhouse and the present day digital poorhouse that is using algorithms. She emphasizes how the former geographically co-located Eastern European immigrants and Black Americans together—which some argue laid the ground for the Poor People’s Movement—as compared to the algorithmic sorting of the digital poorhouse which preempts that kind of cross racial solidarity or physical proximity. I feel like the way political subjectivities are formed in relationship to a state’s (often concealed) control of people’s movement through space is a theme of your work on Blackness and migration. Are there connections that you’re making in thinking about these examples?
That’s really helpful. I love examples since I really appreciate having something to hold on to. Your question about this distinction makes me think of Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial regimes—that which does not want to be revealed, but by the very nature of its revelation, speaks the truth about the mutability of racial representations as historically uncertain. This is why the system of racial capitalism and the flourishing of white supremacy is specifically one of the things that pretends it does not exist, that there is no hand there building on pre-existing cultural forms with new technologies that emerge to retrench those processes. In this way, “new” technology hides the original intent and how those aims differentially structure our realities.
Last month, when Facebook apps all went down—a possible distraction from the testimony of the company’s whistleblower Frances Haugen before the US Senate—I felt this regime acutely. I was trying to help support planning and get information about my grandfather’s funeral in Jamaica, and I couldn’t reach any of my relatives in the Caribbean and across the diaspora, who all use WhatsApp as the primary mode of communication. For a lot of my family, like millions across the Global South, staying in touch internationally is far too expensive over landlines, and VoIP services like WhatsApp have filled this need. During the temporary crash, I couldn’t figure out how to send money to them. I couldn’t figure out where they were physically so that I could then try to find out which cousin or which uncle or family friend or local pastor had a landline that I could attempt to reach. At that moment, I realized WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, was completely determining my ability to connect with my family, to grieve and support and organize my community in real time, with material consequences.
That’s just one personal example among millions, not even just in this particular incident, but consistently and recklessly when we think of, for example, Black trans sex workers being suppressed by the algorithms of most mainstream platforms. While OnlyFans began to ramp up this same suppression that Instagram did, taking down photos that have Cash App links on them, pop stars on the same apps, wearing similar amounts of clothing, are being promoted widely on all of our screens.
My impression is that black study hasn’t taken up technology as a primary site of analysis. Do you see an opportunity for scholars like yourself to intervene in the discourse of techno-capitalism and liberation?
Black studies folks who are not already invested in thinking through technology as an instrument of capitalism should get on board because, as I mentioned, we’re already thinking about things like racial regimes, hidden infrastructures, and what they do to our material conditions and the ability to survive, thrive, and resist. Bedour Alagraa’s work becomes really key to my thinking on this and so many other things when she talks about catastrophe, the “changing same,” and the retrenchment of shared articulations of our dispossession.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that, right? Acknowledge that fact—that this is a different era, but it is an extension from the deadly worldmaking event of 1492 into what we’re perceiving as our present day. And so there are all of these different kinds of work that Black studies scholars are doing to think about the revelations of the coercive organization of our daily lives, conceiving of how we can even begin to think about resisting, about liberation, about freedom dreaming. I’m convinced it’s really important and the intersections are increasingly being laid bare during this phase of neoliberal late stage capitalism.
What I’m trying to hold onto is precisely the ephemeral understanding that “now is not working.” What we’re knowing as “the now”—the conditions of Western oriented or ontologically Western Space-Time—is not working. And actually, we’ve been in the same moment since 1492. So one of the ways it’s not working is that we think it’s 2021 and that has consistent material implications. On the internet people are like, “It’s 2021. We shouldn’t be saying this joke anymore,” or “How is this still happening and it’s 2021?” And I’m like, this is because we never left 1492. We’re playing ourselves by thinking that the clock being offered to us is actually any measure of a real shift in the time that we (and by “we” I mean black people—Africa and its diasporas) have been hailed into—and even indoctrinated within—to be making these kinds of statements. To think otherwise is calling for a real kind of rupture from the status quo keeping us unfree. I’m talking myself into a bit of a circle because of that “both/and” that’s required, and because I would never say, “Well, no computers for anyone and so I can’t Venmo you some money for your urgent care.” Or like, now I don’t support Facebook, and I delete all of my little apps, so I can’t message my auntie in Trelawney or uncles in the mountains in Jamaica, can’t participate in mutual aid for Black trans kin, sex workers, and migrants in communities that I’m no longer physically living near but still accountable to? We need both.
Breathing into otherwise possibility is to me a fundamental, ontological, ahistorical rupture—in the sense of capital “H” history being a Western epistemological framework. It is a total divestment from the current world order. That means that the way that we can organize ourselves (or we even dream about organizing ourselves) in relation to one another is actionable and realizable; not fixed, but possible and dynamic.
I don’t think that enough of us are entertaining the possibility, because of a false binary where it’s like, “Well, I need to survive.” And I’m thinking that part of this survival is orienting to this otherwise—it’s not seeing your survival as just the next meal or where’s the next paycheck. That gets really hard to narrate without sounding like you’re just swimming in privilege, completely oblivious to the material conditions of people who need to know where the next check is coming from or how they can get together for that next meal.
I find myself sort of trapped by my own seductions, by my own desires for us to collectively orient ourselves to a thing without sounding like I’m oblivious and not aware of what people need—to be, to literally exist. But also understanding that the current order and the current perceptions of an allegedly discrete and separate catastrophe or of some kind of linear arc toward something—as opposed to spinning the wheels, “the changing same” and a deep retrenchment or acceleration of accumulation by dispossession and being asymmetrically displaced—is not it.
Moving Beyond The State
I keep bringing up how algorithms are hegemonic, bringing to scale the movement of people through space and producing new kinds of divisions through classifying and sorting people. Because predictive policing is not just about expanding forms of community surveillance, it’s also a labor management tool. We see in welfare, automated decision systems are producing and managing resource scarcity, and then managing those subjectivities. Sometimes this is enacted in a very broad and decentralized way, and sometimes in an intensely violent way that is neither unclear nor metaphorical. From any given vantage point, we cannot see everything, so we need that multiplicity of perspectives.
It’s well documented that predictive policing relies on dirty data sets embedded with the historic overrepresentation of Black and houseless people, thereby redirecting the police to the same geographic sites they’ve always over-policed. What Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Free Radicals uniquely identified in their Algorithmic Ecology project, was that PredPol was not actually classifying the Skid Row residents as high risk, which is what the traditional argument of dirty data would lead us to believe. Rather than labeling the Skid Row encampments as “hot spots,” PredPol is classifying the perimeters of Skid Row as high risk. In practice, this means that the moment residents tried to move past these otherwise invisible borders, they would encounter higher rates of arrest and police contact. If the LAPD announced a brick-and-mortar wall was to be built as a border around Skid Row, people would riot, right? Academic researchers who primarily rely on privacy rights to critique these technologies eschew the collective or communal harms that resonate with people who are targeted. I worry that residents of Skid Row, abolitionist organizers, and others may disengage from resisting these technologies when it’s rendered unclear how the stakes are much greater than data privacy.
Even if we can understand Black Marxism from Cedric Robinson and are engaged with Bedour around not just rearticulating the same modes of catastrophe, crisis, and linear march through history, we’re still not in the refugee camp. I’m not reifying standpoint epistemology, but literally we don’t have access to everything, even at this moment where massive amounts of content is constantly being produced, right? I’m thinking about this “not knowing” alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2017. Examining the coordinated housing entry system in L.A., he emphasized that experimentation with public sector adoption of automated decision systems happens on the most marginalized sections of society before being generalized to the rest of the population. We can trace policies mandating fingerprinting for welfare recipients during the Clinton era to Simone Browne’s seminal book, Dark Matters, explicating the proto-biometrics of the Middle Passage in the ledgers and branding of enslaved Black peoples.
So, some of these technologies have been the situation—and at the same time as recognizing that historic lineage or sameness, we have to recognize what’s different in these new forms of surveillance and social control as they are being enacted onto broader swaths of the population.
In tech, to a degree there is a sociopolitical critical analysis, it often coalesces around bias. When you get to geopolicy, the discourse becomes very reliant on statecraft and state terminology because states actually have an analysis of society. They actually have a sense of who different actors are and, in a vacuum of political or theoretical frameworks, state actors are ascending. What stands out to me so much in your work is a rejection of state terminology, particularly as I’m thinking about my family in Oromia in the southern region of Ethiopia and observing how advocates are making moral appeals to the UN or to the US State Department. Human Rights Watch branded a recent report on Eritrean refugees in Tigray with a satellite image from Maxar Technologies. This just stood out to me so much—not that I want to hearken back to the old days of the ’83 famine where they just put starving, nameless black people on the cover—but because this bird’s eye view that renders people into polygons, if they’re even seen at all, and even then it only allows for people to be seen en masse, there is no humanity within it. What does belonging mean in that context? Similar to WhatsApp, many people will justify use of satellite imagery citing it as the sole source of gathering visual evidence during a crisis.
Neither of us is here to defend the ivory tower, but this is why we need black study. And I’m using that term the way Robin D.G. Kelley points us to, as distinct from Black studies. So not Black Studies™ as a hegemonic and ethnonationalist interdisciplinary framework that was heavily funded by the government, by the State, namely through the Ford Foundation from the discipline’s institutionalization in the Sixties. But black study as the deeply invested commitment to black people, black life, black possibility, and freedom dreaming, beyond institutions and in fact under siege by them. Collectively attending to black study would have us asking a very different set of questions, and perhaps being prepared to bring about very different answers.
This premise about evidence and evidencing is something that black study has taught me to challenge and expose the underlying perceptions of. What am I understanding when we talk about this bird’s eye/drone’s eye/God’s eye perspective is a view of people rendered non-people. That framing is borne from a visual technology that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State. In managing how and who we’re seeing, this particular apparatus instigates us into a certain organized affect, initiates into a socially reproduced hierarchy—this is effectively what citizenship, nationalism, and patriotism do.
A patriot sees a flag burning and they are moved to defend the nation, as opposed to seeing a piece of cloth that they can walk over in the street, right? And that’s because of what it means to belong to the state. You might feel it as an extension of yourself as opposed to what it is, which is the other way around. And so, I think, that thinking with black study, thinking with Black thought, would actually have us question: What does it mean when we’re seeing non-people? What does it say about us if images of the oppressed masses are disseminated, and when we encounter them we can then go, “Oh, I get it, it’s really bad there.” Technologies of seeing and the epistemologies they are informed by need to be interrogated so that when we engage in movement work and defend our communities, we are not benefitting statecraft or reproducing an asymmetrical and oppressive world order.
Sometimes I feel increasingly militant about not reproducing certain images as evidence because, I mean, we’ve all seen them, right? Black people drowned at sea, black people’s bodies washed up on shore or left out in the street for hours as in the case of Michael Brown and countless others, dozens of black people on, what I guess what passes for a boat with an infrastructure than cannot safely cross the Mediterranean, whose image gets printed on the cover of The Telegraph with the language of “the swarm” with an action shot of black people fleeing in Haiti or in Sudan. We know what gets made to matter and how. Black study reminds us whose narratives, whose stories have weight and amplifies the work that needs to be done without trafficking in the antiblack violence of dehumanizing erasure.
In the campaign leading up to Brexit, there were these massive billboards of black people crowded and stacked on a road and referred to as swarms—distinctly animal and non-human language for people fleeing conditions that Britain and other imperial formations have historically wrought. The images featured migrant crossing routes in places like Afghanistan and Libya, but they were being used in the middle of the UK so that people could see it and go, “Oh, that’s what’s happening here, they’re coming across our border, encroaching on our lands.” It was falling into the mind of the white citizen subject being like, “This is happening here,” or “It has already happened here.” Sight as a visual technology, as a mechanism, is already being used and abused in ways that need to be interrogated.
What I know from black study, and what I’ve experienced in my embodiment as a Black trans person and in solidarity with disability rights activists, is that seeing is not always believing, and to interrogate the privileges of sight. What you take through a visual medium and how you privilege that sense is rarely a tool for our liberation. So what then do we rely on instead?
And so for me, the kind of belonging that I hail, in relation to our collective liberation, tries to make that pivot. If not, you and I belong to this nation state because we look similar or we sound similar, because we speak the same language, because we have certain kinds of perceived proximities that the state has organized us into. Instead, we can belong to a different set of commitments wherein I don’t need to visually see your suffering to actually acknowledge it. We can actually orient toward one another and the life we want to lead, so that it’s not born through a series of documents, either visual or textual in statistics, the way that the UNHCR also does, the way throughout Europe, or the way that Frontex manages us and the International Office of Migration also enumerates. Quite simply, it’s an orientation in which we collectively understand that statistics also codify our existence and extract our humanity.
I don’t need to “see” evidence of the Oromo Genocide or see dead people up and down Ethiopia to know that we need to mobilize a collective response to the violence there. I have friends from Ethiopia. I have people who are in a place, telling me something is happening, and I know that they’re committed to their and our collective freedoms. So I don’t need to know that fourty-five Ethiopians were murdered today or ten or twenty or a hundred. I actually don’t need to quantify that severe loss with numbers and not names or lives or memories if I already understand that the ongoing colonial and imperial illogics are producing a reality deeper than a mere number. We don’t need to fall into the same traps of enumeration, quantification, and extraction for us to bear witness. Yet again, there is a “both/and” there, too. I understand why there are the petitions, I understand the enumerations, I understand the visualizing of these things, but I also find it to be a trap of visibility and representation, because then we’re not belonging to each other. We’re not trying to collectively belong to a possible otherwise. We’re actually belonging into the same metrics of statecraft that are causing our harm to begin with.
A hundred percent. I don’t know if you self-identify as a group, but what I have specifically learned from you, Zoé Samudzi, and Bedour Alagraa is thinking critically about visual documentation and the desire of the audience to see or experience this sadistic yet orgiastic enjoyment of black suffering. This desire is both dehumanizing and demands bodies, which is not the same. I also appreciate your demand to distinguish black life and black bodies versus “myself.”
We’re rejecting statecraft while sitting in the west and as diaspora. So I’m also thinking about people who are incarcerated or who are living in zones with an intensity of unrelenting violence, what does it mean for them to reject technologies of statecraft? What is otherwise for them? Going back to that Philip Alston point, you know, humanitarian technology is a site of pervasive experimentation. On one level, I appreciate that the UN is so transparent; they actually state in their internal documents something along the lines of “Thank God, unlike the EU, we don’t have GDPR, so we can experiment on these populations and try out these new things before they get generalized to everyone else.” How do we resist being brought into the only kind of relation remaining when we only see back home through a documentation of the suffering by NGOs or other humanitarian bodies, which does not allow for a kind of belonging with refugees or those categorized as “internally displaced?” How can we learn from and be in community with them when technologies of the state have become the throughway?
I’m thinking right now of a really dope book, Eric Stanley’s Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable. Eric thinks a lot with Black trans feminists, as well as with Angela Davis, about what it means to become ungovernable.
When I used to do work in relation to the UK border with migrant women in detention centers, with a greater physical number of people, we could get heard and things could get done. We could mobilize to stop planes—like those small European detention flights. We could shut shit down in this very material way responding to immediate political and physical needs.
Part of my reticence with technology is with the sleekness and the smoothness of a user experience across platforms, which doesn’t map onto the beautiful incoherence of human subjectivity. There’s increased regulation in how we present ourselves online. Through this, we’re becoming increasingly governable. One thing to consider is actual revolution, which Fanon and many others have taught us is not pretty, not consistent. It’s not an isolated march or rally. I mean, it’s machetes, it’s fires. It’s ongoing violent struggle meeting the violence we’ve (asymmetrically) been subjected to, that we should think about turning to yesterday, already. I know that because of the global structures that we’ve been slated into and the ways that we relate and the things that we would already have to be giving up, revolution across the world holds different weight. I’m trying to be careful as I’m saying things, but it is something that I think a lot about: what is required and how do we prepare?
And I’m thinking about how not to just think about it, but to be about it. How do we actually mobilize in the long game while our life spans are being shortened in real time, while being heavily surveilled and coercively governed, while a lot of our communities are being dispossessed and displaced in real time, and when ecological disasters and climate catastrophe means some of us are already out of time? And, here you go, I try not to talk myself out of the very answers that I think are really what’s to come, are really hard to break open and leap out of—in that Fanonian sense—out of the current world order toward some otherwise one.
The discussion around gender that I have been exposed to feels very bureaucratic. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about being “assigned at birth.” Do you identify with the gender that you’re assigned at birth? From my understanding, this has to do with birth certificates. Ethiopia actually has one of the lowest rates of birth registration in the world. Most people don’t even get birth registration until they get their passport if they’re going to leave the country. But it’s something like 1.2-1.3 percent of all children acquire birth registration, even among the middle class.
As I went down this Google rabbit hole, I was like, “Yo, this is dope,” because when you’re talking about black methodologies, of misspokenness and the broken pieces, this is the complete opposite of digital surveillance. Everything is about enumerating, I mean, talk about counting—that is the fundamental ontological principle, and it’s really disturbed when people do not participate in birth registration for statistical regimes. I don’t want to romanticize these small acts of bureaucratic refusal or present them as active political commitments to abolishing the gender binary. There definitely is homophobia and transphobia in Ethiopia—I don’t even know how much those words completely translate, not just the literal sexual translation, but in the way that people conceive of gender. I don’t want to make it sound like Ethiopia is in any way a paragon of sexual freedom or gender identity inclusiveness, but at the same time, there is a way that everything is not so linear. So as this gender binary is being enacted onto people through institutions, bureaucracies, and technologies, people are refusing it in different kinds of ways. How do we make sense of that, not just in relationship to resistance, but between each other? What does it mean to think about gender when there is not that same assigning?
Gender is nothing if not bureaucratic. Gender is nothing if not a series of accruals and assignations on a global scale. But, and, also, there’s something to really delight in, I think, in terms of a refusal that doesn’t look binary. I’ve had conversations where it’s just like, “Look at all this gender. Gender comes from the West, so let’s say ‘no’ to gender, right?” And so it’s supposed to be a rejection outright. But the queer and trans people that I know and delight in and struggle with, we can relish our gender too, as well as our relationship to it.
Let’s put it this way: gender is a series of attachments, much like belonging—which is probably why this relates to your question. So technology, perhaps if I can try to make a real quick but rough analogy, not as a process or a series of mechanisms through which you manage labor, bodies, time, and all of these sorts of constructs, but actually as a way of deepening attachments. I’d like to think of “trans” when I think about transnational politics and even transdisciplinary scholarship as a moving across borders drawing from how trans theorist Eva Hayward talks about trans being a series of attachments and modes of relating as opposed to across, because grammatically, trans is supposed to be across and then cis would be on the same side. Instead of crossing a border or staying on the same side of a border, of gender, of geography, and so on, it could instead be a series of attachments to that very otherwise set of possibilities that we’re trying to mobilize.
To go back to your concrete example with the Ethiopian birth certificates, I think it’s a super cool note to end on, right, because you actually are talking about possibility. No, of course you’re not saying, “Ethiopia is the trans friendliest place on Earth” or whatever. But by nature of these minor refusals that accumulate into a set of possibilities, then we have possibilities there, right? Like 1.2 percent is nothing to sniff at. So now if I wanted to play with my gender or what I understood or perceived to be gender, away from this kind of assignation, and I’m a trans Ethiopian or a person who is—and there are different words to talk about gender variance in different geographical contexts—then I can make some room, make something else possible for myself. And so I can use the very refusal that the masses are enacting to make room for myself.
And then when I’m carving up that space, because how we identify, and how we are identified is always already relational, then I’m making room for an “us” to thrive in that refusal. Again, I think that is linked to the becoming ungovernable that Stanley talks about, the moving in the wake of interminable catastrophe that Alagraa talks about, the thinking away from sort of genocidal politics of enumeration that Samudzi talks about. These are circulating conversations that black study has made, that precisely can be situated in thinking about technology. Now we’ve moved beyond “just” tech, and also to technologies of refusal and how to make those possibilities endure.
A note to the reader from SA Smythe: In response to decades of Black resistance in the US, many publishers have adopted a “house style” where “Black” is capitalized when referring to Black Americans/USians. This conversation was initially recorded and then edited, but SA Smythe spoke with us about the distinction between Black/black in terms of the larger African diaspora and the continent, and what capitalization gestures toward for/as Western grammar. When referring to Black USians explicitly, they usually capitalize the word in response to those important struggles and conventions of naming. Transnationally, the debates/struggles around that aren’t consistent, and thus Smythe considers it useful to be mindful about making those conventions hegemonic from the US, and what that means for collective, global black liberation. For this reason, global black struggles outside of the US, black study (independent from the interdiscipline of Black Studies), etc., are not capitalized in this interview. As La Marr Jurelle Bruce once tweeted: “As long as you’re writing and uttering the word ‘B/black’ with love and toward liberation, we’re good.” That’s the spirit through which this conversation was held.