Accessing Race in the Digital Humanities: A Proposed E-Roundtable for MLA ’13

Chair: Roger Whitson, Emory U
Respondent: Tara McPherson, USC

The digital humanities has enjoyed popularity in the past two MLA conferences, with William Pannapacker labeling MLA 12 as the “Come to DH Moment” and Stanley Fish wondering whether DH is the “next big thing.” As the digital humanities has risen in prominence, several scholarly movements have asked what place cultural criticism has in the field. Most recently, Tara McPherson has argued that “we desperately need to close the gap between [race and the digital humanities]” (“Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” Debates in the Digital Humanities). While the digital humanities has been criticized for its lack of critical attention to race, relatively little work has focused on what the digital humanities can add to critical discourses of race and ethnicity. This electronic roundtable examines how databases, editorial policies, programming structures, and other computational and managerial structures in DH access, ignore, or otherwise sublimate questions of race.

Accessing Race in the Digital Humanities will address a set of issues that are unique to DH, and show how collaborative scholarship confronts race differently than the cultural criticism of the past. We envision a roundtable session that is similar to Katherine Harris, Kathi Inman Berens, and Brian Croxall’s roundtables on digital pedagogy from MLA ‘12, since those panels were particularly well-attended. Projects will be arranged on separate stations with monitors that feature digital projects. Each contributor gives a short (5 minute) introduction to the ideas contained within their work, then attendees wander around asking questions and starting conversations about the projects. Presenters will also be asked to publish their work online at least a week before the MLA conference, so attendees can consider their arguments, formulate questions, and even begin a dialogue beforehand. We believe that this final gesture allows attendees and presenters to engage in more productive and nuanced conversations, since both already have an understanding of the basic arguments.

“Access” is particularly important to our roundtable, not only because our participants highlight how the digital humanities accesses – or has no access – to race, but also because race impacts access to the programming, cultural, and funding structures in the digital humanities. We believe a conversation about race, access, and interface is particularly urgent now, as the digital humanities become more relevant to the future of graduate education, tenure and review, and alternate-academic careers. For us, any conversation about the problem of representation in the “canon” of digital humanities projects must be complemented with a greater awareness of how interfaces and databases encode specific cultural assumptions about race, and how these assumptions enable, limit, and bar certain groups of people from participating in the digital humanities. On one level, the digital humanities defines access by the way computers interface with the world, through graphics, code, and operating systems. As Lawrence Lessig points out, computer code “determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored” (“Code is Law: Our Liberty in Cyberspace.” Harvard Review. Jan-Feb 2000). And as critics like Matthew Kirschenbaum and Wendy Chun have shown, code is not the only regulatory agent but is enmeshed in networks of software, hardware, service providers both open-access and proprietary, and groups of people – all of whom have assumptions about, and insights into, race. Our roundtable combines the attention paid by digital scholars to building, collaboration, and infrastructure with cultural studies insights about race in order to create an environment where each can learn from the other.

After I shortly introduce Accessing Race in the Digital Humanities, the audience will turn to two presenters who highlight race as a complicating factor in the digital humanities. Julia Sano-Franchini’s “Time, Technology and the Mediated Body: Temporal Logics in the Rhetorics of East Asian Blepharoplasty in Online Video” explores the cross-cultural network emerging on YouTube and the way different cultural notions of time and space influence tagging and commenting on videos featuring East Asian double-eyelid surgery. Alex Gil’s “Wikipedia’s Caliban: Crowdsourced Objectivity and the Marginal Archive” interrogates the editorial policy of Wikipedia for its claims to neutrality, arguing that this policy creates a knowledge-set that is disturbingly westernized for all of its claims to globalizing knowledge.

The other three presenters focus on specific digital humanities projects and their impact on accessing different aspects of race. Lee Bessette’s “Performing Laferrière: Recreating the Performative Aspects of Black Culture” chronicles how the idea of the master copy in jazz recordings erased the performative aspects of African-American oral culture. She presents digital tools that can help reconstruct that experience. David Kim’s “Performing Critique in Knowledge Modeling: DH Methodology and Theories of Race and Ethnicity” explores how two recent projects, Art Asian America and Mapping Chicano Murals, encode problematic practices regarding race, ethnicity and access within the terms, digital platforms and tools that they use. Finally, Roger Whitson’s “Managing Race in the Digital Humanities?: The Case of ‘Lynchings in Georgia: 1875-1930’” questions how critical inquiry regarding race changes when managing a digital humanities project involving people of different ethnicities and subject positions and highlights the complexities of identity politics when approaching collaborative work.

We believe that Accessing Race in the Digital Humanities is an important roundtable for two reasons. First, it addresses a pressing issue in the digital humanities: the impact of race on new technologies. Second, it does so from the standpoint of the tools, code, and political structures that serve as our interface to digital technology and culture.


  1. Dear Mr. Whitson,

    I write to thank you for this very helpful expression of a tension I have sensed as I acquaint myself with the new insurgency of the so-called “digital humanities.”

    As you may know, I’ve recently embarked on an analysis of the movement in my New York Times column (not to say, blog) and the fourth essay in the series — — makes reference to your proposal for next year’s Modern Language Association convention. It offers, I’m afraid, a bit of a challenge to the assumptions on which this work is based.

    Stanley Fish

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