A Decade of Women of Color in Blogging: Who was the First WOC Online?
I hate labeling boxes when I organize my house or move. I hate filing. I hate the term "women of color blogs." The latter makes me uncomfortable because it creates a sea of women so vast it sends my writing mind into a seizure. What does that mean, "women of color bloggers"?
Does that mean any woman blogging who is not exclusively of European descent? Does it include Jewish women and if it doesn't include Jewish women then should it not include Arab women? After all both groups sprang from the Middle East not Europe. They are both Semites, and both can be classified under the larger umbrella of groups that have been oppressed, not automatically benefiting from "white" privilege.
Does the tag "women of color" include all Asians? Some Westernized Asians don't identify with oppressed people of color at all, sometimes not even other Asians. Sometimes some Asians, as do certain kinds of upper-crusty black folks, mentally imagine themselves to be white.
In many ways, being a person of color politicizes your nature even when you yourself don't feel political. It's an issue I tackled in my poem "A Persistent Pursuit" and another poem that confesses the weariness of a woman of color too often asked to exemplify or explain blackness to a white world. Yes, I am black, and so I speak of blackness, and when I use the term "women of color" people respond with names of black women. Is it because I am black or is "women of color" simply the new politically correct euphemism for black women like "urban author" means black author?
No, it's not, and yet when I asked people to share with me impressions and history on women of color in blogging, most people sent me the names of black female bloggers. Perhaps all that means is that black women who blog have a higher profile.
When the names of mostly black women bloggers started hitting my email box, I suspect the feeling that came over me is the same feeling that weighs down white people when they plan an event celebrating diversity only to look at the program and realize only white people have been scheduled to speak, the result of their only having real relationships with other white people. This insular way of living is probably why such panels end up including very fair-skinned Indian businessmen or Moroccan immigrants who are 1.) Apologetic for their lack of knowledge about American race issues, and 2.) Shocked that anyone noticed they are not "really" white. But I don't live like that. My life is not insular.
Nevertheless, my in-box grew fat with the names of black women bloggers. Not all the names were of black women, but certainly enough to make for a lopsided "decade of women of color in blogging."
Then I ran into another complication. Some women of color, black or otherwise, do not want to be considered women of color bloggers because the label boxes them into the kinds of expectations expressed in the poems mentioned earlier. It seems "women of color blogger" is associated specifically with the woman of color who addresses female empowerment, race and gender issues, and is willing to walk through political bomb minefields as does Renee at Womanist Musings or the Ph.Ds at what once was The Kitchen Table (Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce). Therefore, we come to this idea that "woman of color blogger" may have not as much to do with skin color or ethnic roots as it does with having an identity mindset toward race and gender within the sphere of political, cultural, and social justice issues, perhaps, that permeates your blog.
And yet could a piece on women of color bloggers leave out folks like Renee at Cutie Booty Cakes, who's been exceptionally successful online in a short period, Asian Mommy, Modern Mami, or Mocha Moms? Could it exclude the black female writers online using blogs to promote their own work and the work of other writers of color?
Unsure and realizing the sea was too vast for my puny little brain, I crowd-sourced. I decided that was the only way to write a post supposedly examining a decade of women of color blogging and not make a mess like the one Samantha Ettus is accused of making with her very white list of 14 Power Women To Follow On Twitter or a stink like the one Vanity Fair fell into with its Tweethearts List, not to mention its rising young, white & thin Hollywood cover. The mistake these people have in common is that their lists and conclusions about history and influence are too limited.
If I drew conclusions alone on this topic, I could easily make that mistake. I've been online since the mid 90s, but who am I to grasp the impact of "a decade of women of color in blogging" all by myself?
First WOC Online
About two months ago, I started hunting down who may have been the first WOC blogger online, an impossible task, and so I narrowed it to the first WOC online who blogs and is still blogging. That also was too daunting. Finding that woman is not simple like pointing out the first black woman to sell and have published a genre romance novel. It's more like trying to find the first WOC to ride a horse.
The first woman of color who decided to share her thoughts on the World Wide Web as we know it today would not have known she was the first, and so we have no video of her writing her first online sentence. She may not have been excited about logging on nor understood the significance of her place in the digital divide of class, gender, and race. She may have signed on, poked around a bit, and gotten bored, realizing how much of her time she wasted waiting for a page to load in dial-up. So, she may have signed off, dead to us forever, her digital life gone. And if she had nothing to say other than "Hello, World," was she really that important anyway?
Maybe I'll write a book, "Digital Eve: Tracing the Rise of Women of Color Online" with alternate title "How to Give Yourself a Headache." (I'm claiming that title now. Do not touch!)
I won't claim to have found the first woman of color to have published an article, photo, journal, website, or blog online. However, I will tell you that one woman's name came up frequently as being a person others recall seeing when they ventured into cyberspace before 2005. Multiple folks told me that when they first came online, they saw Lynne d. Johnson with her flag stable and fluttering on the wild, mysterious, cyberspace frontier.
A journalist with Fast Company, Lynne's still making noise on the Internet, and she was kind enough to send me a link to her first blog posts, keyed in 2001. You'll see that it is called a diary, which tells you that she was around online before she wrote those posts.
Blogs first appeared as online journals and diaries. Bloggers were more likely to be called diarists back in the day, first appearing in 1994.
While Lynne first posted diary entries online in 2001, she told me she had been "writing online long before that as a journalist...writing solely for Web articles." That's probably one of the reasons so many people remember her. She was visible on early websites.
Another WOC with high visibility whose name came up often is Carmen Van Kerckhove of Racialicious. At least five people named her to me as either one of the women of color they noticed when first coming online or as a person whose work inspired them to start blogs or their own.
However, whether speaking to males or females, the name most often on lips of people naming women of color power bloggers was Gina McCauley. She is the founder of Bloging While Brown, the blog What About Our Daughters, and the website MichelleObamaWatch.com. Last year Blogher CE Megan Smith interviewed Gina.
Gina's blogs that are online today aren't a decade old, but it's possible she may be the first woman of color to launch a website online about women of color. As she told me in a BlogTalkRadio interview, in her freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, 1995, she was an online services intern for the school newspaper, and that's when she started her first site about black women. Soledad O'Brien, who was at MSNBC back then, per Gina, but is now at CNN, mentioned Gina's endeavor in Essence Magazine, April 1997.
But McCauley gave her website up and went to law school. Still, she admits she was addicted early to the Net, doing dial-up, peeking in at Net Noir, using AOL, and spending possibly too much time on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). She even remembers Gopher, as do I. Perhaps she was destined to do what she's doing now, being a "warrior social activist" on the World Wide Web.
Gina said in the podcast that in the year 2007 the black blogosphere exploded due to the presidential race. Obama's run contributed to more people being interested in what black bloggers had to say about politics, and 2007 was also the year that political bloggers in general rose in clout, which viewers may conclude watching this video with Liza Sabater of Culture Kitchen.
In a 2007 WABC interview Sabater speaks about the impact of the Internet on the presidential race. She is a woman of color sandwiched between two white males in a power discussion on mainstream television, and that circumstance may punctuate Gina's point about the rise of black bloggers that year.
When I asked for help on this post, I was bombarded with names and links to blogs that readers and other bloggers either consider or influential or simply like. Here are only some of them in no particular order:
- Twanna Hines of Funky Brown Chick, who remembers helping people create homepages and web journals in 1995.
- Clarisel Gonzalez of Puerto Rico Sun
- Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend
- Monica Roberts of TransGriot
- Taz at Sepia Mutiny
- Kym Platt at Ask This Black Woman, which seems to be defunct
- Kortney of BlackAcademic.com
- Farai Chideya, Reporting on the American rEvolution
- LaShawn Barber
- Faye Anderson of Anderson@Large
I added to these names some of the bloggers of which I am personally aware or know such as Kim Pearson of Professor Kim's News Notes, a BlogHer.com CE who's been poking about the Net since at least 1996 in her academic research, but I became aware of her in 2003 or 2004; SJP of Sojourner's Place; Laina Dawes, who's been blogging since 2003; Siddity; Latino Politics;MrsGrapevine, a cool gossip hunter; PPR_Scribe of This So-Called Post-Post Racial Life; MsLadyDeborah of My Brown Eyed View; Marva of Conversations with Marva; Lisa at Black Women Blow the Trumpet; LoveBabz;Julia Good Fox of Last Woman; and Maria Niles.
Maria, who published her first blog post in February 2005, told me the following:
Nichelle Stephens was one of the first I started reading and linked to (now at nichellestephens.com). I met Lynne d. Johnson and Laina Dawes at the first BlogHer conference in 2005 and read them both and continue today. I moderated a panel, in part on race, at the second BlogHer conference and got to know Carmen Van Kerckhove of Racialicious and Karen Walrond and Marisa Trevino of Latina Lista. Some other WOC I've met and admire include Kim Pearson, Cecily, Tiffany B. Brown, Liza Sabater (Culture Kitchen), Georgia Popenwell, Valencia Roner, Tami Harris and allies like Dawn Rouse (who was on the 2006 panel) of Baleful Regards and Lara Colvin of Notions of Identity.
It may have been one of Maria's early posts that made me aware of the term "woman of color blogger."
While she does not write exclusively about gender politics and race, two of her posts that drew attention in the blogosphere are "Letter to My White Sisters," Racism and the Race: What's White privilege got to do with it?." Both hit the web during the presidential race. Her more recent post on race matters discusses the John Mayer tempest.
One of the people on Maria's list, Tami Winfrey Harris of What Tami Said, was also on mine when I first mulled over this post. I tapped Tami with a few questions and she told me:
I have been blogging for over two years. ... I was inspired by Gina at What About Our Daughters.
As someone who blogs a lot about racism and sexism, I am interested in the ebb and flow of power, who holds it, who is trying to get it and how it effects all marginalized people. I love, love, love Sudy's post on kyriarchy. It has influenced the way I understand and write about "isms." I also have to give a shout out to Jennifer at Mixed Race America. Her stuff is just always good. I find myself reading her posts and nodding my head, a lot.
I think the future holds great things for women of color in blogging. The platform has allowed so many voices to be heard that in the past were silenced. That is what first drew me to reading blogs: That, in What About Our Daughters and other blogs written by women and women of color, I was finally hearing about things important to me. I was finally seeing something written in my voice. As Web 2.0 grows, these voices will only become louder and more powerful. My hope is that in the future the mainstream will recognize more of these voices and offer them a broader platform. (Tami Winfrey Harris)
The desire to have a greater variety of voices heard was a running theme in responses sent to me. For instance, Laina said:
As someone who is an alternative blogger, I think that emphasizing lives outside of what is stereotypically thought of what POC's do is important, especially to the shorties coming up. I want to see more blogs by Latina, South Asian and Native American women. I'm tired of reading the "I can't get a man, men ain't shit, what about my hair? blogs and since I don't have kids, I'm not into mommybloggers.at.all. I want people to stop being PC and let it all hang out. Be real, don't be so nervous about what other people are thinking. (Read Laina's full quote)
Gina, in her interview with me, suggested blogging may be the perfect platform for the kinds of women Laina mentions, women of color who live on their own terms.
Maria's hopes for the future are these:
I don't have any predictions but what I hope we see is the voices of women of color not being marginalized and relegated to niches. I hope we are heard alongside white women (and men) as experts and seen as worth reading on whatever topics we choose to post on be it parenting, tech, life, politics or anything else. I see younger women of color who are well respected as authorities on their topic like Corvida Raven of SheGeeks and it gives me hope.
Speaking specifically of black women in blogging but sharing information that holds a lesson for other women of color, Gina told me:
The future is bright (for women of color), but I think we have to back it up with some institutional structure to support their growth. Black people are leading online right now. We dominate on Twitter. Some of the largest, independently-run blogs are run by very young black women like ConcreteLoop.com, the Young, Black, and Fabulous, ... and NecoleBitchie.com.
Women period dominate social media, but black women in particular, and I know as far as activist black women like myself who often criticize the black elite establishment, it means that our voices get heard on issues too.
There used to be a time when there was just one point of view (in the black community) and it was the black point of view, but now it's like what's in our best interest? (Listen)
She continues, sharing a story about how protests from black women and men online shut down the NAACP phone lines when people learned that the organization may have had plans to support gang rapists in the Dunbar Village case.
My hope is that we'll all grow stronger together, both women of color and white bloggers, learning each others' quirks and to respect each others' life-earned sensitivities, how not to step on toes while sharing ideas and ideologies. We hit a painful spot in the growth process not too long ago. Tension swelled over whose voices are more valued, those of white women or women of color, and the dangers of co-opting ideas and philosophies without giving credit.
Finally, I hope that perhaps in the next decade we will all have a clearer understanding of what the term "women of color bloggers" means so each may dance herself happily successful inside the box or out of it.
- A Brief History of Black Women in Blogging, podcast interview with Gina McCauley
- Lynne d. Johnson interviewing Lena West, of XynoMedia in 2008 at SXSW after seeing a video by a white male at the event that annoyed them, "Tech N*gg*r."
- Maria Niles interviews women of color bloggers at the DNC 2008, including Cheryl Contee/Jill Tubman of Jack and Jill Politics
- Ananda Leeke interviewing Corynne Corbett, founder of My Black Girl social networking site and also Shazia Misty, a web developer, at BlogHer 09.
Special hat tip to Wayne at Electronic Village and AfroSpear who's interviewed or read many of these bloggers and was happy to name names. :-)
Image Credit: Denise Tanton