This is the age of amplification. Being represented, heard, and rendered visible is the dominant and common approach to understanding both off-line and online feminist activism. As part of the amplified stage, digital platforms facilitate increased visibility. But the quiet resistance of those who do not take so readily to platforms is also mediated by the digital. This paper looks toward resistance that is quieter. It is resistance based on care, survival, and safety. In this article I ask: what does a digital activism look like that takes into account the ways in which people organize not just so that they can be heard, but so they can survive?
Ghost ships and wish lists
Platforms, sidewalks, snow, survival
“I don’t give a shit about Viola Desmond on the 10-dollar bill’ and how to not care
Conclusion: Digital inclination in a minor key
A revolution in a minor key unfolded in the city and young black women were its vehicle. It was driven not by uplift or the struggle for recognition or citizenship, but by the vision of a world that would guarantee to every human being free access to earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.
—Saidiya Hartman, “The anarchy of colored girls assembled in a riotous manner” (2018)
In “The anarchy of colored girls assembled in a riotous manner,” Saidiya Hartman (2018) gives, what she calls, a speculative history of Esther Brown, a young black girl living in Harlem in the early 1900s. Brown, after working a series of menial jobs, quit working altogether and was charged and jailed for vagrancy. For Hartman, Brown is an example of the black women living in emerging American ghettos whose very efforts to survive must be read as radical resistance. Of Brown’s riotous life, Hartman writes: “But hers was a struggle without formal declarations of policy, slogan, or credos. It required no party platform or ten-point program” . Hartman calls this “a revolution in a minor key” . It is this idea of a revolution in a minor key that I am taking up in this article. I am moving away from the amplification and elevation of digital platforms and turning my attention to resistance that is quieter. It is resistance based on care, survival, and safety. I wish I had read Hartman before 2017 when a new wave of popular feminist protests broke out in North America and beyond. Women’s marches in Washington and other major cities were held across North America. Next followed the #MeToo movement on Twitter, propelled by allegations of sexual abuse against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. And in September 2019, people across the world took to the streets for the Global Climate strike. I attended the Women’s March in Toronto, followed #MeToo discussions in the news and tracked responses by feminist media studies scholars closely. Filled with optimism fueled by young activist Greta Thunberg, I marched with the climate strikers too. All of these events felt very straight — and very white. It wasn’t just the Patagonia down-filled jackets and expensive granola bars. It also wasn’t only because #MeToo gained popularity only when white celebrities started tweeting, even though it was Black civil rights activist Tarana Burke who launched the movement a decade before . The role of the platform, an object that mediated all of these events, might have been the very powerful technological device that is overwhelmingly straightening and whitening these movements (Singh, 2018). This article is therefore animated by both the critiques of the missing queer and racial politics of these marches (Lemieux, 2017; Lucier, 2017; Moss and Maddrell, 2017; Obie, 2017; Willoughby, 2017; Rose-Redwood and Rose-Redwood, 2017) and a consideration of platforms as media that obscure how people organize and develop strategies of survival, care, and refusal.
In 2018, I began interviewing different community organizers in the Toronto area and in California. This research was undertaken in order locate the strategies and tactics of resistance that those who have different relationships to technology must use in an age of digital amplification. Over the course of the past two years, I have spoken with a number of community organizers, artists, and technologists based in different parts of North America. In this article I focus on three of the interviews I have conducted because they offer important and recent examples of what resistance in a minor key looks like: the use of Amazon Wish lists for survivors of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, efforts made by the Disability Justice Network Ontario to have snow removed from sidewalks in Hamilton and the continued use of various practices of care by queer black activists in Toronto. In these three examples I locate forms of resistance and protest by groups whose choice to not amplify shows that digitally mediated resistance and feminist struggle go beyond recent examples of popular feminism.
Forms of feminist resistance not rendered legible by a platform often go unaccounted for. In focusing on self-care, hashtags, and public declarations made from a stage or holding a mic, the tactics adopted by those who look to and must resist differently are obscured. While in this article I write about quiet modes of resistance, I will note here that often strategies for survival should remain obscured. Not all resistance should be accounted for. In doing this research, I have taken into consideration how the experiences of Indigenous, Black, and queer communities are so often mined for academic research (Simpson, 2007; Tuck and Yang, 2014). The examples I draw on in this paper are focused only on generative tactics for survival rather than stories of pain and struggle. These examples have been the subject of at least some media coverage as well, so this article does not reveal strategies for resisting power that would otherwise be hidden.
In concert with Hartman’s “revolution in a minor key,” Kevin Quashie (2012) and Tina Campt (2017) are other scholars who address the notion of quietness as it relates to black culture and “black feminist futurity” specifically. Campt writes that for her, futurity is not “necessarily heroic or intentional. It is often humble and strategic, subtle and discriminating. It is devious and exacting. It’s not always loud and demanding. It is frequently quiet and opportunistic, dogged and disruptive” . Campt locates what she calls “realizations of such a future” not only in monumental acts of political resistance, but also in the quieter and less celebrated moments of everyday life . Similarly, Quashie’s important book The sovereignty of quiet, makes a case for quietness that is not apolitical but that at the same time counters an imperative “to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life” . While Quashie’s argument is that quietness is not necessarily about resistance, his work is important here because it suggests that quietness is political. I draw on these notions of illegible, quiet ways of living that are attuned to care and survival rather than to public expressions of resistance in this article.
Ghost ships and wish lists
In November 2018, I spoke on the phone with Cayden Mak, a community organizer based in Oakland, California who identifies as a trans, masculine person of colour. As a community organizer and technologist, Mak has cofounded grassroots media start-ups and sees the Internet as essential for the survival of queer people of colour. For Mak, who grew up in suburban Michigan, AOL message boards made connecting with people like them possible. This was a practice that was life sustaining in their mostly conservative hometown. Mak and I spent most of our time talking about how their approach to digital technologies, both personally and professionally, are centered around the care and survival of marginalized communities. My questions for Mak were informed by the idea that, so often, platforms seem antithetical to care and to the survival of those who are most subject to abuse online. On the one hand, it seems easy to experience some level of burnout from using social media like Twitter, or other sites that are populated by racist, misogynist, and homophobic users, and therefore experience not just an absence of care, but overt hate (Daniels, 2009; Shaw, 2014; Phillips, 2018; Donovan, 2019). On the other hand, according to Mak’s own experiences, paired with scholarship on digital countercultures (Lingel, 2017), social media platforms have also been important for forming social connections for those living on the margins. Mak thought about this question of care for a while, weighing these obvious experiences of online abuse against more joyful and life affirming moments online before telling me that “platforms are a voluntary system of care” . Mak recalled how relief efforts following a fire at an artist collective made an otherwise careless platform a site of care.
The Ghost Ship warehouse was an industrial building that served as a work-live collective for artists in Oakland California. On 2 December 2016, the Ghost Ship warehouse was hosting an electronic music party when the warehouse caught fire. Thirty-six people died in the fire and many others lost their homes and artist studios. Many of the artists working and living out of the warehouse were queer folks and people of colour, and after the fire, those who survived were in need of life sustaining necessities. In an effort to help provide goods to those who lost their property in the Ghost Ship fire, “wish lists” were set up on the e-commerce site Amazon. An Amazon wish list documents what items a user has searched and needs; it is shareable. Others can access the wish lists and purchase listed items which will be delivered directly to the user who requested them. Amazon wish lists are increasingly being used by charities that need fast access to specific goods rather than money. For example, hurricane relief charities have made use of the wish lists in recent years (Kelly, 2017).
Amazon as a corporation has been subject to much criticism over the past few years. Recent studies on the labour practices at Amazon have commented on job precarity and the devaluation of identity and dignity of people working at Amazon warehouses globally (Delfanti, 2018). There are also issues surrounding Amazon’s customer data-collecting practices (West, 2019). Amazon’s proprietary digital assistant Alexa has been critiqued as the latest and most invasive surveillance technology deployed by the corporation. For instance, Amazon has reportedly listened in on customers’ private conversations through the Amazon Echo device in order to make tweaks to software (Fussell, 2019). Thao Phan argues that while this device is presented by the company as “an idealized domestic servant”, a description she notes is racially fraught, it is best understood as a “new frontier” in the commodification of daily life . We also know that the e-commerce giant has put smaller brick and mortar stores out of business and that its ultra-fast delivery service is contributing to the destruction of the environment. It has also been revealed that Amazon has been complicit in providing software to the U,S, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), who have used facial recognition and data mining tools to aid in the separation of migrant children from their families (Hao, 2018). At almost every turn, then, Amazon is doing something worth protesting against. Although Amazon’s practices and culture are obviously problematic, it is possible to consider the company’s violent way of operating in the same frame as the use of the site for Ghost Ship’s relief efforts. In other words, the case for Amazon wish lists as a site used for care does not refute the varied and serious critiques of the site.
In Inclinations, Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero (2016) develops what she calls a “new postural geometry” . Cavarero contrasts rectitude and inclination — two human postures which she reads as politically significant. Cavarero argues that vertical posture, or the figure of the “upright man”, has historically, and especially in philosophy, come to stand for paternal authority and by extension an empowered subject. By contrast, the image of a body bent over, inclined toward an object is a display of vulnerability. To be inclined toward something also suggests a weakness, or an absence of will to remain upright. The body inclined, Cavarero argues, is also often connected to the feminine body. The new postural geometry that Cavarero ultimately proposes equates inclination with care, and where care is politically revolutionary .
Cavarero’s work on posture, when extended to political resistance, lends itself to rethinking feminist tactics and is useful for probing this Amazon wish lists example. Where rectitude — the vertical — is a masculinist posture, inclination might be a new way of conceptualizing feminist resistance. This would mean that we accept that social movements can develop from an inclined position and are not dependent on ‘standing up to’ or ‘against’ something. In the context of digital activism, inclination is developing technologically mediated tactics based more on caring and facilitating safety and survival. Indeed, care in this example presents a complicated tension. As many scholars have shown, care is a concept tied to unequal raced, gendered and colonial histories (Hartman, 1997; Murphy, 2015; Sharpe, 2018, 2016). Christina Sharpe, for instance, has argued that “care is often continued violence, continued limits placed on black life, possibility, education, movement, sustenance, and joy” . To name Amazon a site of care is not to disavow the fact that it is also the site of violence. Instead we might ask: what does it mean to “incline” toward Amazon? What if activating on the margins might simultaneously mean standing up to and resisting companies like Amazon but also being inclined towards its unanticipated life-sustaining functions? In the case of the Ghost Ship fire relief efforts, Amazon was used to facilitate survival. We have to read this example as a feminist tactic that is centered on inclining toward a site that also makes sense to stand against. We have to embrace bending in an age of amplification that measures who is standing tallest. Of course, none of this is to say that the spectacle of a march, a protest, a rally are politically insignificant. Instead, the concept of inclination makes it possible to think about how feminist tactics of resistance have to include care. This means that this focus on care as a strategy for survival is not antithetical to organizing protest or the climactic taking to the state. As Audre Lorde (1988) has argued, “caring for [herself] is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. What I am arguing here is that the need to constantly reconfigure ways of convening have to be read as significant practices of political resistance.
Platforms, sidewalks, snow, survival
The Disability Justice Network Ontario (DJNO) is an organization based in Hamilton, Ontario. In December 2018 I interviewed DJNO’s co-founder Sarah Jama. Jama and I spoke about how organizing with a focus on disability justice and activism is not just about fighting for accessibility or expanding purchasing power, even though there is a tendency to turn toward these issues when disability justice is being discussed. In Ontario, Canada, for example, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) puts policy in place so that people have greater access to spaces, but the services it provides are predominately accessed by people with disabilities who are white (Jama in Andrew-Amofaw, 2018). Disability Studies scholarship also demonstrates that questions of access often result in the implementation of “technological change without addressing underlying prejudices and misconceptions” . In our interview, Jama pointed out that she is not much interested in the type of disability justice that ensures access to buildings as its primary function. She argues that this way of thinking about disability privileges whiteness and upholds a focus on productivity. If access to public spaces is only granted so that people with disabilities can be productive, in terms of their capacity to work and to spend money, then any freedoms won are limited. Instead, Jama in her work with the DJNO looks to build political agency and capacity in other people with disabilities, many of whom are black and brown, so that they can better advocate for themselves.
An example of this capacity building work is the DJNO’s fight to demand better snow removal from the sidewalks in Hamilton. In the winter months of 2018–2019, the city saw as much as 40 cm. of snow fall in a single week. People with walkers, wheelchairs, and other assistive devices were unable to leave their homes and travel in the city was difficult. Many people found themselves dangerously stuck because of the city’s failure to clear sidewalks. Thus, organizing to ensure that snow is cleared off sidewalks is tied to the survival of those who have differential relationships to space. Snow removal is not just an issue of access or about better representation for particular communities. Instead, having cleared sidewalks is a matter critical to the safety and survival of those who have disabilities whose demands to be able to move in public spaces are not met.
The DJNO’s efforts to have snow removed from Hamilton’s sidewalks was technologically mediated. During the winter months of 2018 and 2019, the DJNO’s “Snow and Tell” campaign asked people to document dangerous sidewalks and bus shelters. Many people took to Twitter to post their photos of messy Hamilton streets. But that isn’t the only, or even the main reason why this is a notable example of activism. The DJNO’s project is important because of its insistence on what we can conceptualize as resistance in a minor key. Removing snow is quiet but impactful. Wendy Brown, in conversation with Jo Littler, and commenting on the contemporary political moment, urges us to think beyond the concept of hope. She says: “it is important to ask ourselves what we can do to produce more prospects for hope rather than trying to find hope in order to act. ... We can’t go looking for hope in the sky, we have to make it on earth” . We can read snow removal as the production of hopefulness. This example is local and context specific which makes noting the digitally mediated production of hope more palpable. The ‘production of hopefulness’ has to do with the fact that what is being demanded here is maintenance rather than something being built anew. In our interview, Jama called this initiative “winnable”. In other words, it’s a revolution in a minor key.
Once again, our contemporary technological environment matters here. In the case of snow removal as maintenance it is useful to think alongside media studies scholarship on repair and maintenance Parks, 2013; Jackson, 2014; Mattern, 2018). Steven Jackson’s (2014) formative work on the topic of repair offers what he calls “broken world thinking.” Jackson suggests that technology and new media studies scholars redirect their attention to how technologies, and by extension the world are sustained. This is a shift because so often studies of technology are “occupied with the shock of the new” . Commenting on the case of mobile phones and computers being repaired in Zambia, Parks urges us to “approach the breakdown of things as opportunities to imagine social fixes as well” . Mattern (2018) also asks how we might try to value care in the design and maintenance of the material world and thus achieve “social fixes”. Hamilton’s snow removal is instructive because it extends the technological focus of repair to the streets. Maintaining streets so that people with assistive devices can move freely is also a project of caring for and therefore sustaining life.
“I don’t give a shit about Viola Desmond on the 10-dollar bill’ and how to not care
In 2018 the Bank of Canada released a new ten-dollar bill, printed with a portrait of Viola Desmond, into circulation. Desmond was a Canadian civil rights activist, well-known for being a successful black female entrepreneur and more importantly for challenging segregation at a cinema in Nova Scotia, Canada (Bank of Canada, 2018). The redesign of the bill was initiated by the Canadian government who, under the guidance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, consulted the public for ideas about which Canadian women should appear on the bill. On the Bank of Canada Web site, you can read about the features of the bill and how they represent a celebration of “racial equality across Canada” (Bank of Canada, 2018). In popular news media around Canada, printing Desmond’s face on the bill was applauded for its representation of Canadian diversity (Boesveld, 2018; Cooke, 2018; Luck, 2018).
When I interviewed OmiSoore Dryden in the winter of 2019, I wanted to talk with her about Toronto’s Pride Parade and what it meant to have a police presence at Pride. I was interested in how Pride’s very apparent anti-blackness was being resisted. In tracing her history as a Black activist in Toronto, Dryden summed up the problem perfectly as she laughed and exclaimed “I don’t give a shit about Viola Desmond on the ten-dollar bill!”. Dryden recalled the Desmond bill as an example of what it looks like to give surface level support to Black people in Canada while simultaneously upholding structures of oppression and racism. The representation of a Black woman on a bill does not matter when Black people are still fighting to survive in Canada. The ten-dollar bill toted as an example of equality is a symptom of amplification in this digitally mediated age with its platforms that circulate news of Canadian diversity. The shareable, easily celebrate-able representations of equality overshadow the quiet and consistent work that makes life more livable.
My interview with Dryden returned, again and again, to examples of what it looks like to care, and even more crucially what it looks like not to care, when visibility and representation are the focus in acts of political resistance. The organization of Toronto’s Pride Parade in 2019 is an another even more dangerous example of this. At the Pride Parade in 2016, members of Black Lives Matter (BLM), who were invited to the parade as “honoured guests”, stopped the parade for 30 minutes by sitting in the street with a list of demands. The list, among other things, called for the removal of the Toronto police float at the parade (Khan, 2016). The call by BLM to remove police participation was agreed to by Pride Organizers but three years later, as planning was underway for the 2019 parade, the police float was reinstalled, in part to make sure that the parade would continue to be funded by the city. Toronto Police have a history of police brutality that has specifically impacted the lives of Black and Indigenous queer people. As Walcott (2018) puts it, “Police marching in Pride parades represents — both symbolically and otherwise — the ongoing colonial project of violently interdicting into the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples by making us less than human”. The invitation for the Toronto police to rejoin the Pride parade made it clear that the maintenance of the parade in its current form was privileged over any commitments to care for the precarious positions of queer and trans folks, many of them Black and Brown. Echoing some of the same sentiments as Dryden, Walcott (2018) has argued that the logic adopted by Pride’s organizers that a bigger, more widely attended, and more visible Pride weekend can be equated with more rights is flawed. Although the Pride organization sent out a triumphant e-mail message, boasting 2.5 million attended the 2018 parade, this increased visibility through numbers and platforms does not actually equate to freedoms won for queer communities.
In our interview, Dryden called the Pride organization inviting the police to march in the 2019 parade “a performance of care” rather than Pride TO doing the work of care. The performance of care at Pride is ensuring that the parade continues to run under the guise that seeing queer folks march is healing for a uniform queer community and that having no parade would be worse than having some people feel unsafe with the presence of the police. But, as Dryden pointed out, Pride started out as a riot, not a parade. The performance of care at the parade also looked like organizers wearing all black and having a moment of silence for the queer men who were murdered by a serial killer in Toronto’s gay village. Most of these men were brown. Historian and Feminist STS scholar Michelle Murphy has argued that while care is “repeatedly promised as a source of potential emancipation”, care is actually sometimes “full of romantic temptations that disconnect acts that feel good from their geopolitical implications” . Certainly, this is what Dryden means when she calls Pride’s treatment of Black and Brown people merely a performance of care. Viola Desmond on the ten-dollar bill, the showy moments of silence for slain queer folks in Toronto, the loud and widely attended pride parades in the city, these acts can sometimes feel good. But at the same time, the emancipatory potential of care, especially for queer folks of colour, is missing when care is reduced to performance and work is absent.
So, what does it look like to do the work of care instead? Dryden offered instances that mark a clear shift toward what we might think of as “careful” resistance in our interview too. She pointed to specific examples. There were networks of care that involved queer Black women with cars offering rides home from clubs late at night to other queer Black women to ensure their safety or making the fonts and text used for sharing protest chants and lyrics big enough for people with visual impairments to read them. Dryden also used the Black Lives Matter protest at Toronto police headquarters in 2016 as an example of how this important shift toward the quiet caring of others manifests. During the protest at the headquarters, where members of BLMTO camped out for over two weeks, Dryden, also a Women’s Studies professor, offered to proofread the assignments of students camping out at the Toronto Police headquarters. The difference between Pride TO’s performance of care through online and off-line manifestations and Dryden’s examples of the work of care hinges on how safety and survival come to be privileged over amplification. Much like the Ghost Ship fire relief and the removal of snow from sidewalks in Hamilton, Dryden’s examples of resisting are played in a minor key. They are quiet tactics, driven by an inclination to care for one another.
Conclusion: Digital inclination in a minor key
The term “digital activism” is broad, and there is a range of ways in which it has been presented in communications and media studies theory. For example, digital activism has been framed as extending people’s capacity to resist (Kaun and Uldam, 2018), as structuring contemporary social movements  and as creating new networked publics that become mobilized online (Papacharissi, 2014). There are also streams of scholarship on digital activism, some of which are unequivocally feminist, that are more interested in how people use media to communicate with each other to organize. In The logic of connective action Bennett and Segerberg (2013) argue that social media produces space for politics because these platforms are adept at organizing various individual actors . Rentschler (2011) points us to the “communicative labour”  of feminist activists to make the point that the media use at the point of organizing rather than more visible forms of resistance is significant.
Feminist media studies has turned its attention to digital activism over the last decade. When online platforms figure into feminist scholarship in media and communication studies, it is through discussions of the political possibilities allowed via digital media (Keller, 2012; Rentschler, 2015; Baer, 2016). In her article “Redoing feminism: Digital activism, body politics and neoliberalism”, Hester Baer (2016), commenting on hashtag feminism, posits that “In providing a critical platform for such discussions, feminist Twitter campaigns literally ‘redo feminism’” . But the efficacy of hashtagging has also been questioned recently, especially in light of the rise of mediated misogyny that seems to be the response to feminists taking to digital platforms (Banet-Weiser, 2018; Mendes, et al., 2018). There has also been important scholarship in how social media has been used for building more private feminist networks, as opposed to those made visible by hashtags. Clark-Parsons, for example, argues that social media sites like Facebook afford the cultivation of online safe spaces but also notes that they are largely created for white, cisgendered women .
Black, Brown, and Indigenous women, queer and trans folks have also taken to digital platforms when politically organizing. Important scholarship in the field of digital activism has traced the impact of hashtag activism on bringing attention to various movements (Jackson, et al., 2020; Jackson, 2016; Rambukkana, 2015; McIlwain, 2015). For example, Black Lives Matter relied heavily on the hashtag BLM to share more accurate news about protests in Ferguson following the murder of Michael J. Brown by a police officer in 2014. The youth-led protest for Indigenous rights that broke out across Canada in 2012, used the hashtag protest Idle No More similar ends (Kino-nda-niimi Collective, 2014).
The turn toward thinking about resistance in a minor key is not to discount forms of digital activism that centre speaking out. Instead, it offers an expanded understanding of resistance grounded by examples of the tactics employed by those for whom amplification is not the goal. It is a turn toward careful quietness. Sometimes this means refusing normative ways of using technologies, other times this means recognizing that in this age of amplification that has led to the celebration of platforms as tools for making voices heard, visibility becomes antithetical to the survival and care of particular communities.
About the author
Rianka Singh is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. She works on protest movements, critical race, and feminist media studies.
E-mail: Rianka [dot] singh [at] mail [dot] utoronto [dot] ca
Thank you to the editors of this special issue: Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, Mareile Kaufmann and Anna Leander for inviting me to contribute to this special issue. Thanks to Sarah Sharma and Peter Lapp for your feedback and careful eyes on early versions of this article. I appreciate the peer reviewers who offered generative and generous reviews of this piece as well. Finally, I am especially grateful to OmiSoore Dryden, Sarah Jama, and Cayden Mak who are the incredible thinkers, activists and community organizers who so generously shared their time and ideas with me.
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Received 8 April 2020; accepted 17 April 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Rianka Singh. All Rights Reserved.
Resistance in a minor key: Care, survival and convening on the margins
by Rianka Singh.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 5 - 4 May 2020