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Virtual Black Spaces: An Anthropological Exploration of African American Online Communities' Racial and Political Agency Amidst Virtual Universalism

This dissertation examines the strategic practice of virtual racial embodiment, as a case study of African Americans attempting to complicate current constructions of race and social justice in new media. I suggest that dominant racial constructions online teeter between racial stereotypes and the absence of race. Virtual racial classification and racial stereotypes of criminality and limited interaction with communication technologies prevalent in the digital divide literature frame the dominant online culture, which purports a Universalist ideal that avoids race through which racial hierarchy is nevertheless articulated. Based on qualitative and quantitative analyses--fieldwork, interviews with Black website founders, and an online survey--this case study provides an analytical framework that situates African Americans' negotiations of race within everyday online discourse. I suggest that the strategy of racial embodiment has a sociohistorical and cultural basis in the racial and political strategies of offline African American communities. This study approaches these matters by locating political message board members' agency in creating a safe space for daily critical discussions of race. Virtual safe spaces allow users to address social injustices, parse popular constructions of race, project respectability, and explore complex definitions of blackness. Ethnographic material drawn from the observation of four mainstream Black websites' political message boards within the time frame of 2007-2008 provides information to discuss the unofficial message board practices I identify as safe house practices. I introduce the conceptual metaphor of safe house based on the physical and symbolic safe house of enslaved Africans of the antebellum era and their twentieth- and twenty-first-century successors--neighborhood meeting places, barbershops, and book stores. As a result of the analysis of the ethnographic material, I suggest racial embodiment is the transference of offline practices steeped in historic political and cultural practices of the Black community into online interactions. I use the Bourdieuan concept of the habitus to conceptualize the historical significance of the African American community's virtual racial embodiment. I propose that this racial embodiment evidenced in the safe house practices exemplifies a dynamic Black habitus wherein black people exercise the ability to redefine black identity and community.
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