Building Resistance Online: Experiences of Black Women Now and In the Past
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s deaths were a monumental turning point for the race and justice discourse in the United States. The Black Lives Matter Movement mobilized nationwide protests that lasted more than a hundred days and people around the world voiced their outrage on social media.
The Internet has fueled discussion on the unique challenges black women face - whether it’s in corporate america, education, safety or justice, historically sidelined accomplishments, strengthening women’s rights or future hopes and aspirations.
From black squares flooding Instagram for Blackout Tuesday to viral hashtags like #SayHerName, social media platforms have become a critical space for activists to mobilize and build supportive communities. This is especially true for Black women who have found themselves marginalized in the Black Lives Movement. Black women have taken to the Internet to carve out a space for their own resistance.
In 2014, Black women created #SayHerName to push people to acknowledge that Black women are also killed by the police at disproportionate rates. The hashtag #BlackGirlMagic has grown into a proud celebration and community of Black women to display their tremendous achievements and potential. Though it may seem like simple hashtags, they have the unique ability to focus on Black women’s issues when mainstream media does not. Hashtags also allow Black women to connect with each other in real-time and center their experiences on platforms inundated with information.
Building an AI Model to Explore Online Discourse by Black Women
Quilt.AI sought to better understand how Black Women are using the Internet to share their challenges and accomplishments. The team built and trained an AI model to detect expression, phrases and sentences, related to black women’s concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations on a cross-section of topics in January 2020 and June 2020. In addition, Quilt.AI also looked at nearly one million online searches across ten cities in the United States.
We chose the following cities based on geographic location, general population, African American population size and a mixture of historically “blue” and “red” states during US elections: New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Oklahoma city, Cleveland and Jacksonville.
Whilst building the machine learning model, Quilt.AI minimized gender and race bias. The team that collected the data, trained the machine and analyzed the data, primarily included women of color. It was also important to integrate subject matter expertise into the model, reflecting the deep cultural context surrounding black women’s challenges and accomplishments, adding substantive meaning to the data.
Two thousand six hundred twitter posts from black women’s public accounts in the US, hundreds of public discussion threads from reddit discussion groups with majority black female membership, and articles and blogs written by black women themselves in the US context, were used to train the machine. Based on this available online data and an in depth literature review, the following analysis topics emerged:
Safety and Justice: Questioning the information and discourse on the treatment of the justice system towards black women, especially police brutality #sayhername
Sisterhood: Expressing the value and strength of black sisterhood, especially in the face of adversity
Racism in education and the workplace: Putting racial gaslighting at the center, highlighting the lack of opportunities black women face for progress in their career sectors. One of the focus areas that stood out is discrimination and differential treatment in academia #blackintheivory
Healthcare discrimination: The evolution of discourse on the discriminatory treatment of women in the healthcare system, including maternal mortality rates, waiting times in doctors offices, racist behavior from doctors towards black women, mental health stigma and differential treatment during the pandemic.
Social, relationships and sexuality: Racism, stereotypes and discrimination emerging in social relationships, ranging from everyday friendships to interracial dating and intimate relationships
Schooling others: Black women taking on the role (not always voluntarily) to educate others about racism and the growing interest in raising race conscious children.
Sexualization: How black women are negatively objectified both historically and during the present day.
Misogyny: The specific denigration of black women #misogynoir
I still don’t belong: Individuals who are bi-racial or who choose a different sexual orientation and/or gender identity express they are not “black enough” or excluded from the mainstream community in different ways
Women, history and power: Black women representing strong and powerful, black female role models both from the past and the present, including Louisa Jenkins, Ellen McGirt, and Folorunsho Alakija.
Information on AI model
In order to ensure the AI model detected data most accurately, we looked at the model’s precision and recall. Precision is the percentage of results that are relevant and our model showed a high 92.08%. The model recall showed that 73.23% of the total relevant results were correctly classified by the algorithm.
A detailed matrix of the AI model’s categories are below. Across each category, we aimed to have more than 60% which depicts the machine’s ability to read extracted data accurately.
What did the AI model tell us?
Achievement and sisterhood rule in January 2020
Throughout the US and in our ten focus cities, academic achievements and professional milestones among black women and girls is celebrated on social media.
The majority of the posts detected include #blackwomenlead, images of black women graduating from university or receiving awards in their workplace. Sisterhood is celebrated with a multitude of images showing black women and their female friends, text detection of #blackgirlmagic and “black sisterhood.”
In June 2020 we see a different picture. The black female discourse is dominated by safety and justice for black women. #sayhername, the injustice towards black women as victims of police brutality, transgender violence and murder, violence against black women, take over the twitter universe and online discussion threads.
Racism in education and the workplace takes front and center as black women openly discuss their barriers in career progress, racial gaslighting and experiencing the “pet to threat” phenomenon from paternalism, under utilization and promotion barriers at work, despite documented high performance. Posts on institutional racism with #blackintheivory and specific examples about racial gaslighting are increasingly posted and picked up by the AI detection model.
Misogyny as a category also grows, as black women discuss the types of denigration in their community, and post #misogynoir, #blackwomenmatter, #protectblackwomen, #blackwomenlivesmatter more frequently than in January 2020.
I still don’t belong reflects the voices of women who feel “excluded” from the black community for different reasons. Posts from biracial women and transgender females are increasingly picked up by the AI detection model during this time.
In achievement, the discourse changes from general examples of “black excellence” to “black women in business” and “black owned businesses by women,” an after effect of blackout tuesday.
What about Cities?
In New York and Washington DC, safety and justice for black women are the biggest concern, followed by a continued expression of achievements that happen despite tumultuous times. In the New York context, this goes back to Mary Bumpur’s and Veronica Perry’s grassroots initiative on police violence against black women in the 1980s.
Discussions on racism in the workplace and educational sector have grown in both cities, but especially in Washington DC, illustrating the sensitive history the city has on racial discrimination in the workplace, including black college graduates receiving lower call back rates for interviews the higher they climb the career ladder and being unemployed three times more likely than their white counterparts. The misogyny category also grew more in these two cities than others.
Excerpt of Tweets Detected by AI Model:
In Minneapolis, after George Floyd’s death the online discourse among black women is dominated by racism in the workplace and educational sector, signaling a need to seriously address the institutional and systemic racism experienced on an everyday basis. Concerns around safety and justice also grow, highlighting the historical victimization of black women in police brutality cases and the increased risk of domestic violence in the home during crisis.
The growth in both these categories is both expected and remarkable, considering Minneapolis’s history with police brutality cases in the past five years. George Floyd’s death sparked the national fire, but little fires already grew with Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and Thurman Blevins. The series of riots and protests in Minneapolis also fueled collective action among communities of color, not just African Americans.
Excerpts of Tweets Detected by AI Model:
In Atlanta, compared to other cities, the discussion around racism in the workplace and education sector and discourse on safety and justice for black women have grown, but the top two expressions on social media for black women in Atlanta remain around achievement and sisterhood.
This could partially be because Atlanta’s history for African American communities is different than other cities in the US, touted at one point as the “Black mecca.” This does not mean that Atlanta is not immune to socio-economic tensions and fragmentation within the African American community itself, but that historical inequity in opportunity for black women is to a lesser degree in Atlanta.
Excerpts of Tweets Detected by AI Model:
In Houston, the safety and justice for black women categorygrew considerably, however, achievement remains the strongest. This is likely because of Houston’s (and Texas’s) history of strong, black female leaders, but also increasing literature on how the mass incarceration of black women has grown in the state over the years. Interestingly, in 2019, nineteen African American women were elected as judges in Texas. The growth in safety and justice discourse, combined with black women’s achievement is a reflection of the current landscape in Houston.
Excerpts of Tweets Detected by AI Model:
The AI model detected fewer tweets by black women in Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville (Florida), however, the overall number of tweets from black women rose between January and June 2020 for these areas.
What are people searching for? Is this different from what the AI model is telling us?
Black Girl Magic and Black Excellence
January 2020 coincides with black history month and the highest search category is women, history and power, illustrating the need for positive black female role models, both from the past and the present. Interest for search terms such as “black history women” and “historical black women” rose during this period by 400%. Other significant terms include searches for “Famous African American women in history” and “inspirational black women,” rising by 240% and 200% respectively.
The second biggest search category at this time period is achievement, demonstrating a strong base for lifting each other up during times of academic and professional accomplishments. Searches with a high level of interest in January 2020 include:
Blackwomenlead - increase by 75%
black women in stem - increase by 50%
black female scientists - increase by 125%
black women in business - increase by 20%
successful black business women - increase by 50%
Fighting racial gaslighting and the “pet to threat” phenomenon
In June 2020, the search landscape pivots significantly - from black women, history and power to institutionalized and everyday racism in the workplace and education sector. Increases in search terms such as racial gaslighting, from pet to threat, and systemic racism demonstrate the desire for change and increased awareness on discrimination, stereotyping and inequitable career progression for black women in the American laborforce. One of the highest trending hashtags in June 2020 was #blackintheivory, illustrating longstanding racism and discrimination in academia.
“Systemic racism in america” increased by 662%
“Racist boss” increased by 271%
“Racist student” increased 271%
“Black women racism” increased by 200%
“Racist professor” by 128 %
“Institutional racism” increased by 126%
“Racist colleague” by 100%
“From pet to threat” increase by 80%
“Racial gaslighting” tripled in volume of searches
Under the Social Friendships and Relations category, which defines everyday racist actions by colleagues or friends, search terms such as “angry black female” and “stereotypes of black women” grew by 133% and 46% respectively. “White women dating black men” also grew by 52%, highlighting the conflicting emotions black women feel about black men dating outside their race.
In healthcare, search terms specifically related to mental health increased, including “black female therapists,” “black women and anxiety,” “black women and depression” illustrating how recent events around race relations and health impact are affecting the mental health of black women.
Respecting the past and looking towards the future
Women, history and power remains the second highest area of search interest, followed by schooling others - which nearly doubles in interest. The intent behind the June 2020 searches is very different from January 2020.
Terms such as “black women business owners” and “black woman president” have risen significantly, signaling that the online discourse is not just focusing on past achievements and historical milestones for black women, but also their future strength in the business environment and the highest office of the country.
“Louisa jenkins black woman” - increased by 2833%
“Untold black history” - increased by 433%
“Black women business owners” - increased by 400%
“Facts about black women” - increased by 271%
“Important black women in history” - increased by 255%
“Black woman president” - increased by 136%
“Inspirational black females” - increased by 200%
Sisterhood as a category does not rise in June, however, the term “black sisterhood” grows 88% in interest and negative objectification of black women in search behavior reduces. “Good looking black females,” “dark black women,” “melaninpoppin,” and “classy black woman” appear more than degrading terms under the sexualization category.
Schooling others is the second highest category to grow since January 2020, shedding light on the role black women play in educating others about racism and the increasing information parents are looking for in talking to their children about race.
“Raising race conscious children” and “how to talk to your kids about race” rose by 300%; “children’s books about racism” rose by 240% and “teaching tolerance” by 173%. “Ways to stop racism” and “how to solve racism” also grew by 129% and 125%, respectively.
What about cities?
Fighting uncertainty with education.
In each of the cities, search terms under schooling others grow in June 2020, showing that despite differential challenges at the city level, each area wants to move towards educating about racism, talking about racism, communicating to their children to be race conscious and looking for solutions that are not erased by future tension.
There are differences in how cities are applying education as a solution. In New York and Washington DC, schooling others is meant to fight growing concerns around safety and justice for black women. Search behavior in these cities in June 2020 shows high growth for the following search terms: “protect black women” (by 3100%) and “black women matter” (by 966%). However, what is not being openly shared on social media during this time, is the online search for “children’s books about racism,” (growth by 255%) “raising race conscious children,” (growth by 600%) “how to talk to your kids about race,” (growth by 350%), “education about racism,” (growth by 420%) and “ways to stop racism” (growth by 300%).
In Chicago, discussing systemic racism is meant to complement the power of positive reinforcement, achievement and black feminism. At the start of 2020, the celebration of black women’s achievements and milestones is the biggest search category. It remains the second biggest area of interest in June 2020. “Black women in stem” had the biggest growth in search interest (by 600%), followed by “blackwomenlead” (by 200%), “blackgirlmagic” (by 84%), and “black women in business” by 20%.
Similar to Atlanta, Chicago has a strong culture of black women uplifting and supporting each other through adversity. A rich city history including strong, black female political voices, combined with community activism that is not personality led, gives a different meaning to black female progress.
Despite these layers of support and progress for black women in Chicago, it is important to mention that searches for mental health support and domestic violence increased in June, specifically for “black female therapists” (by 450%), a slight increase for “black women and depression” and “black women and anxiety” and a 250% growth for “black women domestic violence.”
In Los Angeles, schooling others grows as a category to counteract different types of violence, including racism and discrimination in the workplace, safety and justice issues for black women and misogyny. The biggest growth in search terms is on “racial gaslighting,” (increase by 4700%) “protect black women,” (increase by 1300%) “blackwomenmatter,” (increase by 1000%) “systemic racism in america,” (increase by 750%), “sayhername” (increase by 680%) and “misogynoir” (increase by 528%).
Like in other cities, terms such as “education about racism,” “how to talk to your kids about race,” “raising race conscious children,” and “teaching tolerance” all grew by more than 200%.
Finally, in Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville, the search terms that grow the most are terms related to the “meaning” or “what is?” of a specific topic. Such terms are about “what is systemic racism?,” “racism meaning,” words about typical stereotypes for black women and what “misogynoir” means. This reflects a rising interest from cities with lower levels of African American population, to learn about the basics of the current discourse.
The rise of BIPOC
An additional theme that was picked up by both the AI detection model in black women’s tweets and search behavior is the term “BIPOC,” standing for Black Indigenous and People of Color. This is an emerging area of interest, aiming to be more inclusive of groups that face historical exclusion and marginalization in the US context. Criticized by some as “lumping together” all the different groups, others point out that it creates stronger inclusion, yet demanding that people educate themselves about the differential historical needs and issues of each marginalized group. How this discourse evolves in the black women’s online discourse, remains to be seen.
What’s Next: Recommendations
Both the AI model and search histories are telling us important insights into black women’s emotions, challenges, hopes, aspirations, fears and anxieties during the January-June 2020 time period.
Black women continue to celebrate…
Successful black female role models, both from the past and the present
Black women are more concerned about…
Systemic racism in the workplace and education sector
Justice and safety, both in the home and the community
Misogyny and the continued denigration of black women
Educating their children and others about race
As the US navigates the biggest protest and public discussion on racial injustice since the 1960s, a lot can be learned from the past and current experiences of black women, combined with their search behavior and machine reading of online discourse:
Move ahead with the power and strength of black sisterhood, taking inspiration from positive city level interventions:
Strong feminist black movements in Chicago
Well documented support for black female business owners and leaders in Atlanta
Grassroots organizing around police brutality prevention for women in New York
Black female led judicial posts in Houston and other Texan cities to fight growing mass incarceration of black women
Building stronger partnerships between black female activists and academics who have studied and fought against a repetitive erasure from history
Developing more holistic support services, focusing on mental health impacts and increased risk to gender based violence during crisis
Strengthening educational programs for black girls and women in STEM
Strategically disseminating child focused and centred educational material that teach about positive race consciousness
Conducting future research on the effects of police brutality on black women (the majority of research currently looks at the impact on black men)
Understanding how conscious bias training in workplaces and educational settings can better highlight the needs and experiences of black women
Emphasizing the achievements and milestones of black women across sectors at a bigger scale than before
In a study of Black girls and how they use social media, one girl stated “Where we are, Resistance Lives”. This is crucial as Black women fight to center their experiences - both achievements and challenges - in the mainstream public and part of a global movement. Our digital insights show that the Internet is a powerful tool to build and empower communities, but it also provides learnings on how to amplify Black women’s voices and rights offline. Regardless of whether it is on the streets or proudly owning a hashtag - Black women’s resistance will continue to persevere and thrive.
Reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about our work.