Lisa Nakamura speaks on Tumblr activism and Navajo microchips

In the past, Lisa Nakamura’s work has led her to write extensively on topics like racism and homophobia in gaming. For her piece on racism towards “gold farmers” in the World of Warcraft (WoW) universe, the University of Michigan professor (who specializes in digital media, race, sexuality, and gender) played WoW for hours, learning about its digital culture. During her visit to UVic on Feb. 19 and 20, Nakamura spoke on two very different aspects of digital media: virtual feminism on platforms like Tumblr, and the way tech corporations racialize their factory workers.

Nakamura’s first lecture, titled The Digital Afterlife of This Bridge Called My Back: Women of Color, Feminism and the Internet, focused on the groundbreaking feminist book, This Bridge Called My Back, and the Tumblr activists who kept the book in circulation online after it went out of print. This Bridge Called My Back included writers from diverse backgrounds and helped formulate the concept of intersectionality long before social movements like the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag caught the attention of white feminists.

While the book was groundbreaking, it struggled to remain in print. Consequently, the book has become an scarce commodity, which has driven up the price, often making it too expensive for the very group of women it was written by and for. Tumblr, the home of SJWs (social justice warriors), offered a solution to this problem by sharing free PDF versions of the book online.

Nakamura claimed that these virtual feminists were “taking the law into their own hands” by sharing the book without a copyright. Nakamura’s talk opened up a variety of questions for discussion. For example, does free access to the PDF on Tumblr prevent money from getting to the original authors? While the issue is not clear cut, Nakamura suggested that sharing This Bridge Called My Back freely on Tumblr was probably the most feminist thing to do under the circumstances.

Unlike Nakamura’s first talk, her second lecture focused on the physical, rather than the intangible, element of digital media. While discussing the production of our digital media, Nakamura reminded her audience that “an Asian woman touched every single one of your phones.” According to Nakamura, Asian women are often characterized as uniquely suited to this work because of their “nimble fingers.” But, this stereotype was not new, and not exclusive to Asian women.

In her paper on Indigenous circuits, Nakamura describes a 1969 Fairchild Semiconductor brochure celebrating a large integrated circuit manufacturing plant not in Asia, but on a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. The brochure features a photograph of a traditional Navajo rug and a photograph of a Navajo woman at a loom weaving a similar rug. Next, the brochure displays a large image of an integrated circuit, and then an image of a Navajo woman at a microscope, fabricating a circuit. The factory is considered a failure now, but the Navajo women who worked there were once characterized as the ideal workforce because of their “nimble fingers” and cultural traditions.

These images, and their captions, aimed to convince readers that Navajo women are culturally predisposed to the kind of work being done at the factory. It also implied that the women were still practising their traditional craft while making electronic circuits. Presenting their factory work as a cultural practice allowed Fairchild to rationalize low pay and poor working conditions at their factory.

Nakamura’s research on the Fairchild plant also demonstrates how companies racialize workers in order to rationalize business decisions that are actually motivated by profit. Nakamura closed her talk by encouraging her audience to “look behind the screen.”

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