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Written by Jenille Morgan

More than 600 people tuned in on Wednesday, Nov. 11 for the second event in the Race, Racism and Racial Equity (R3) Symposium series. Centering on the theme “Cultural Industry, Techno-capitalism, and Labor: The Mediated Exploitation of Black and Brown Bodies,” scholars from across UNC, including Business and Communications, shared their work addressing issues of language, representation, cultural appropriation, and decontextualization of Black and Brown labor as it appears through a variety of media.

The R3 series is co-hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Jordan Institute for Families and the School of Social Work’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Allison De Marco, advanced research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and Gretchen C. Bellamy, senior director for education, operations and initiatives in the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, co-convened the symposium. Travis Albritton, the School of Social Work’s assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, served as moderator. The purpose of the series is to highlight the work of UNC scholars to confront racism, foster collaboration between scholars including faculty, research scientists, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and make connections to the wider campus community.

The symposium opened with research presented by Kiara Childs, a fourth-year doctoral student in UNC’s Department of Communication. Childs studies Black women’s digital culture and how social media is both a place of invisibility and visibility for Black women. Through case study research, Childs explores how Black femaleness is used as an online technology that may be appropriated by non-Black and/or non-female content creators in ways that render Black women invisible. She asserts that Black women’s historic and continual exploitation, white technoculture, and the heavy decontextualization that takes place on social media contribute to the symbolic annihilation of Black women and girls. Thus, she implores everyone to be cognizant of the power differentials that exist on social media—especially when there is capital involved. Childs maintains that “[w]hile the borderlessness and synchronicity of the internet are hard to work against, we must fight harder to listen to Black women, cite Black women and pay Black women.”

Similarly, Dr. Stephanie Mahin, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Management & Corporate Communication Area at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, pointed to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as another example of entities profiting off of the labor and ingenuity of Black women. She and her colleague, Dr. Victoria Smith Ekstrand, argue in their research that current trademark laws should account for technological advancements that leave citizen-created works vulnerable and disadvantages them. They propose implementing a provisional hashtag trademark that would afford creative laborers the time they need to demonstrate they qualify for full trademark protection and could help to address the problem of capitalization off cultural appropriation. Mahin also encourages everyone to be aware of the labor behind citizen-created hashtags and carefully consider who is benefitting from any capital generated as a result.

Continuing the theme, Ashley A. Mattheis, a PhD candidate in UNC’s Department of Communication and Doctoral Fellow with the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, presented work that focused on how aesthetics are used to stabilize race and gender through the regular exploitation of Black and Brown women in the media. Drawing parallels between Saartjie/Sara/Sarah Baartman and contemporary Black and Brown celebrities, Mattheis contends that “What anchors fascination with Baartman in 1811 and in 2020 is a shared financial and social interest in an epistemological economy of race and gender—society’s need for stable categories of race and gender that align and entangle with the commoditization of exotic bodies, often through the fetishizing of women or men of color’s hypersexualized body parts.” Mattheis affirms that aesthetics remain a primary way we know and relate to difference and to our location within the social order. She emphasized that the role of aesthetics and media in stabilizing race and gender are integral to the maintenance of dominant structures examining domination work.

Dr. Michael Waltman, an Associate Professor in UNC’s Department of Communication, posits that another essential element in maintaining systems of oppression is hate speech. Through his research examining texts that are sources of identification for different social and hate groups (e.g., racist novels, webpages, online newspapers), Waltman considers how hatred is becoming normalized in American discourse and the consequences of that normalization. He challenges everyone to think more critically about how systems of oppression get enacted and about our own participation in these systems. He urges institutions to respond by making anti-racist, anti-hate actions more institutionalized themselves through such examples as anti-racist curriculum and pedological commitments to attempt to teach courses and disciplines from an explicitly anti-racist position.

Special Advisor to the Provost and Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion and Interim Chief Diversity Officer Sibby Anderson Thompkins offered closing remarks.

Visit to view this event and the previous as well as for forthcoming announcements about future events in the R3 series.

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