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Digital activism: Reclaiming pathologized identities and spaces

Digital activism: Reclaiming pathologized identities and spaces

by Kafia Abdulkader

Kafia Abdulkader

I grew up with a passion for film and television, and popular culture. However, I never saw people that looked like me represented in mainstream media. Instead, those who occupy a similar social location to me were often put in positions of servitude, their identities pathologized, and a site of ridicule. The fat Black female body is pathologized as something difficult to understand and lacking in complexity in contemporary society. Each of these identity markers was constructed in relation to Blackness, and thus, caricatured and viewed as a one-dimensional spectacle under the white gaze. Many scholars have argued that fat Black women are simultaneously hyper-visible, grotesque, intriguing, pathologized, hypersexualized, and invisible through the lens of white supremacy (O’Grady, 1992; Somerville, 1994; Hammonds, 1997; Strings, 2019). Therefore, the fat Black female body occupies a unique social location subjected to scrutiny as a means of asserting social order. 

I recognize that mainstream media reinforces hegemonic ideologies on race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Stuart Hall (2021) argues that the depiction of BIPOC subjects is stereotypical and stems from the hegemonic ideals and beliefs, which enforce the inferiority of racialized people. For example, the categorization of Black women into stereotypical scripts such as the mammy, the jezebel, and the sapphire is normalized to uphold social inequalities (Hill Collins, 2000). Similarly, Seshadri-Crooks (2000) argues that jokes are rooted in the unconscious, and racist jokes are a replacement for colonial violence. Therefore, mass media turning fat Black women’s lived experiences and identities into a joke is a form of neocolonialism as it aims to enforce social order and uphold systems of oppression.

“To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves. For some of us this will not be easy. So long unmirrored in our true selves, we may have forgotten how we look. Nevertheless, we can’t theorize in a void, we must have evidence” – Lorraine O’Grady (1992).

The film, Laughing Black, uses laughter, from a Black female perspective, to censor the systemic white gaze upon the brown body.

The majority of my work has utilized my communications background and integrated Black feminist methodology to critique pop culture tropes and social media as a neocolonial tool that perpetuates dangerous ideas around racism, heterosexism, fatphobia, and ableism. My most recent project Laughing Black aims to deconstruct the historical tropes and characterization of fat Black women’s bodies to reclaim pathologized identities. My project Laughing Black utilizes bell hooks’ (2001) concept of the oppositional gaze, the political act of looking; historically, enslaved people could not look back at their oppressors. The oppositional gaze is a resistance to the violent white gaze that has subjugated Blackness (hooks, 2001). My project weaved together the oppositional gaze and laughter as a form of looking back at my oppressors and reclaiming my pathologized identity. My short film was an attempt at naming myself instead of letting the white gaze name my experiences (O’Grady, 1992).

Outside of my artistic practice, I am interested in how social media impacts race, space, and displacement. My work critically interrogates the links between mainstream environmentalism, digital environments, race, class, and food justice to disrupt dominant discourse through a decolonial lens. My fascination began in 2017, when the city of Toronto proposed a strip of vegan restaurants in the heart of Parkdale, a historically diasporic community. Specifically, the opening of Vegandale contributes to the ongoing ‘colorblind’ food politics that disregards the markers of race and class while contributing to food insecurity in the Parkdale area. My proposed research focuses on how Instagram serves as an emerging mechanism of gentrification in Toronto. I am interested in examining the links between food as a method of displacement, social media as a reflection of dominant ideologies, and how the racialization of space emerges digitally. I aim to look at how food circulation on Instagram serves as a mechanism of gentrification and how this emergence facilitates the displacement of racialized communities. Currently, I am researching how Instagram is an emerging tool of gentrification by doing a case study of Parkdale.

Kafia's podcast with Laura Pen as part of Prof. Jin Haritaworn's Marvelleous Grounds project

For my major research paper, I intend to produce a Black studies project that draws from fundamental Black studies scholars (Lipsitz, 2007), Black feminist geographers (Mckittrick, 2013), surveillance studies (Browne, 2017; Noble, 2018), digital studies (Benjamin, 2019), and Black food geographies (Reese, 2019), which is crucial to address how Instagram is an emerging mechanism of gentrification. My work is grounded in my three areas of concentration; The Digital Black Spatial Imaginary, Digital Culture, and Food Justice. First, I aim to expand on Liptsitz’s (2007) concept of the Black spatial imaginary, as the modern Digital Black spatial imaginary–which exists in circulation as Black aesthetics, foods, and culture is co-opted by the digital white spatial imaginary. Second, I aim to unpack the relationship between Digital Culture and neocolonialism, which surfaces on user-generated networks such as Instagram. Specifically, looking at the ways in which Instagram contributes to discursive redlining and poverty tourism. Additionally, how social networks facilitate and mask the effects of gentrification in racialized communities. Finally, Food justice is my main area of concentration for my major research paper, and I aim to examine the duality of food as a method of displacement and resistance. Specifically, linking food as a method of displacement to social media’s role in reinforcing structural inequalities, and thus, examining how food circulation on social media serves as a mechanism of displacement.

Kafia Abdulkader is a Black Femme, artist, writer and community organizer focused on reimagining Blackness, fatness, and digital environments. She has a background in Women & Gender Studies and Professional Writing at the University of Toronto. Currently, Kafia is pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental and Urban Change, specializing in digital culture, food justice and the racialization of space. Recently, she was featured in the Fracture exhibition, Marvellous Grounds and Toned Magazine. Discover more of Kafia's artistic and video works at