The Internet, Black Identity, and the Evolving Discourse of the Digital Divide

The Internet, Black Identity, and the Evolving Discourse of the Digital Divide

Lynette Kvasny (The Pennsylvania State University, USA) and Kayla D. Hales (The Pennsylvania State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch014
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In this chapter, we examine how people of African descent are using an online discussion forum as a site for interrogating the existential question of “who am I?” Contrary to the typical formulations of the digital divide as a measure of disparity in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), we make a case for how and why ICTs are being effectively used to enable and advance the interests of people who have historically been marginalized and silenced. The contributions of this research extend the digital divide discourse to affirm the cultural realities of diverse Internet users.
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Despite the potential benefits of Internet use, research on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the African Diaspora typically starts from a digital divide thesis in which this population is viewed as lacking access and relevant skills to make use of the Internet. The digital divide was initially defined as a lack of physical access to computing devices necessary to obtain Internet access (National Telecommunications and Information Agency, 1995). The divide was subsequently formulated to include concerns related to disparities in information literacy and skills necessary to function proficiently on the Internet (Mossberger, Tolbert, & Stansbury, 2003). One consistent concern was that globally, people of African descent residing in both developing and in developed nations were on the wrong side of the divide and at risk of falling behind their online peers.

In the decade since the digital divide gained popularity, people of African descent have increasingly adopted the Internet. In African countries, Internet penetration rates increased ten-fold over the course of four years, going from 4 countries (in 1993) to 44 countries with Internet access (in 1997). By 2000 the Internet was accessible to all 54 countries and far exceeded the penetration rate of the telephone in Africa (Sonaike, 2004). Additionally, among African Americans, the percentage of households with broadband connections in the United States (US) has increased 186% from 2005 (14%) to 2007 (40%; Horrigan, 2007). As gaps in access and use narrow, early formulations of the digital divide that framed people of African descent as deficient are challenged. This chapter is an addition to the body of literature that currently challenges this notion.

This chapter supports the objectives of this book through its exploration of the digital divide and its relationship with the Internet use of diasporic people. In this chapter, we explore this phenomenon at the individual and group level using textual analysis of discussion forum posts. We use identity theory to examine how identity is (re)constructed online in a community of indigenous and diasporic Africans. Our analysis addresses two research questions:

  • 1.

    What labels are used (e.g. African American, Black, Negro) as community members negotiate their identity?

  • 2.

    What social meanings are ascribed to those labels?

In the following section, we provide background information on diasporas and the digital divide. We then discuss the Internet and identity theory as a means of understanding the issues related to identity performance online. Next the research methodology and results of our textual analysis are presented. The chapter will then conclude with a brief discussion of future trends and a brief summary of the chapter’s contents and purpose.



In a seminal book on identity and the Internet, Turkle (1995) suggests that identity on the Internet is more fluid and fragmented than real space because people can assume multiple identities. However, research on Chinese (Sun, 2002) and Indian (Mitra, 2001) diasporas reports that these communities use the Internet as a “cultural location” to enact identity positions online that are grounded in real life. These online diasporic people share memories of historical events of their respective nations, and reconcile their sense of displacement, multiplicity and fragmentation in real life.

Diaspora refers to categories of people such as expatriates, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic minorities who are dispersed from their homelands but maintain myths or memories about their country of origin (Safran, 1991). For Clifford (1994) diaspora cultures mediate, in a lived tension, the experiences of separation and entanglement, of living here and remembering or desiring another place. While scholars such as Clifford (1994) and Safran (1991) express a sense of loss and separation from home identity, diasporas have also come to represent a postmodern experience in which home and identity have become fluid concepts. The postmodern notion of ‘belonging nowhere’ or ‘belonging everywhere’ suggests freedom and new possibilities of identity formation and notions of belonging.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): The process by which people create, exchange, and perceive informational messages using information and communication technologies. To be mediated by computers, the communication must be done by participants fully aware of their interaction with the computer technology in the process of creating and delivering messages.

Diaspora: A dispersion of a people from their original homeland through voluntary or involuntary migration.

Internet: People of African descent living in the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, and Australia. Although voluntary immigration has become the primary force in the modern diaspora, the trans-Atlantic slave trade represents the largest migration of people of African descent.

Nigrescience: Cross (1971) describes a five-stage model to describe the experiences associated with becoming a psychologically healthy Black man or woman in the US. In the Pre-encounter Stage individuals do not believe that race is an important aspect of identity. In the Encounter Stage, the individual is faced with a profound experience(s) directly related to their race that causes her or him to reexamine their identity. During the Immersion/Emersion Stage, the individual becomes obsessed with identifying with Black culture, but remains uncommitted to endorsing Black culture and history. This feeling of inner security and satisfaction with being Black occurs during the Internalization Stage. In the final stage, Internalization-Commitment, the individual translates his or her internalized identity into action.

Racial/Ethnic Identity: Racial identity is the significance (how important is race) and qualitative meaning (what does it mean to be a member of this racial group) that individuals attribute to their membership within the Black racial group. Ethnicity a cultural phenomenon that is shared among people who originate from the same geographic area and share language, food, ways of dress, customs and other cultural markers of group identity.

Multidimensional Inventory of Black identity (MMRI): Sellers et al. (1997) identifies four dimensions: identity salience, the centrality of identity, the ideology associated with the identity, and the regard in which the person holds African Americans. Centrality measures the extent to which a person normatively defines her or himself with regard to race. Racial salience refers to the extent to which a person’s race is a relevant part of her or his self-concept in a particular situation. MMRI theorizes that the more central a person’s Racial identity, the more likely it is to become salient in racially ambiguous situations. Regard refers to the extent to which a person feels positively or negatively towards African Americans and their membership in that group. There are two components of regard: private (how the individual feels about his or her own race) and public (how others feel about the race). Ideology is the individual’s philosophy about the ways in which African Americans should live and interact with other people in society. The four philosophies include nationalist (emphasizes the importance and uniqueness of being of African descent); oppressed minority (emphasizes commonalities between African Americans and other oppressed groups worldwide); assimilationist (emphasizes commonalities between African Americans and the rest of American Society); and humanist (emphasizes the commonalities of all humans). MMRI theorizes that individuals are likely to hold a number of philosophies that vary across situations.

Digital Divide: The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their use of the Internet. The digital divide depends on several variables, including income, education, age, gender, racial and linguistic backgrounds, and geographic location.

Identity labels: Self-referent terms used by individuals to identify their membership in groups.

Race: a socio-biological phenomenon placing people in a social and value hierarchy. These perceptions on race depend on history, traditions, and personal experience, not genes.

Identity: The set of personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group.

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