“We are who we say we are:” How the State and Big Data define Black identities

By Leslie Jones

Writer’s Note: The article title is an homage to Mary Frances Berry’s seminal work on emergent colored Creole identity in the late 18th and 19th century. Her research reveals the strategies employed by colored people to resist external systems of racialization in favor of individual and collective self-determination.

Last month, Buzzfeed News reported the story of Cynsha Best, a woman who, despite living 31 years as a British citizen, was informed by government officials that she was actually designated as Barbadian, thereby making her an “illegal immigrant.” The article is worth reading for its critiques of British immigration policy, but it also provides a foundation for interrogating how information systems can be used to deprive Black bodies of autonomy and identity.

Best is quoted saying:

“If I knew I was an illegal immigrant I wouldn’t have gone there. I’ve been in this country for 31 years. Every time I filled in a form, I’ve just put ‘British’ all my life. Always. I never, ever knew. I was given a National Insurance number when I was 16.” (emphasis mine)

Because of the new digital information regime, the British government was finally able to concatenate the documentation it needed to render Cynsha Best’s citizenship void. And because the state’s reality is always more legitimate than the reality Black people embody, Best is “truly” an “illegal immigrant” precisely because agents of the state have asserted so.

Even Best’s attorney tacitly acknowledges this power of definition when she states that Best came into existence for the government only when records of her residency were centralized:

“It gives a glimpse into the chaos at the Home Office … She doesn’t exist to them, that’s the problem. Thirty years ago it was all on paper. There’s that much paper around the Home Office that there just wouldn’t be any information.”

Even now, Best has two identities (and so do we all)—one as a human being and another as an informational organism created and managed by the state. It is this second identity that allows the state to render illegal Best’s body and its occupation of what we accept as British space.


***

The Buzzfeed article doesn’t mention race, but Ms. Best is Black. Anti-Blackness violently constrains the universe of allowed identities for Black people and rejects Black testimony as sufficient evidence of truth. Truth is always constructed outside of the Black body and the Black experience.

Surveillance is one way the state constructs alternative truths about Black bodies that are more readily accepted than our own testimonies. This is one of the reasons why, despite decades of anti-racist theoretical interventions and contravening empirical evidence, Black bodies are widely understood to be inherently dangerous.

State governments have always surveilled Black people in order to implement various anti-Black agendas such as: controlling the Black population through criminalization of Black reproduction; gerrymandering and voter suppression; preventing or undermining peaceful protest; destabilizing organized attempts to provide strategic socioeconomic support to Black communities; and maintaining the Whiteness of neighborhoods and institutions like schools and medical facilities.

What distinguishes the “now” from the “past” is the type, quality, accessibility and sheer volume of information at state actors’ disposal and other individuals interested in perpetuating anti-Black ideas, policies, and actions. The digitization and synthesis of legal paperwork stripped Best of her identity as a British citizen, but this is not the only way that the digital information age enables surveillance of Black bodies and its resulting consequences.

Consider what happened to Patti Hammond Shaw.  In the 1980s, she was arrested in Washington, DC. after she defended herself from a male partner who assaulted her. A transgender woman, she was arrested and recorded as “male” and the state discarded her embodied identity in favor of her state-legitimated Police Department Identification Number (PDID). Shaw was subsequently placed in a men’s facility where employees and inmates assaulted and humiliated her while awaiting indictment.

And other examples abound.

Facebook sells data to third parties who then sell it to police departments. Facebook also works on a “case by case” basis with police, enabling them to surveil and build cases against individuals with data about their whereabouts, activities, and social networks.

US Customs have demanded travelers’ social media account information, and US Homeland Security is proposing that this become standard policy for Muslim travelers. Media outlets mine social media platforms for photographs of victims and perpetrators of crimes, and select the images that serve particular narratives. Due to laws that privilege Internet Service Providers at the expense of consumers, companies like AT&T can legally compile user dossiers that can be funneled to the NSA. These uses of “Big Data” and social media tracking pose the greatest threat to Black people, who are already subject to disproportionate surveillance both by the state and private interests.

And those are just the cases we know about.

***

While there are many dangers associated with this type of constant, unfettered, and unmonitored surveillance, we rarely discuss the ease with which we accept the identities they assign to us. We accept that our low credit scores mean that we are “high risk” and thus are inherently unworthy of owning a home, and should come to expect exploitation when we rent one. We accept that we are smart—or that we are not—based upon where we were tracked in grade school. We accept when medical professionals use our race, gender and sexuality to make diagnoses and prescribe medication instead of talking to us about our own bodies. We accept when government institutions classify and reclassify us according to our English-language proficiency, immigration status, employment status, health profile, and on and on.

We accept these classifications and we take them on as truthful identities whether they reflect our lived in experiences or not, because we are conditioned to see these institutions and their data as objective and largely to the benefit of the public good. But the “public good” is not and has never been defined in the service of Black people.

As a scientist, I am a fierce proponent of systematic information gathering and analysis. But if we are to respect research as a tool to generate social knowledge, it must be accompanied by a critical lens toward the gathering and use of information in and of itself. In a hierarchical society, information regimes have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. Those of us who are still fighting for liberation must resist external definitions of ourselves and invest the same trust in narratives that originate from within our community that we so willingly lend to institutions.


Leslie Jones is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in race and gender, critical race theory, online social media, and collective mobilization. Her dissertation project is a critical analysis of the intellectual labor of Black women and femmes on social media and its impact on public understanding of global systems of oppression.

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