“THERE’S NO SALLY AND THOMAS HERE!”: SCANDAL, TWITTER, AND BLACK FEMINIST EPISTEMOLOGY

Introduction

I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued. That was the ultimate lesson and prevailing thread of truth from 25 years of Oprah shows.

Shonda Rhimes, creator of the must-see TV thriller Scandal, validates our story — the human story of faults and fears, loneliness and loss, triumphs and often short-lived joys. She gets us — all of us! Shonda is a storyteller for our times. Courageous in her approach to the work, she’s never played by other people’s rules. Eight years ago, she introduced us to Grey’s Anatomy with an African-American chief of surgery and an Asian character with leading plotlines. Gay, straight, single, divorced, lost, searching — everybody gets a seat at Shonda’s table.

She creates an assemblage of worldly foibles and aspirations. She understands that every dream is valuable and every identity deserves inspection through the looking glass of television. “She knows the power of reflection and wields that power with grace and generosity,” Scandal star Kerry Washington told me. “Shonda allows for more people than ever before to see themselves and feel as though the world sees them too.”

– Oprah Winfrey[1]

Every year Time Magazine publishes its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Through the selected excerpt, the iconic Oprah Winfrey, one of the most influential black women on television wrote the entry on Shonda Rhimes, a black woman who has impacted television in different yet similarly powerful ways. Rhimes current television showpiece, Scandal, stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a Washington D.C. crisis management expert loosely tied to the real life work of Judy Smith. Ironically, Judy Smith has never been listed on the TIME 100 even though the creator of her sensationalized television trope has been listed and profiled. This irony is representative of the relationship the American public has to television. Perhaps this is a dystopian fantasy realized, but it appears that the American public’s relationship to television is stronger and more influential than its relationship to lived experience and reality. “Television. Love it or hate it… it reflects and shapes our knowledge of contemporary life across the economic, political, social, and cultural spectrum…” reads the back cover of Josh Hartley’s critically acclaimed 2008 text Television Truths. In this text, Hartley discusses the ways in which television is a component of “knowledge paradigms” in which the creator, the show, and the audience are constantly negotiating meaning. I write this paper to attempt to build a connection between this contemporary social phenomenon and the reality of Black women’s existence in the United States. Scandal as a social phenomenon is important to contextualize. As Frantz Fanon so eloquently states in the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks we must root our social analysis temporally because our present condition will unquestionably be the roots of our future. If we do not give value to our experiences at this moment, then we are forced to pass that failure on to future generations.  Giving value to Black feminist epistemology provides the opportunity to develop methodological resistance to the “matrix of domination”. The presence of a Black feminist epistemology affirms the humanity of a marginalized group. It gives credence and respect to a shared method of creating, validating, and sharing knowledge. This process is about empowerment. Recognition of Black feminist epistemologies in use humanizes Black women’s lived experiences. This humanization process has dual purposes. First, it allows Black women to value their sphere of freedom through experience, dialogue, care and personal accountability. Secondly, it creates the space for Black women to develop and curate conceptual tools to resist oppression. (Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination , 1990)

I want to be very clear, I do not write this analysis as a sort of Black voyeurism that gazes upon the Black experience with awe and wonder as an experiential museum exhibit. I write this as a member of an oppressed social group. Through this analysis, I critique the system of which I am a participant and product. I argue that Black Twitter, a loosely constructed mbongi, or a space, where knowledge is created, validated, and critiqued. I will demonstrate that by looking at the relationship this space has to the popular television show, Scandal. To do this, first I will provide a brief synopsis of the show. Secondly, I will discuss Black Twitter and its relationship to the show. Lastly, I will discuss how Black Twitter uses Black feminist epistemology to create and maintain a sphere of freedom for Black women’s social and political discourse.

The Television Show: Scandal

Shonda Rhimes can boast a lot of achievements when it comes to the world of television. With a number of hit shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, Rhimes has established herself as television force to be reckoned with. Her shows are known to be “female-centered” with women as the lead. Shonda Rhimes takes pride in this, as she stated to The New York Times, “It’s super insulting that because Olivia is a woman, and the girl who wrote ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ wrote this, it must be for chicks, like if it’s geared for women, it’s somehow not as serious as if it’s geared for men.” However, the symbiotic nature of race and gender, it is interesting how Rhimes has addressed race in her shows, because frankly, she hasn’t. Emily Nussbaum, of The New Yorker, says that the show takes place in a post-racial imagination where there has not been a President Obama or the historic election of 2008, which centered the marginalization of race and gender in electoral politics (Nussbaum, 2012). Dodai Stewart, writing for Jezebel.com elaborates on the constructed post-racial reality of the show. She praises the show for having a diverse cast of characters without focusing on race. Stewart writes, “On Scandal, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or a man or a woman or straight or gay: It’s about your work ethic, your integrity, your intelligence, your strength, your ability to run with the big dogs (Stewart, 2013).” This description, a place in which difference is present but irrelevant, is what an idealized post-racial society should be. However, I argue that although race does not take center stage explicitly through the shows dialogue, it remains an elusive yet overarching ideal that permeates the relationship the audience has with the show.

There is only one clear mention of race from the first three seasons of the show.[2] In a flashback scene, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) who is working at the White House for President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), is walking down the hallway when he pulls her aside to discuss their romantic relationship, an obviously surreptitious on-again off-again extra-marital affair[3]. Olivia is resistant to President Grant, despite his insistence that they are together in this. Olivia responds emphatically, “Really? Because I’m feeling a little…I don’t know… Sally Hemmings-Thomas Jefferson about all this.” Later in the episode, President Grant responds to Olivia by saying that comment was “below the belt” and “There’s no Sally and Thomas here. You’re nobody’s victim, Liv. I belong to you. We’re in this together.” On screen, this plays out as a romantic gesture that visibly impacts Olivia because she continues her romantic relationship with the President. The irony of this exchange is inescapable. In 2000, CBS Productions released a television movie chronicling the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings entitled, Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal.

An Mbongi: Black Twitter

Titular ironies aside, the pop culture blogosphere erupted with responses to this illusion. Since the premiere of the show, commentary about this historical reference was among common critique and praise for the storyline.  Gene “G.D.” Demby, lead blogger for National Public Radio’s Code Switch shared on his site, PostBourgie.com, that the analogy is false because it cannot be applied conversely. Specifically, Demby argues that the relative autonomy of Olivia’s choice to participate in the relationship cannot be compared to the relegation as property that defined Sally Hemmings relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Guest Contributors to the site Racialicious, T.F. Charlton and Arrianna Conerly Coleman, spoke extensively about the false dichotomy of a Sally Hemmings-Olivia Pope relationship. While the explicit institution of slavery is no longer present to temporally define the relationship Olivia has with President Grant, there is an unambiguous power differential that exists between the two. For example, President Grant, as leader of the free world, utilizes his ability to “watch” Olivia, a move that can easily be interpreted into surveillance or stalking. Although many of ABC’s primetime audience might miss the loaded nature of the scene, this construction of power within this post-racial reality is not lost on a significant part of the audience, Black Twitter.

Twitter is a popular social network where microblogging is the method of communication. Through 140 character messages individuals can stand on their own soapbox and shout about whatever they like. In the same manner, depending on your privacy settings, the world can engage with you and thus begin a conversation in real time that is only limited by access to the website. Twitter boasts over 550,000,000 registered users. The Pew Center Internet & American Life Project reported that African-Americans use Twitter significantly more than their white counterparts. Considering African Americans make up approximately 13-14% of the American population, it is truly significant that almost 25% of Twitter users are African-American.  I share a sentiment that Sarah Florini expressed in her paper, “Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on ‘Black Twitter’”. We must not treat this phenomenon as either defining or representative of the Black experience. Black Twitter is not a monolith, but it is a space, a space where millions of Black Twitter users are in constant conversation. I refer to this space as an mbongi, a Bantu-Kongo term presented by Dr. K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau in his work on African spiritual and knowledge systems (Fu-Kiau, African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo: Tying the Spiritual Knot, Principles of Life & Living, 2001). Mbongi literally translates into “a room without walls” or a convening space. It is the term applied to the political system of the Bantu-Kongo communities in West Africa. This democratic system is operated by allowing everyone who is accessible to the community to voice their concerns to the community without mediation or bureaucracy (Fu-Kiau, Mbongi: An African Traditional Political Institution, 2007). I argue that Black Twitter functions in the same manner. The platform allows for everyone within the community to share their thoughts and ideas about a particular topic.

Scandal has a special relationship to Twitter. According to Social Guide, a Nielsen Ratings system that links television to social media, Scandal is the seventh most tweeted television show in 2013. The cast of Scandal has a stake in this achievement because the entire cast live tweets each episode as it airs via the #ASKScandal hash tag. This creates a relatively intimate dialogue between the cast and the audience concerning the show. When Olivia made the Sally Hemmings reference, Black Twitter erupted in shock, amazement, and disbelief. For many, this conversation on Twitter had been ongoing since the show first aired. This conversation within the mbongi included debates on the historiography of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, how black women are portrayed on television in order to receive notoriety, how black women relate to their representations in media and a host of other topics. I argue that the debates about Olivia’s relationship on Twitter are examples of an mbongi in practice. The Twitter platform makes it possible to share identities regarding culture and politics but it also creates the space for a debate over knowledge (Ignacio, 2006). Through Black Twitter, individuals are able to dialogue about their personal and shared experiences regarding race and gender through ethics of care and personal accountability. This is black feminist epistemology in practice.

An Example of Black Feminist Epistemology

Black feminist epistemology synthesizes the production of knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment (Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination , 1990). This framework addresses the ways in which identity and epistemology are connected. Race and gender, as socialized aspects of our identity, provide a specific way of creating, interpreting, and evaluating information. Black feminist epistemology gives value to the “subjugated knowledges” that develop in contexts of oppression. Through this endeavor, I am not attempting to use ethnography to discuss about the ways Black women talk about Black womanhood. Nor is the purpose to validate a hierarchy of knowledge based upon a hierarchy of oppression. The task at hand is to illustrate Black feminist epistemology as it occurs in our social contexts. The intention here is to consciously decenter a knowledge production process that has not valued raced and gendered identities. I maintain that there are no absolute epistemologies, but that people hold social identities, which mediate knowledge. The Black feminist epistemological approach is useful for understanding what Patricia Hill-Collins terms the “matrix of domination” that produces marginalized identities (Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination , 1990).  Black feminist epistemology is not the advocacy of privileging black women’s voices over other marginalized voices. It is the conscious standpoint interrogation of how we come to know and validate truth. I utilize this framework to substantiate the necessity of different epistemological processes to be used to understand different marginalized identities. Contemporary African American women, conscious of the “matrix of oppression” created through race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are empowered to utilize their modes of knowledge production to create and validate information through dialogue, experience, and the ethics of care and personal responsibility. My analysis here is focused on how this epistemological method occurs through the mbongi of Black Twitter.

Experience

            In Black feminist epistemologies, experience is a criterion of meaning. Hill-Collins illustrates this by invoking Sojourner Truth’s claim to womanhood by exclaiming, “Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? (Hill-Collins, Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology, 2003).” In her famous speech, Truth outlines her lived experience in the slave economy to demonstrate her knowledge claim that she too is a woman. Her knowledge has been ascertained through her experience and she expresses that she has found undeniable truth in that experience. The context of this situation is important. Truth, in attendance at an 1851 women’s convention rose to speak despite obvious objection to her participation in the conference. This moment symbolizes the direct marginalization of a raced and gendered identity from making substantial knowledge claims in public discourse. A variety of historic moments have changed the socio-political landscape for women, but the ability to use one’s own experience as validation of knowledge remains a necessary component of a marginalized epistemology. As Black women engage one another on Twitter, their personal histories become worthy contributions to a collective social and political commentary. Several professional Black women writers and commentators have done exactly this via the social media network[4]. Black women on Twitter have discussed their collective views on interracial relationships, political careers, and social justice because of their connection to the show Scandal. Through the experience of being fans of the show coupled with the shared experience of Black womanhood, Black women on Twitter create, validate and challenge knowledge of their identities.

Dialogue

Subjugated knowledges co-exist, often in opposition to, dominant knowledge constructions. Dominant knowledge constructs permeate social thought by silencing different modes of analysis (Hill-Collins, Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology, 2003). In this case, there is a subject-object relationship between dominant and marginalized voices. Taking a cue from popular educator Paulo Friere, dialogue is a relationship between two subjects that interrogate each other, as knowledgeable equals in genuine two-way communication (Freire, 1973). It is in this regard that bell hooks, Black feminist thinker, begins to define dialogue as humanizing speech (hooks, 1989). Dialogue requires a subject-subject relationship. In a genuine dialogue, two subjects can enter into a conversation with valued knowledge. Black Twitter allows for genuine dialogue to occur amongst Black women. The platform does not have a third party mediator to mitigate the discussion of experiences between two, two hundred, or two thousand Black women at any given moment. Dialogue as opposed to a hierarchal decree is the medium of decision making within the mbongi.

Dialogue is empowering. Black women can use Twitter to hold dialogue about any topic they wish. After Kerry Washington was overlooked for a Primetime Emmy in 2013 for her role on Scandal, Black women expressed validation for their media presence through the Black Girls Rock! awards show. During the show, there was a barrage of tweets with the hash tag #whitegirlsrock, intended to disparage the positive dialogue about Black women flowing across the platform. In response, Black Twitter created the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hash tag. These tweets were meant to point out the racism within feminist social media discourse. The tweets were satirical in nature using humor and shared experience to illustrate an allegedly overlooked aspect of feminist discourse. This process is directly aligned with the research on Black Twitter’s use of the platform to “index Black cultural practices, to enact Black subjectivities, and to communicate shared knowledge and experiences” (Florini, 2013). Experience and dialogue work in tandem to engage an epistemological reality of Black women’s lives.

Care

            The ethic of caring is rooted in a humanistic approach to knowledge. In caring, ideas cannot be divorced from the individuals that create them. Passion, emotions, and empathy are all central to the knowledge validation process (Hill-Collins, Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology, 2003). The ethic of care is very important for the utilization of Black feminist epistemology. Alternative approaches to ascertaining truth are often related to positivist or relativist paradigms. Black feminist epistemology is in opposition to positivist ideologies. The basis of positivism is unbiased objectivity. Positivist approaches utilize  a subject-object relationship. To oversimplify, to be objective in this sense is to divorce oneself from the matter. Dispassionate and restrained information does not fit into Black feminist validations of knowledge. Relativism, however, acknowledges that all groups have specialized and equally valid thought processes. The Black feminist challenge to relativism is the need to acknowledge power and positionality of groups. In this case, identity is a result of a power dynamic that informs an epistemological framework. The discursive style employed on Black Twitter exemplifies this tenet. Utilization of the hash tag, comment, @, RT, and the collective goal to achieve a trending topic represent a mutual ethic of care about the Black Twitter experience (Brock, 2012). Active participation in the mbongi of Black Twitter shows that you care about the topics being discussed. This care translates into the dialogical experience of creating a shared epistemological process.

Personal Accountability

Hill-Collins describes the ethic of personal accountability as a rejection of the belief that probing into an individual’s viewpoint is outside the boundaries of rational debate. She states, “… all views expressed and actions taken are thought to derive from a central set of core beliefs that cannot be other than personal” (Hill-Collins, Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology, 2003). This idea relates to an African proverb, “What you think belongs to you, what you say belongs to the community.” In the mbongi, the individual can express individual opinions, but their commentary is subject to criticism from the larger community. The personal accountability concept is revealed in two distinct ways on Black Twitter as it discusses Scandal. First, Shonda Rhimes as creator and writer for the show is subject to direct criticism of the plot, the storyline, and the character development via Twitter. Black Twitter discussions may focus directly on Rhimes’ responsibility to what the audience is watching.  For example, after the most recent episode the following tweets[5] were shared through Black Twitter networks:

–       Somebody better die. That’s the only way I’ll forgive Shonda for titling a Scandal episode “#YOLO” (@thejazzybelle)

–       Shonda, it’s the holiday season. You really couldn’t see to it that my edges were spared?! #scandal @shondarhimes (@jax1125)

–       randomly thought abt Huck saying YOLO. lmao *rapper voice…before the beat drops* Shonda, you a fool fuh dis one (@bingbrain)

The Black Twitter audience regularly engages Shonda Rhimes directly for her responsibility for the show. Ironically, Shonda Rhimes is only listed as a writer for three out of the 40 episodes that have aired on television. However, for the mbongi of Black Twitter, that does not change her accountability for the show.

Secondly, Black Twitter holds each other accountable for the information that they share on Twitter. Most often, the personal accountability is done via signifyin’, or wordplay that consists of verbal misdirection (Florini, 2013). Through the hashtag, comment, @, or RT affordances of the Twitter platform, individuals can immediately hold each other accountable for what they share (Brock, 2012). The person who could potentially face criticism often comments about “my mentions” as  being held accountable for their tweets:

–       I have some thoughts but no energy for Scandal talk right now. I barely use the word and my mentions will be chaos for hours. (@thetrudz)

–       My mentions are moving at lightning speed. Again. I need to stop tweeting during Scandal. Seriously lol. (@tuckwitter)

–       I catch anybody on my TL tonight tweeting on Scandal will get slandered to the utmost. Your mentions will be in shambles… (@Flyer_thanu2)

Personal accountability is strongly represented in the discourse via Black Twitter. Speaking in the mbongi opens the door for criticism as well as praise. Participants are aware of that and engage in the discussion with this tenet in mind.

Conclusion

The reality of Black women’s lives is complex and dynamic. There is no single entity or exploration that explains every aspect of Black women’s lives. What I have attempted to do here is to demonstrate how Black women use feminist epistemology. This analysis is not merely an academic exercise. It is a conscious interpretation of Black women’s shared experiences. Shonda Rhimes may not be aware of the role she has unconsciously played in beginning a dialogue about Black womanhood in public discourse. Her power, as Oprah reflected, is unmatched in the realm of television. The power to inspire dialogue cannot be under estimated. Fanon cautions us to be rooted in our current social context, which includes popular culture phenomenon such as Twitter and Scandal. Recognition of Black feminist epistemology in these phenomena is a step in expanding the discourse on knowledge paradigms. Black women have demonstrated their usage of Twitter to employ their epistemological methods.  Despite marginalization, Black women have persisted in their self-defined mode of knowledge production. The future social justice discourse needs to understand the relationship between identity and epistemology so that the matrix of domination can begin to be dismantled.  Black Twitter shows that Black feminist epistemology remains a sphere of freedom for Black women’s social and political discourse.

References

Brock, A. (2012). From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media , 56 (4), 529-549.

Demby, G. (2012, December 13). Olivia Pope Is Not Sally Hemings. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from Postbourgie.com: http://www.postbourgie.com/2012/12/13/olivia-pope-is-not-sally-hemings/

Florini, S. (2013, March 7). Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on “Black Twitter”. Television & New Media .

Freire, P. (1973). The Politics of Education. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Fu-Kiau, K. K. (2001). African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo: Tying the Spiritual Knot, Principles of Life & Living.

Fu-Kiau, K. K. (2007). Mbongi: An African Traditional Political Institution. Afrikan Djeli Publishers.

Hill-Collins, P. (1990). Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination . In P. Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (pp. 221-238). Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Hill-Collins, P. (2003). Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology. In Y. S. Lincoln, & N. K. Denzin, Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Hankerchief (pp. 47-72). Alta Mira Press.

hooks, b. (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.

Ignacio, E. N. (2006). E-scaping Boundaries: Bridging Cryberspace and Diaspora Studies through Nethnography. In D. Silver, & A. Massanari, Critical Cyber-Culture Studies (pp. 181-193). New York: New York University Press.

Natisse, K. M. (2012, May 16). Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal’ presents blueprint for survival of blacks on network TV. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from The Grio: http://thegrio.com/2012/05/16/shonda-rhimes-scandal-presents-blueprint-for-survival-of-blacks-on-network-tv/

Nielsen. (2013, November). Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from SocialGuide.com: http://www.socialguide.com/nielsen-twitter-tv-ratings/

Nussbaum, E. (2012, May 21). PRIMARY COLORS: Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal” and the diversity debate. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/05/21/120521crte_television_nussbaum

Rhimes, S. (Director). (2012-). Scandal [Television Show].

Rhimes, S. (2013, November 7). Shonda Rhimes Knows Where This ‘Scandal’ Will End. NPR’s Morning Edition. (R. Montagne, Interviewer)

Senft, T. M., & Noble, S. U. (2013, forthcoming). Race and Social Media. In J. Hunsinger, & T. M. Senft, Handbook of Social Media. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, S. (2013, February). Black Twitter? Racial Hashtags, Networks, and Contagion. New Formations , 46-64.

Stewart, D. (2013, January 18). ABC: Yes, Black People Are Part of Scandal’s Success, No, We Don’t Want to Talk About It. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from Jezebel.com: http://jezebel.com/5977066/abc-yes-black-people-are-part-of-scandals-success-no-we-dont-want-to-talk-about-it

Vega, T. (2013, January 16). A Show Makes Friends and History: ‘Scandal’ on ABC Is Breaking Barriers. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from Nytimes.com: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/arts/television/scandal-on-abc-is-breaking-barriers.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=2&adxnnlx=1386292505-pq3drpBJlifOtz3SpPac2w

VIBE Pop Culture. (2013, February 8). Kerry Washington: “I Wouldn’t Have Starred In ‘Scandal’ if President Were Black!”. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from Vibe: http://www.vibe.com/article/kerry-washington-i-wouldnt-have-starred-scandal-if-president-were-black


[2] At the time of this paper the show had recently premiered its 38th episode with 9 more episodes left in the 3rd season yet to air. It is also interesting to note that during the second season, Shonda Rhimes the creator of the show is credited with writing this and one other episode, the season finale.

[3] The relationship between Olivia Pope and President Grant is often referred to as #Olitz on Twitter.

[4] For examples you can check the timelines of MSNBC political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry), Black Feminist author Joan Morgan (@milfinainteasy),  or Digital News & Life Editor of Ebony.com Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux).

[5] The tweets used in this paper were either available via the public Twitter timeline or were shared via written consent of the account holder.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s