#DHPocoSS Week 2: Summary of “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation ” By Tara McPherson

whitepeopleprobssalingerSummary written by Nayra Vacaflor; edited by Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh

Original Article by Tara McPherson Here.

Join in on our discussions of Tara McPherson’s essay here.

Tara McPherson’s essay is guided by two main concerns :

1) The difficulty of reconciling her academic interests in race, gender, and certain modes of theoretical inquiry with her more recent immersion in the world of digital production and design.

2) The difficulty “we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of difference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code).”


Race and Operating Systems

She begins by focusing on the relationship between race and the development of operating systems in the 1960s. During the 60’s, UNIX was considered a paradigmatic operating system  because it included a number of utilities such as command line editors, APIs, code libraries Furthermore, UNIX is widely understood to embody particular philosophies and cultures of computation,

Yet, the 1960s are remembered more for Civil Rights events (the assassination of Malcolm X, the burning of Watts, or the passage of the Voting Rights Act) than the emergence of MULTICS.

However,  these moments are really important  in considering the relation between race and the “digital forms ”.

McPherson writes, “These two moments are deeply interdependent. In fact, they co-constitute one another, comprising not independent slices of history but instead related and useful lenses into the shifting epistemological registers driving U.S. and global culture in the 1960s and after .”


Race and New Media

McPherson also examines the relationship between new media and critiques of race:

She writes, “Early analyses of race and the digital often took two forms: first, a critique of representations in new media or the building of digital archives about race, modes that largely were deployed at the surface of our screens, or, second, debates about access to media—that is, the digital divide ”.

Moreover, critical race theorists and postcolonial scholars  bring a triangulation between : race, electronic culture, and poststructuralism.

Modularity in the Social Field 

The first half of the twentieth century was shaped by overt racism, from “Whites Only” which was “signage to the brutalities of lynching,” but the second half “increasingly hides its racial ‘kernel,’ burying it below a shell of neoliberal pluralism. ”

McPherson  identifies analogies between shifting racial and political formations and the emerging structures of digital computing in the late 1960s.

She notes that this doesn’t mean programmers creating UNIX at Bell Labs and at Berkeley were consciously encoding new modes of racism into digital systems.

However, they were unconsciously highlighting  “the ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s powerfully responds—across many registers—to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the United States at the time. ”


The Social Field of the University  

Many think the overspecialization of the university  is the result of additive logic  whereby “content areas” or “fields” are tacked together without any sense of intersection, context, or relation.

McPherson argues that  adding the digital humanities  to the proliferating disciplinary menus, without any meaningful and substantial engagement with fields such as gender studies, or critical race theory can be dangerous.

As technologies are bound up with racial formations, together they could “represent a move toward modular knowledges, knowledges increasingly ”.

McPherson adds : “If scholars of race have highlighted how certain tendencies within poststructuralist theory simultaneously respond to and marginalize race, this maneuver is at least partially possible because of a parallel and increasing dispersion of electronic forms across culture, forms that simultaneously enact and shape these new modes of thinking ”.

She suggests we might see contemporary turns in computing—neural nets, clouds, semantics, and so on—as parallel to recent turns in humanities scholarship to privilege networks over nodes (particularly in new media studies and in digital culture theory) and to focus on globalization and its flows (in American studies and other disciplines).

McPherson also proposed we need a good deal with more exchange between the American Studies Association and the digital humanities so that we might develop some shared languages and goals. We must take seriously the question: “Why are the digital humanities so white?”, and also ask “why is American studies not more digital”?


1) Since the 60’s the United States and much of the rest of the world have experienced tremendous technological and social change. McPherson thinks that DH and race have necessarily been intertwined as a result. What is the genealogy of race in the digital humanities, given the intertwined history of UNIX and US racial formations that McPherson points out?


2) Is “race” ever studied explicitly within a computing context? In what instances?


3) McPherson critiques the “overspecialization” of the university. Has this overspecialization begun to affect the digital humanities?


4) What kind of “rules” or “political approaches” should we apply when examining DH? McPherson’s article raises some important points about the digital humanities and political citizenship. How should, and how do, digital humanists treat the issue of political digital citizenship?


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on “#DHPocoSS Week 2: Summary of “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation ” By Tara McPherson
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