Watch yourself. Take care. Be safe.
Such utterances can be spoken with love, to ourselves and to our kin. But they can also serve as reminders: to keep in line, to not ask too much or make unreasonable demands, that others are watching.
As an online feminist magazine, we value online relationships and communities, and see critical possibilities in the use of digital and social media to give voice to marginalized and dissenting perspectives and stories. At the same time, we are acutely aware of how the internet is not an egalitarian utopia, but a place where user data is a highly profitable product, where trolling and doxxing are everyday threats, and where those with racist, misogynist, transphobic, ableist, and fascist views are being affirmed and amplified. Like so many contemporary environments, this is a place where constant vigilance, at least for some, is advised. Too often, being watched is presumed to be a neutral act that safeguards the public good.
Too often, being watched is presumed to be a neutral act that safeguards the public good.
We work within this system. This issue was delayed, in part, because our Facebook account was temporarily restricted from posting content, after we shared a previously published piece about pleasure, love, homelands, and decolonization by Anishinaabe artist Quill Christie-Peters. The post violated the social media platform’s “community standards,” and the punitive treatment served as a reminder that while we may work to support online correspondence, coalitions, and communities, some of this activity threatens a “community” that is being protected, and we are ultimately being watched.
“We cannot talk about surveillance without talking about power,” writes contributor Lorraine Chuen. Too often, being watched is presumed to be a neutral act that safeguards the public good. This perspective fails to consider how deeply the state is implicated in violence, how criminalization and policing are racialized, how surveillance justifies and furthers social inequality. As contributor Mirusha Yogarajah writes, technologies of surveillance are often employed to identify those who are out of place, in order to protect spaces for the powerful. We cannot confuse surveillance with safety, without posing the necessary question, as Chuen does, “safety, for whom?”
“There is an ongoing narrative that being visible might lead to being understood; that it will convince others that people are deserving of humanity,” writes Chuen. This is not always the case, especially for those whose marginality has been actively and violently produced and reproduced for centuries. Though visibility makes being witnessed possible, it also permits surveillance. As eyos writes in a piece on how Indigenous people are, at once, hyper-surveilled and willfully ignored, “Eyes always watching when we ask them not to, but no one ever looks up when we are screaming for help. Indigenous people are far more likely to be subject to a random search and frisk, but the police have no interest in us when we go missing.”
In this world, “watching yourself” can be a strategy of survival. Illustrating the links between anti-Black surveillance and mental health, Almah LaVon Rice writes: “As a Black person with OCD, and generalized anxiety disorder, I watch myself and watch the white gaze watching me.” Because our world prioritizes white safety, constant vigilance is a condition of Black life; for those who already experience anxiety disorders, LaVon Rice considers how mandated self-surveillance can impact psychic wellness.
Such critiques of being watched do not negate the desire to be seen. In a piece of short fiction tracing an undocumented woman’s experience in a dazzling city embedded in security culture, Francesca Ekwuyasi’s omnipresent narrator writes, “you are foolish, but you want to be seen, and touched, and remember that you are alive, now, in this body of yours before they come for you, because isn’t it inevitable?” Ekwuyasi’s hyper-surveilled world, while fictional, is not too distant from our own where modes of communication also serve as technology of surveillance, and the tensions between the desire to, at once, share and control one’s image are very much present. Jasmine Gui and Grace Kwok’s comic about family in the time of the internet illustrates some of the pleasures and challenges of wielding social media, and its privacy settings, to express parts of oneself, while constantly being aware of the ever watchful eye of family members.
For those the state wants to erase, being seen within one’s community can be a source of collective power. In a piece titled “(Indigenous) Governance is Gay,” Emily Riddle argues that “the ways in which we care for or don’t care for each other is governance.” Theorized and practiced by Indigenous women, queer, trans, and Two-Spirit people, these governance practices take place in webs of communities, prioritize care, and help those seeking self-determination over their bodies. Riddle shows how such governance practices are also survival strategies, how acts of intimacy can both unravel and give strength. There are some things that cannot be seen from on high.
There are some things that cannot be seen from on high.
Though pervasive and seemingly inescapable, technologies of surveillance are neither “objective” nor all-knowing. In a piece on human observation of animal ecologies, Estraven Lupino-Smith says that: “The idea that surveillance is necessary to know or understand nature rests heavily on the colonial notion that humans are separate from and superior to the ecosystems we inhabit.” The knowledge that those in power gain when they watch—through cameras, keyword searches, user data, policing—is partial and incomplete. There are some things that cannot be seen from on high. And while efforts to conceal this partiality can certainly give way to violence and oppression, such incompleteness leaves room for the possibility of evasion and resistance. Nailah King’s speculative fiction, “The Decentres,” tells the story of a young protagonist circumventing technologies of surveillance in order to connect with her friends and resist a white-supremacist surveillance state that attempts to violently prevent the possibility of Black friendship, family, and community.
We live in a time where our ability to watch and be watched is more valuable than ever. There is an enormous amount of competition for our clicks and our shares, and as adrienne maree brown writes: what we pay attention to grows. The contributors to this issue offer missives on the impacts of being surveilled, on how to remain whole while being watched, and how to resist the surveillance state through everyday acts of intimacy. We think this is information worth your time, and so, with the Watch Yourself issue, we ask for your attention and for your care.