How to Build Tomorrow: Connect Passing to Privacy and Property

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What do passing and privacy have in common? An understanding of human identity as property worth protecting. I was reminded of this question and answer when Dr. Alice Marwick of Fordham University visited USC Annenberg and spoke about “networked privacy” and her new book, “Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age.”

Connecting these dots was important for me based on my own work on passing—the fact of being accepted or representing oneself successfully as a member of a different social group through various technological methods. Here are the salient points:

(1) All types of passing hinge on privacy. That’s because of the 1896 US Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which created a concept of (white) identity as a form of private property that needed to be protected from invasion by (nonwhite) others. As I write in my own book, “Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity,” that meant that passers are treated as identity thieves and “privacy pirates” rather than as human beings and "hacktivists" who strove to maintain their own privacy in a racial hierarchy that was bent on eliminating it. Passing proves and predates today’s privacy concerns, which Marwick diagnoses with accuracy. Current models of privacy are overly obsessed with individuals and individual harm and are missing a component that addresses structural inequalities.

(2) All types of privacy hinge on a broader concept of audience. Classical rhetoric teaches us that our communications are always contextual and communal, and that privacy is not so much about the people we think we’re addressing (whether it’s through our Facebook friend lists, Google Plus communities or Twitter streams) but about those who may be watching even as they remain invisible. When talking about passing we call these people “in-group clairvoyants” and they hold all the power because they hold all the secrets. As Marwick notes, the same is true in the digital world: the ability to determine communication norms can't rely on a clear notion of who we think we're talking to. Communication norms must be updated so that people can share information in ways that are appropriate, relevant and, most important, actually free.

I am excited to help build tomorrow by connecting ideas about privacy to passing and a diversity of cultural and rhetorical experiences that have always tinkered with law, liberty and life.