HOW DO BLACK FARMERS EXPERIENCE REPRESENTATION IN THE U.S.?
ethnography / project manager
JUNE - JULY 2020
This study was executed in a course called Ethnography for Designers at Kennesaw State University. The following explains the process of a virtual applied ethnographic investigation to uncover the beliefs, attitudes, norms and behaviors of Black farmers in the United States. Goals for this study were to summarize and empathize with the experiences of Black farmers in order to discover how they are experiencing representation through social media, with the intent of using our findings to amplify the ways in which they are being successfully represented.
An applied ethnography is qualitative research done with the intent to develop an understanding of the everyday lives and practices of participants of the study. Due to the restrictions spontaneously placed on us by the coronavirus pandemic, we were limited to virtual spaces to complete our fieldwork. We set out to observe behavior in popular social media settings - Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit. In order to attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of Black farmers without being physically present in their environment, we inserted ourselves into their online social communities.
Within these communities, we observed different posts and interactions between Black farmers and their audiences across the nation. We also sat down one-on-one with a few of these farmers to learn about their individual experiences. We set out to uncover an emic (insider) perspective of the ways Black farmers are experiencing representation through these platforms through the following steps:
MEET THE TEAM
My role in this ethnography started with pitching the idea to my classmates in June 2020. My team, inspired by the mission to discover and amplify the ways in which Black farmers are experiencing representation, joined me in executing this study within a two month time frame. My responsibilities included managing a tight schedule for the process, organizing + moderating interviews, and overseeing all research + analysis.
A large chunk of our initial research was trying to discover the appropriate research question for our goals.
Understand the perspective of Black farmers in the U.S.
Explore how Black farmers are experiencing representation through social media
Discover how Black farmers interact with and market to their communities
Our research was driven by the core concept of our goals - representation. In the beginning stages of this process, I attended a virtual conference called "Where are the Black designers?" In this conference, discussions revolved around the lack of representation for Black people and the inaccessibility of resources.
As designers, it is crucial to understand the ways in which marginalized communities are represented in order to design systems that work toward uplifting these communities. Black farmers are an extremely marginalized community in the United States, facing systematic oppression and systemic racism that actively affect their success and their presence in general.
I referred to Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think Revisited to study the rules of modern web design for maximum usability. I chose a few of these concepts to focus on in my design.
We brainstormed research questions that would allow us to come out of this study with the best understanding of the experiences of Black farmers so that we can prioritize their representation moving forward. We started with a specific focus on their interactions, marketing, and communication tools they use to present themselves to their communities.
Initially, locality was a large focus as local consumption is becoming more and more crucial in our society. We looked deeply into local farm culture and practices before coming to the conclusion that this was an issue that went much further and wider than our surrounding cities. Looking at the experiences of Black farmers across the nation, however, allowed us a better understanding of the scope of this field, bringing forth knowledge which we could later apply to any local setting.
After solidifying our research question, the next step was to look for fields and participants that would guide us to an answer to our question. Although we were not limited to social media platforms through our question, being restricted to virtual settings did not leave much room to discover different spaces in which farmers were interacting with each other or with their communities.
After searching through popular social media platforms, we found that Instagram had the highest number of accessible accounts run by Black farmers. Facebook provides a space for Black farmers to connect with each other through multiple different Facebook groups, some having over 20 thousand members. Reddit did not prove to be a space with much activity surrounding Black farmers, but we still set out to uncover how this space was being used by Black people, farmers, and as a tool for marketing and communication in general.
We defined our field with over 20 Instagram accounts, 5 facebook groups, and 2 subreddits: R/Farming and R/BlackLivesMatter.
Following recruitment, it was time to go out into the field. This step consists of observation in defined fields and interviews with willing participants. As a group we completed over 20 hours of observation (12 of those hours from my personal observations) and held 3 virtual interviews with Black farmers from across the nation.
Observation looks different in a virtual space than it does in person. Ethnographers are usually physically present in a particular place in which subjects spend the majority of their time, examining their physical environment surroundings and the ways they interact with these spaces. In our virtual observation, we followed this model in a virtual environment, more specifically - Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit.
In the field, we focused on analyzing the content that Black farmers post on these platforms and their interactions with their clients and their community. During this research, we found that the vast majority of interaction between Black farmers is done on Facebook groups, while the majority of interaction between Black farmers and other audiences is done through Instagram.
They use Facebook to educate one another and provide support and encouragement to other Black farmers. They use Instagram as a tool to educate, market to, and interact with other farmers and anyone else who is interested in their work or their mission. Reddit, while a great tool for discussion and debate, did not prove to contribute to the representation of Black farmers. Through observation on these social media platforms, we were able to discover what social media community means to them and how they can use it as a tool of representation.
On one of the first days of observation, I came across a Black farmer in North Carolina who recently shared a post in which they recalled an encounter with a customer at a farmers market. “I often speak about my farm and my experience at farmer markets with my caregiving clients, all of who are white… Last week one client said ‘I’m sorry to ask but why is there a Black Farmer’s Market?’ I leaned in and unapologetically said
‘Because all of the others are white.’
They went on to explain the historical downfall of Black farmers in America, highlighting the decline of the population within the past century. Although over this period, it was Black farmers who innovated methods that remain at the core of sustainable agriculture today.
Within the same post, this user also promoted the Black Farmers Market in Durham, NC, emphasizing its importance as an economic outlet for Black farmers and entrepreneurs to thrive. This farmer does not only use their platform to market themself and share anecdotal experiences, they also shine light on issues in the Black and Black farming community.
Meanwhile, a new farmer uses their platform to promote their crowdfund that will support a teaching farm for Black womxn and Queer folx through reparations. By posting about it consistently and receiving financial and community support, they have already raised $30K within the past month.
Although these were just a few of the first posts of many observed on Instagram throughout this period, they are extrememly represenentative of the ways in which Black farmers are using Instagram: to educate their audiences, promote themselves, and support their communities.
Facebook users seemed to utilize Facebook groups for similar purposes. The difference being that instead of using the space to communicate with random audiences, Black farmers were communicating with other Black farmers. This provided a safe and comfortable space to discuss issues and happenings, ask questions, and learn from others with similar experiences.
In a Facebook group with over 20K members, a user made a post requesting advice on what to do with a certain plot of land and received over 100 helpful comments. Some were advice from personal experience, others were warnings about Black farmers being ripped off and losing their land.
Another member posted in the same group wondering why there are so few Black farmers on YouTube. There were at least 10 comments suggesting that it is too difficult to farm and record at the same time or to manage a YouTube account when you are out in the field all day. One user commented that they watch farming videos every day, and that 98% of the farmers on YouTube are not Black. Members of this group used this as an opportunity to share existing YouTube accounts run by Black farmers, and to let each other know that they are in demand.
Reddit did not prove to be a space that provides representation for Black farmers nor Black people in general. R/Farming only had less than 10 posts about Black farmers - none of them within the past year. The only activity regarding Black farmers was found through searching the entirety of Reddit under the keyword: Black farmers. A few of these posts were relevant to our study, but they did not properly or effectively provide representation for Black farmers. The most relevant information from Reddit came from observing activity on R/BlackLivesMatter, where we could observe how prominent Black issues are being represented on the platform.
While reading through a heated debate on the relevance of Black-on-Black crime in conversations on police brutality, it became increasingly evident that in conversations around race, who says what matters. In this same post, a user had a tag that read “Verified Black Person.”
I looked into the meaning behind this tag, and found that Black people have minimal representation in predominantly white spaces.
"Black people are more represented on Twitter’s user base than they are in the population at large.”
R/BlackPeopleTwitter, the most popular forum on Black culture on a white website, gained its popularity when moderators noticed that users were pretending to be Black and had to start verifying Black users, which angered white users causing the subreddit to trend. R/BlackLivesMatter is also a trending topic right now, and is the next most popular space for Black representation on Reddit, leading to the conclusion that Black people gain representation in white spaces through trends (visibility).
works with students to ensure that they are provided with resources and led on a path to success.
is constantly working against the stigma toward being a Black person and working outdoors.
is building a farm that is a safe space for QTBIPOC people through the support of reparations.
Note: Identities altered for confidentiality
Kane is originally from West Africa, but understands that the history surrounding farming and owning land as a Black person in the United States has led to a resentment of the farming profession. He wants to show young Black and brown people that farming is both respectable and possible. He cares about his community and gets involved by working with and employing local students.
Living and working in a marginalized community, he recognizes the lack of visibility for resources that exist to create opportunities for Black and brown folx. He believes in the importance of educating and preparing young people for their future goals through their involvement on the farm, whether or not those goals include farming.
"Students are my core value. I wouldn't be here without them."
Johnson is passionate about interacting with his community - especially young, innovative people - so that they can work towards building their own systems to be able to support themselves. He always wanted to farm but didn’t have any teachers, so he set out to teach himself. Once he learned about the system, he realized that there are many laws and restrictions in place that obstruct land ownership and control in the Black community.
With an educational background in film and agriculture, he uses the knowledge he’s gained throughout his life to educate others through his platform and through working on the farm.
"I'm trying to break the stigma that a lot of melanated people have when it comes to farming because of slavery."
Hazel approaches farming with an awareness of the laws and restrictions in place that obstruct land ownership and control in the Black community. Through traveling and connecting with others with a similar mission, Budd has been able to meet many people, including a white person with a trust fund who was willing to divest in their farm as a reparations project.
Following the values of their Maroon ancestors - autonomy and freedom - Budd set out to build their farm as a safe space for Black and Indigenous people. They have built their own chosen community of farmers, educators, abolitionists, and more who are all working toward the same mission through supporting each other. On social media, Budd naturally keeps their audience educated through including Black history and ancestry in their discussions around farming.
"We are not represented on Turtle Island."
With over 100 pages of data to comb through, we had a 3-day time frame to analyze the data, answer our research question, and construct a report on our findings. We approached analysis in the form of a concept-ordered matrices. This was a table that helped us recognize patterns in analyzing our observations and interviews.
Themes that stood out while analyzing our research data were community, education, accessibility, and oppression. As a Black farmer, you are a part of a society that offers you little to no representation. This is why the most important resource for almost every Black farmer we observed or interviewed was community.
When representation is so limited, it is important to have a strong community to support you. Black farmers within supportive communities use the knowledge that they have acquired to educate each other. This leads to forms of representation becoming more accessible.
Not only is representation scarce for Black farmers, but they are forced to be their own representation. They do so by using their platforms to shine light on their livelihood, share knowledge, and spread awareness of history and the oppressive systems that they are forced to battle every day.
Finally, we articulated our findings in an ethnographic report. Requirements for the report were for it to be a dramatic, magazine-style write up of our findings in a minimum of 15 pages that clearly explained our process and answered our research question.
The report also called for at least one cohering metaphor. The metaphor we came up with is reflected in the title of the report - The Black Needle in a White Haystack. We felt that this metaphor effectively alluded to the difficulty of obtaining representation as a Black farmer, the lack of Black farmers in comparison to white farmers, and the inaccessibility of resources for Black farmers in the United States.
Representation is hard for Black farmers to obtain, and when it is obtained, it can be hard to maintain. Because it is so hard to find Black farmers outside of shared community spaces, many don’t believe they can have or maintain a platform because they do not see examples of it.
Representation is important because the way someone represents their personal history gives insights into how they make sense of the world, and how they understand themselves and their environments. Without representation, it is inherently difficult to understand or move on from the history attached to your identity.
In order for Black farmers to get the representation they deserve, they need access to the resources that are available to them. Safe, shared spaces are the most valuable of these resources because they are a reliable source of representation.
As long as we set out to undo the wrongs of this nation’s past, we must prioritize those who were wronged the most. This means actively and frequently searching for that black needle - no matter how dense the haystack - pulling it out and holding it to the light for the world to see.