Introducing Privacy Black and White: a collaboration between PRIVACY, In the Same Sea, and CopeNLU

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the kick-off of PRIVACY BLACK and WHITE, a new research collaboration between In the Same Sea, CopeNLU, and the Centre for Privacy Studies.  Our project will tackle the role of privacy practices in the development of slavery and racism in the Caribbean-European colonial nexus (c. 1600-1850).

Under the joint leadership of Gunvor Simonsen, Isabelle Augenstein, and Mette Birkedal Bruun, our team will count with one postdoc from the Saxo Institute representing In the Same Sea, one PhD candidate from the Department of Computer Science, as well as Natacha Klein Käfer and myself, from the Centre for Privacy Studies. In addition to doing research, I will also act as the project’s coordinator.

From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun
From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun

From roughly the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, Europeans were responsible for the abduction and enslavement of c. 12,5 million Africans. In that context, property practices, religious beliefs, sexual mores, philosophical ideas of European origin, all helped to shape the racialization of manual labor, resulting in centuries of exploitation of Black people in Caribbean colonies as well as elsewhere in the American continent. Strategies for regulating access to bodies, goods, and ideas are at the core of the colonial exploitation, and these ideas are also crucial for our understanding of privacy. Africans and their descents also resisted appropriation of their bodies, notably through marronage, something that we can study as a strategy to obtain privacy. Can we find traces of these long term, trans-imperial developments in the historical texts we study? This is part of what our team will explore.

My own research within the project will focus on studying European discursive practices in print that undergirded justifications for the reproductive exploitation of African women. I am also interested in discursive representations, across different imperial borders, differentiating between European and African women. Women were crucial for the economic success of colonial enterprises and the enrichment of European imperial powers. I will draw from my experience on the history of women from different linguistic communities. Some of the questions I have been thinking about are: what did people of different religious or philosophical persuasions say about the enslavement of African women and of African children? What differences can I find between discourses present in early periodicals, for example, and religious literature, such as printed sermons and published devotional manuals? How about legal treatises and slave codes?

To tackle research questions stemming from a trans-imperial context, we need to examine a lot of historical documents. This is why we will use a collaborative intelligence approach that combines historical methods with purpose-built NLP tools capable of dealing with the complexity of our historical material. Building on the NLP paradigm of cross-lingual transfer learning, we will develop models that can handle temporal, geographical, and gender variations in cross-lingual contexts. Then we will train our classification models based on these representations.

Our project will run from 2021 to 2024.