New professor Kuo studies links between race, social movements, and media

Rachel KuoRachel Kuo, a new assistant professor in media and cinema studies, is interested in the ways that media can be used for social and cultural change.

As a scholar, educator, and writer, Kuo examines how race intersects with grassroots social movements and media technologies.

“There are ways that different fields conceptualize power that really change how we understand things like freedom, agency, privacy, and publicness,” Kuo said. “For me, if we put race at the center, how does that really change how we understand both media and politics?” she asked.

Her current book manuscript, Movement Media: Racial Solidarities Across Platforms, focuses on cross-racial solidarities and media-making. Kuo has also authored several journal articles on anti-Asian violence, social media activism, and digital feminism.

“I've always been interested in this question around solidarities across uneven difference, like race, class, and gender,” Kuo said. “People experience the world in different ways, and also are differently exposed to issues of racism, sexism, and classism in ways that are not comparable.”

This fall, Kuo is teaching MACS 351: Social Aspects of Media, where students will explore methods for studying media in relation to structural systems, cultural content, and social functions.

“A through line in all of my classes tends to be: How do you connect the historical to the contemporary? And how do you think critically about power?” Kuo said.

Kuo is excited to work with undergraduate and graduate students across the College of Media and to continue thinking through the questions about race, politics, and power she’s had her entire career.

One research project she’s working on consists of analyzing community oral histories, specifically learning about diasporic Asian American experiences with transnational information systems as a way to study contemporary mis- and disinformation. Tied to her new work on transnational politics and media, she is serving as the research facilitator for the Asian American Disinformation Table.

She also is co-editing a special issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies on Asian American abolition feminisms that center visions of community care, safety, healing, well-being, wholeness, and liberation.

Kuo is a founding member and current affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, a space for scholars of color to collaborate, share their research, and network with one another. She is co-editing a book series on race and digital studies through NYU Press.

Prior to joining the faculty in the Department of Media & Cinema Studies, Kuo was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She earned both her master’s degree and PhD in media, culture, and communication from New York University, where her work on solidarity primarily focused on online activism, such as studying tweets and hashtags, and also using archival methods to study media histories of social movements.

Since then, her research has shifted to trying to understand the processes less visible in social movements. Kuo said that looking at the news media cycle during the pandemic aided this aspect of her research. 

For example, mainstream media coverage of the increase in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic was often disconnected from the work of Black liberation movements at the same time. Having researched Black and Asian solidarity, Kuo said that it’s not about one community versus another but about shared collective struggle.

These questions are also the basis for a co-edited anthology called Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities, a collaboration between the groups Black Women Radicals and the Asian American Feminist Collective, and extending from their partnership with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Kuo is a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective, a grassroots racial and gender justice group based in New York City.

“It’s important just to have spaces where we can talk about our different histories and lived experiences, and talk about that in relation to what’s happening in the world,” Kuo said about the collective. She added that it’s also important to “continue to build feminist theories and practices that are grounded in our lived experience, but not solely limited to that.”

The collective also shares zines and community tools on topics like care and safety related to the pandemic or anti-Asian violence. Kuo said working on the zines is one of her favorite things to do, combining her passion for creative storytelling and social justice.

“If you’re trying to think about the ways that your research can move and live in this world, there has to be some level of creativity,” she said.

Kuo looks forward to continuing this interdisciplinary work as well as growing some roots back in her home state of Illinois.

—Vivian La, Communications Intern