Gender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n +1 (DRAFT)

DRAFT! Still under revision!

First draft July 26; substantial revisions August 2.

Originally written as a three-part conclusion to

Gender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n


The “mutual guest-blogging” project I’ve been leading on OpenLeft has been taking place in the context of a surprising amount of coverage of diversity issues in the blogosphere in the mainstream media recently. Articles like Amy Alexander’s The Color Line Online: Minority Bloggers Fight Inequality in The Nation and Karen Jesella’s Blogging’s Glass Ceiling in the New York Times (nicely analyzed by PhysioProf in Teh Laydeez Are So Cute When They Try To Blog on Feministe) are the highest-profile treatments I’ve seen of this topic since Jose Antonio Vargas’ A Diversity of Opinion, if not of Opinionators in the Washington Post a year ago.

It’s also come up in a broader context in stories like Jose’s Liberal Bloggers Brace for Victory in the Washington Post, and Kirsten Powers’ Net-roots Ninnies: Dem’s Left Dum Bam Slams in the New York Post.* As Kirsten, who’s also a Fox News reporter, says:

Newsflash to the netroots and the media (which seems perpetually confused on this issue): The netroots are not the base of the Democratic Party.

Overwhelmingly white, male and highly educated, they’re a loud anomaly in a party that’s wholly dependent on the votes of African Americans, women and working-class whites.

Not everybody sees it that way. Chris Bowers’ OpenLeft post The Myth Of The Non-Diverse Netroots, for example, presents a different perspective.  (See Is netroots non-diversity a myth?, as well as my responses in Chris’ thread, for my opinion.)   In the aftermath of the nastiness with race and gender we’ve seen so far this election year, with the McCain campaign and New Yorker throwing gasoline on the fire on the race and gender front and a lot of Democrats doing their best to get equally nasty about the age dimension, it’s certainly a good discussion to be having.

Mutual guest blogging on OpenLeft: what happened

The first mutual guest-blogging series, with a goal of bringing diverse voices and perspectives to OpenLeft’s front page, featured four amazing posts: Melissa McEwan’s Perfectly Logical Calculations, and Why They’re Actually Not, Pam Spaulding’s Sexism and racism – what lies beneath…, and rikyrah’s Update: Michelle Obama As Racial Rorshach Test. The broader discussion has been excellent as well, including Invasion of the QCoFM on Shakesville; cross-posts (with very different comments than on OpenLeft) on Orcinus, Pam’s House Blend, Jack and Jill Politics and Mirror on America; and most recently Sara Robinson’s An Open Letter to Open Left followup on Orcinus.

My summary so far in Mutual guest blogging: intermission and discussions elicited a lot of interesting responses, especially after I banned Paul Lukasiak for disrupting the thread, and then repromoted it a couple of times. Some email discussion then ensued between me, Matt Stoller, and Chris Bowers (Mike Lux was on vacation). When it became clear that we saw things differently, I offered to turn the reins over to somebody else and give up my front-page privileges, which they accepted.**

It’s somewhat disappointing in that this has the feel of a missed opportunity — look at the enthusiasm in the comments on Invasion of the QCoFM, skeptical admittedly but nonetheless an encouraging sign. In particular, there’s still time to address issues related to minority blogger representation at the DNCC***, but as long as the issue continues to be ignored in the progressive blogosphere it’s not likely anything will happen. I had really hoped that the bridges built here would lead to some progress on that issue. Sigh. There certainly are some things I’d do differently in retrospect … it’s difficult when everybody’s under a huge amount of time pressure and not used to working together.

Looking at things from a more positive perspective, though …

There were four great posts that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and hopefully at least some new audience for the guest bloggers — and readers for their own. We measurably affected the diversity of OpenLeft‘s front page, and several strong non-straight-white-male voices emerged in the comments. The threads are continuing to spark discussion, in posts like zuzu’s Hillary and intergenerational dynamics on Shakesville. And I think the series of threads captures the state of discussions about race and gender in the progessive blogosphere in June/July 2008 about as well as anything out there. These are great results from a first attempt.

What next? These have been amongst the more popular comment threads on OpenLeft recently, with voices and perspectives that are very different from the norm there, so I certainly hope that people will find a way to take it forward there. We shall see.

“As purple is to lavender”: some personal reflections

Over the last week, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into this project over the last several months — and unsurprisingly, gotten a much much more out of it than I put in. In the aftermath, how do I feel about it?

On a personal level, getting a chance to work with the guest bloggers was like a dream come true for me. Not only am I a regular reader of all their blogs, three of them are in my personal short list of best sources for political news. On top of that, one of the inspirations this project was first inspired by Melissa et. al.’s We Write Letters on Shakesville. I could scarcely believe my good fortune when their names came up in the nominating process. What a treat to be able to collaborate with them on something like this!

And on top of that, I made connections with a lot of people I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise, which is leading to new friendships — as well as a better base for activism. As I said in my wrapup post:

We’ve already seen some tangible evidence of that in a totally unanticipated way with the Get FISA Right movement: the connections, shared experiences, and developing trust relationships around the guest-blogging project made a big difference in our ability to use OpenLeft as an early base and start up quickly on Facebook. It also helped us keep the rapid growth going after key links from Nancy Scola, Dawn Teo, Jane Hamsher, Susan G, mcjoan, digby, Sarah Lai Stirland, danah boyd, and many others.**** A focus on diversity almost always brings some unexpected benefits; this was a doozy.

Moving on to implementation details, the mutual guest-blogging approach seems like an effective one, and the “mothership post” (coming soon!) is a significant improvement on the original idea. The clear documentation of goals and making the process as transparent and inclusive as possible both proved very effective. I made a major botch by failing to communicate what many people saw as a subject change; on the other hand, in my wrapup thread, I thought I dealt with Paul’s trolling fairly effectively. [The sequence of threads also provides a particularly good illustration of how guys, including me, tend to dominate online conversations due to volume.]

And of course, I learned a lot. debcoop and others gave me a much richer understanding of the ways in which many older feminists feel marginalized — and that as a result some of them are too angry to speak or so angry they can’t stop speaking. Conversely I think in some cases there’s a real lack of awareness that behavior and attitudes that have been tolerated in the past are seen and reacted to differently today. Not sure if there are any easy answers here but I think everybody trying to treat each other respectfully would help a surprising amount.

And rootless2’s comment is worth quoting one more time:

The “feminist” perspective is defined to be a particular political take from which Code Pink, Kate Michelman, and certainly Barbara Lee, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker, Lani Guinier are excluded.

Indeed (and a point I had completely overlooked about Code Pink).

In the discussions, I was repeatedly shocked at how little awareness of the womanist perspective there still is even among people who are knowledgeable about feminism. From Wikipedia:

Alice Malsenior Walker (born February 9, 1944) is an American author, self-declared feminist and womanist – the latter a term she herself coined to make special distinction for the experiences of women of color.

As Alice Walker says, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” . At the intellectual level, privileging feminist perspectives over womanist perspectives is just as wrong as privileging “the” definition of feminism. Ignoring the racial and intersectional implications of this is unexamined privilege.

It’s not like I’m an expert on womanism (or feminism for that matter). Still, you don’t have to do very much reading in the feminist or woman of color blogosphere before you run into the term, or run into the increasing number of women — including, I believe, at least two of our invited guest bloggers — who are very public about not identifying as feminists. And in any case, I really thought that after both Melissa and I made such a point of it, people who didn’t know the word would look it up and think about the implications.


Like I said above, I think we’ve captured an excellent snapshot of discussions of race and gender in the progressive blogosphere at this moment in time. Here was my attempt to summarize it:

  1. dudez in the progressive blogosphere (with many exceptions of course) and elsewhere are remarkably clueless about issues related to gender and race, unwilling to examine their language or privilege, in some cases actively misogynistic and racist, and become hostile while this is discussed
  2. they don’t get intersectionality either*****
  3. this is a real problem for the progressive movement, the Democratic party, the Obama campaign, Michelle Obama, and more generally women, blacks, persons of color, and most especially women of color everywhere. As Jane Hamsher says And the Big Announcement Is…, the conversation in the blogosphere is — I sincerely hope — about to change. So now would be very good time for OpenLeft to take a leadership role in addressing these problems in the progressive blogosphere.

Others’ diagnosis may vary of course. In any case, there’s a wealth of raw material here to study, both for those who want to change the dynamics as a whole, and for those (including me) who want to reflect on their own behavior and look for opportunities to improve it. And there’s still almost a month until the convention; maybe somebody can learn from this and figure out how to get the “progressive” blogosphere to start discussing issues of blogger representation in Denver in ways that reflect race, gender, age, and other dimensions as well as geography, partisanship, and status.

As for what next, we shall see. For the time being …

Thanks once again to all the participants: guest-bloggers Melissa, Sara, Pam, rikyrah; Aviva, sb, Paul, and Daniel for their help; those who helped come up to the original idea, including Natasha Chart for first linking to Melissa’s post, Taylor for suggesting it as a guest blog and dr anonymous for promoting it, and everybody for suggestions and refinements as it steadily evolved. Thanks also to OpenLeft for giving the space for this experiment; and to all the commenters, including sb, debcoop, Spitball, Englishlefty, fladem, Pam, Joel, Aviva, NCDemAmy, rootless2, L Boom, dr anonymous, sisterfish, Daniel, and Syrith in the “intermission” thread.

I hope you’re all as proud of what we accomplished here as I am. It’s been a pleasure working with you on this, and I look forward to collaborating in the future as well!


* I only ran into Kirsten’s article because she also mentioned Get FISA Right. Much to my relief, she confirmed in email that she didn’t think of us as ninnies. Interestingly, when I posted about it on the on the Get FISA Right message boards, two guys responded by attacking Kirsten without addressing her points, while the one one woman who responded thought as I did that she made some good points. But I digress.

** This in turn immediately led to some unintended consequences: my Get FISA Right, the video! was only on the front page very briefly, so it got more visibility on techPresident and NPR than OpenLeft 🙂

*** for example, by training minority delegates (who already have floor credentials) as bloggers and work with the state blogs to use their on-floor stations for filing reports. Not only does this give better diversity in the reporting from the convention, it also helps address underrepresentation in the blogosphere moving forward, both at the state level and the netroots in general.

**** guys linked to us too, of course

***** speaking of which, a resource I’ve found very helpful in understanding the intersections between race and gender is prof bw’s Feminist Reading Tools For Recognizing and Countering Racism on WoC PhD.