Wednesday, August 11, 2010

OMG Slate, really? (Not racist but not well thought out either)

Tonight, like most other nights, I was unwinding and goofing off on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Not really a surprise as that's how I make my living now and there are tons of articles and information that rolls across my screen pretty much 24/7.

I follow Emily Bazelon because she's one of the regulars on the Slate Political Gabfest. Emily sent out a retweet (RT). (A RT is just a message that someone decides to repeat to the people who follow them.) 

RT @fmanjoo: How black people use Twitter. My @Slate piece on the latest research on race and microblogging.

I've read Slate for years at this point. I know who Farhad Manjaoo is. Also, the title was enticing enough for me to click over. Honestly, I knew it was going to touch upon the hashtags that get really popular in black circles on Twitter. However, this is assumed because Twitter doesn't compile demographic info. Honestly, just because someone puts up a picture of a black person as their Twitter picture, can you really be sure? No.  But I really don't doubt the data that there are a lot of blacks who use Twitter.  On some level, we're having fun with it.

The first thing I see is this image:

OMFG! Um, okay...what?!!!

In almost all of the articles I read that have a depiction of a Twitter bird, the bird is blue.  However, this article is about black folks, so the bird had to be brown and had to have a baseball cap, right?

I'm not claiming it's racist.  

I'm claiming that it's insensitive and short-sighted.  I do wonder if it wasn't, on some level, intentional.  I mean now a lot more people are clicking over to see what the commotion is all about. They're also linking back to the article. That's good in this brave new Internet world.

I decided to send an @ reply to Farhad.  I was pleasantly surprised that he responded and seem to take a sincere interest in why I was not pleased with the image accompanying his post.

For the sake of completeness, let me post the tweets here in chronological order (as best as I can put them together at 2-something am). His stream is here and mine is on the side if you want to click over and scroll through both pages.
(These first three are in rapid succession.)


RT @fmanjoo: How black people use Twitter. My @Slate piece on the latest research on race and microblogging.

@fmanjoo brown bird and baseball cap? Dude, really? I guess a study focusing on whites will have, oh, wait...they get diverse images.

@fmanjoo Good article though. ;) 

(I didn't want to be too hard, so I balanced the criticism with a compliment. I'd read the article. I know this happens on Twitter. I know it's social scientists doing what they do, so okay. Another social scientist will have a theory on it and have his or her stacks of evidence and analysis to justify their conclusion(s) too. 
The author wrote about it. In the article he acknowledged that this wasn't a complete picture of black activity on Twitter and, for that, I say good job.  I have no interest in broadening my frustration with the image a critique of his writing.  That crosses to bitching because you just want to keep bitching.  It's the image I've got issues with.)


@ReginaWalton Glad you liked the article. But can you tell me what bothered you about the image? I thought it told the story well.

(Okay, here it goes.)


@fmanjoo Just wondering if the piece was on NE Asian Twitter users if a yellow bird w/ slanted eyes and a China chop would be on the page?

(I'd already brought up the question of what image would have been used had the topic been about whites and their use of Twitter. If a bird image was chosen, it would have been the standard blue variations that are so common. I'd bet you hard money on it. 
So, okay, let's broaden it to another ethnic group: NE Asians.  Hell, I lived in South Korea for eight years, I think that's a demographic that I can inquire about, right?)


@ReginaWalton It's tough to depict these topics in a way that doesn't offend everyone and is interesting and aesthetically pleasing.  

(I'm unresponsive and determined to bring this point home.)


@ReginaWalton I understand your criticism, but I wonder what drawing wouldn't be offensive for such a story. 


@fmanjoo It's the need to put an image that is racially distinct & draws on stereotypes that's irksome. Whites wouldn't get anything similar


@ReginaWalton I see what you're saying. I don't know how we'd have handled it had the story been about another race, but I see your point.


@fmanjoo i do understand that you can't please them all but it was the first thing I noticed after I clicked over to read it.

@fmanjoo We're sensitive about images depicting us. (Sometimes maybe too much). This seems to happen when the story is about black people.

@fmanjoo Thanks for asking me to flesh out my thoughts.

(Then it occurs to me! The perfect image to use? A composite image with a bunch of Twitter photos.  That's easy enough to throw together.  I have it on my Twitter page right now from  The real photos of the real people who are in this demographic, I think, would have been fair.) 

@fmanjoo oh a suggestion for an image that might have made the cut? A composite image like the one that's my Twitter page background. 

That's where it ended but for sharing a link with him.  However, I think it points to a larger problem.  The lack of black staff at these media companies.  Now, now...I KNOW has The Root.  I also know I asked Slate's editor, David Plotz, about why there were rarely any black commentators on Slate's Political Gabfest when they had a live Gabfest here in NYC.  I really do think that's staff is well-intentioned and did NOT mean to ruffle anyone's feathers.  

However, the fact is the image did.  I disagree with Farhad's assertion that any image would have gotten push back. (I do think you can't please them all, but that was the case way before the Internet.)  This image was based on a certain image from black American culture.  It's real.  I can walk out of my apartment right now and probably find a young black man with a baseball cap on somewhere in NYC.  

My point is, however, I can also walk out and find a black man in uniform coming home from work.  I can find a black man in a suit leaving a law firm office after putting in a hard day's work.   It reminds me of my father who'd work six days a week at a blue collar dock job and was almost always putting in overtime.  (He gave my mom the checks, trust me, he was clocking some serious overtime.) The image also cuts black women out. I know a lot of women participate in these discussions on Twitter because I'm connected to a couple of women who are always in the hashtag fray when it heats up.  I do sometimes poke my head in when the hashtags heat up and click on it to see who is saying what.  Women are well represented.  (Also, yes, I know women wear baseball caps too but a girl bird would have had long lashes or something indicate it was female.)

It just feels like a lack of awareness of the people who put this together.  Also, with there being very few blacks on staff, I don't think anyone black saw it or, if someone black did see, it they chose to not say anything. (However, I'd hope the environment at Slate is a bit more productive than that.) 

This is laced with a bit of frustration. Honestly, one of my best friends just got an awesome job.  He's also a blond-haired and blue-eyed white male.  I'm ecstatic for him. However, in contrast, I've been back in the States for over a year.  I've gotten a few job interviews, but I support myself now strictly with my freelancing.  

That's great on some level, but I'm still very much underemployed and off of the grid.  That's scary.  It's also really frustrating because I've got the education, the skills and the experience.  It makes me wonder how things would be different if I were a blond-haired and blue-eyed white female. Seeing articles like this doesn't help my perspective either: 1 in Every 4 Blacks is Underemployed, More Black Women Jobless.  It's frustrating because with all I've done, let me get on the subway and you can feel the judgment based on nothing more than me being black, casually dressed and usually having an afro.  

It also reminds me of the much more embarrassing kerfuffle with the release of a book called Love and Consequences in 2008.  Basically, a white woman lied.  She said she was half native American and that she was raised by a black foster family in the neighborhood where I grew up: South Central L.A.  This got her a book contract and enviable media attention just before the book was about to be released.  This set off alarm bells as soon as I heard the premise.  It's hard enough for white couples to adopt black babies. There is no way in hell the system is going to put a white child in the care of a low-income black family in a troubled neighborhood.  No way. I really believe had there been ANY black staff in the decision ranks they would have said as much.

Is it fair to apply that line of thought to this scenario? Maybe. Maybe not. Farhad isn't white.  However, he's also not black. I'm not saying that he can't understand, but I am saying if it was his choice to use that image, he's got to learn.  I had to learn about and understand the particular frustrations my Korean friends have regarding race, so I don't expect anyone who isn't black to know them right off. It's the same with any group, even whites.  Trust me, I've had white friends talk about their perspectives on race and theirs are valuable too.  The issue is the power structure. Which I won't get into as I've written enough.

The problem is usually no one wants to listen when the topic of race comes up because now it is about power.  It takes having an interest, having a dialogue, shutting off the excuses and actually listening versus merely having the dialogue to automatically dismiss what the other person is saying. (On that note this older post: Brilliant: Derailing for Dummies.)  I'm glad Farhad asked.  I'm glad we had a dialogue.  I hope he listened and truly understood my point.

Now it's time for bed.  It's way past my bedtime.

Here is a great blog from the instant vintage blog: ...oh, slate...(Side-Eye).  She's changed the image in question to represent a range of blacks and she'll be adding more.  I've adopted the one with the mortar board for obvious reasons. 

The Black Snob weighs in on the topic here.


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