Lily White

This is a post about decades of science. This science doesn’t fit the normal template of “science,” of experiments and testable hypotheses and the like. Then again, a lot of research on humans rarely does. We’re humans, after all.

Still, this post draws on many, many years of peer-reviewed empirical work. This body of work has focused on how people classify and judge each other, and how power is inevitably part of how humans interact.

The case I will examine is what happened with Danielle N. Lee, a young African-American biologist. Dr. Lee has her own blog, Urban Scientist, part of Scientific American blogs. Last Friday, Dr. Lee posted on being called an “urban whore” in an email from an editor at Biology Online. They asked her to write something for them, and Dr. Lee refused once she learned that she would not be compensated for her work. The Biology Online emailed her back, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Dr. Lee addressed what this email meant to her in the context of being a professional scientist who is also an African-American woman. You can see her video response here, and find her overall post here at Dr. Isis’ website. The reason for that is Scientific American took her post down. They didn’t consult her. They just removed it.

The first indication of why came in a tweet from Mariette DiChristina, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. She wrote, “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area and was therefore removed.”

In other words, the Scientific American reaction was one of determining boundaries and what counted as appropriate or not.

An important question becomes, Why?

DiChristina penned a response today, highlighting her position as Editor-in-Chief in the title of the post.

We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature [prejudice and inappropriate treatment]. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests…

There are many ways to interrogate the response from Scientific American’s editor-in-chief. The comments on DiChristina’s post are an excellent place to start. But I’m not so concerned here about the mop-up after negative press. I’m interested in what happened and why on Friday. Here are some insights garnered from anthropology.

These insights come in two linked sets. First, in a confrontation like this, race, gender, and class inevitably come into play. All three are on vivid display, though the one I think might be quite important – class – is given the least attention. Second, power was exercised. Scientific American invoked their legal right, something the bloggers signed onto as part of the fine print, and summarily dismissed Dr. Lee’s post from their site. Obviously they felt justified in doing so. Part of the reason why has to do with race, gender, and class, but it’s not a full explanation. Scientific American surely thought they were in the right in more than a legal sense, and here ideology and money come into play.

Let me say here that, yes, this is my interpretation. That’s how a good part of human science works. It draws on decades of scholarship and applies it to a novel situation. It’s not an exact science, but it’s quite empirical – these sorts of things come up over and over again.

Let me also say that I am being quite specific here in my register – in the tone and quality of language, aiming for “scienciness” (think “truthiness”), a reasonable tone that evokes science and being measured and the importance of evidence and all that. In other words, I am speaking exactly like the white scientist who lives in a nice house that I am.

Gender, Race, and Class

Dr. Lee’s case just slaps one across the face with cultural anthropology’s triumvirate of gender, race, and class. She gets called an urban whore by a guy? In explicit contrast to her being an “urban scientist”? Gender is easiest of the three to evoke. She wants money to do what she does? – she must be a whore, making this guy’s life difficult.

Urban whore becomes the marked category, the gendered one. This is not rocket science. In fact, it’s a lot clearer than rocket science. Online writing has made this point again and again, so I won’t belabor it here.

For me, it’s the combination of race and class that is more interesting and more telling. One thing I admired quite a lot about how Danielle Lee wrote her original post was her use of language.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately: “Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

And then Dr. Lee code-shifted, moving to a voice that likely felt more comfortable to most readers of Scientific American.

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand. What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?

As David Kroll writes, “@SciAmBlogs permits “fuck” but not southern US, inner city vernacular. My hypothesis…”

Dr. Lee, it seems, made the mistake of sounding too ghetto. She let that part of her get out, and oh no, we can’t have that. Or as Editor-in-Chief DiChristina put it, “I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down.”

I wish I could sound so ghetto as Dr. Lee, but I’m the white guy, so I get to write like this. But I won’t get judged for letting my inner white guy out. I can have fun using words like “ghetto.” Not everyone gets that same easy permission.

Power: Ideology and Money

Gender, Race, and Class are pretty boring on their own. Well, for me at least, since they don’t really affect me all that much. (Ask the people they do affect, and you’ll get a much more visceral response.) But it’s also an interesting question of how gender, race, and class acquire so much social force. In anthropology, that question is often answered by drawing on the concept of “power.” Power inevitably affects social interactions between people, shaping what is acceptable and what is not, and often hiding what’s really going on in obfuscations that people generally find believable.

Ideologies do that sort of work. And science, along with being a way of generating an empirically-validated body of knowledge, also works as an ideology. Certain types of things get to count as “science” and other types of things do not. Dr. Lee’s post was not appropriately about “discovering science.” It was “too personal” and facts “weren’t verified.” And, quite simply, it was “therefore removed.”

But why was this post so threatening as to merit removal? It’s not about the red herring of Biology Online being an online affiliate of Scientific American (i.e., it pays for ads). Might it be because the post stands in such stark contrast to much of Scientific American’s audience?

Scientific American is quite specific about its audience. “Science Consumers Are High Wealth Consumers,” the press kit quite specifically states. And given the lack of any mention of minorities amidst its demographics, it’s easy to assume that not a lot of minorities are reading Scientific American. And, finally on the gender sider, for the magazine, it’s 71.9% male. Online, it’s a bit more balanced, only 58% male.

This sort of analysis shouldn’t be so easy. I shouldn’t be able to write this post on a Sunday night. But it’s just so obvious – gender, race, and class shape what has happened to Dr. Lee in profound ways. The ideology of science – of what counts and what doesn’t – becomes central to justifying what is done. And the publisher is very explicit about “protecting its interests,” which rely on the type of high wealth consumers who read the material that Scientific American publishes.

Why does this matter? It matters because what science is depends vitally on who creates and consumes science. Dr. Lee makes this point much better than I can. Last January she wrote the post, A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good.

For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.

-Lack of resources
-Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
-Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

The last part was prescient, wasn’t it?

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14 Responses to Lily White

  1. No Racist Anthropology says:

    Daniel, I know what you were trying to say by writing that you wish you could sound as ‘ghetto’ as Dr. Lee but you’re a White guy, but this essentialization is exactly the problem that Black scholars have to deal with and which ends up driving so many of us out of the academy. I can’t sound as ‘ghetto’ as Dr. Lee, either–and I am a Black woman. A Black woman from lily white Connecticut, with a Yale degree. My parents are African immigrants and I grew up around White people, so I don’t code switch. I’ve been ridiculed for being an ‘Oreo’ more times than I can remember.

    And yet having the same ‘lily white’ habitus and educational background as someone like you has done nothing–not a thing–to keep people–especially from my graduate program (current and former students, *and professors*)–from smearing me as a violent ghetto criminal for speaking out about my experience of racist-sexist verbal abuse and how I was censored and silenced for trying to talk about it and bring the same issues raised by the attack on and silencing of Dr. Lee to light–years ago. It was done nothing to keep people from seeing me and treating me as ‘just another violent ghetto thug’ or loud/ghetto Angry Black woman–all for writing about my experience of racism/sexism/academic exclusion–yeah, the same issues raised by Dr. Lee. Funny that.

    And that’s the great thing about retaliation against grad students, especially Black female grad students: you get listened to less when you don’t have a PhD, which is why angry professors have made a point of making sure I will never get mine for telling the truth about racism/sexism/implicit bias/racist intent v. racist effect that people like Kate Clancy and you can freely write about; and since I’m Black and female I already had less of a chance to be heard and taken seriously anyway, doctorate in hand or not, since I am really just seen as a stupid and violent “very dark-skinned” animal to be spoken for (like the gorillas of the racist poster which went up in the Berkeley Anthropology department, not so long ago and Jason wrote about on Savage Minds).

    Anyway, I am glad that you and Kate Clancy are writing about who gets excluded from science and why, but as Melanie Bush wrote in her AAA blog, in response to the Zimmerman verdict, we need to connect *all* the dots. Or, as I commented on Kate’s most recent SciAm blog post: if anthropologists can stand with a Black woman outside anthropology when she gets attacked for being a Black woman, maybe they can do the same for a Black woman in their own discipline?

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    • daniel.lende says:

      A very fair point, No Racist Anthropology. I struggled over that section of the post, and particularly my use of the word “ghetto.”

      You highlight one important reason why it does much more than I intended. As I think about it, I think it also means that I am assuming my primary audience is “white like me”. And obviously that’s a mistake, which you’ve aptly proven.

      To go further, one might say that I’m recreating the same categorization of “science” (who creates it and consumes it) even as I try to critique that. I just hope that in this case it’s two steps forward and one back, instead of the other way around.

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  3. Thanks for taking the time to write so well, clearly and with the insight that people need to, hopefully, learn the important lesson from this incident.

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  5. Kitty says:

    I have seen scientists treat women scientists in horrible ways, but it has been nothing to seeing how they treat not only black women, but people of color in general. There is some assumption that they are in graduate school or science because of some “affirmative action” program, so they can NOT be as smart as others. Somehow they were accepted or got in because of their color, not because of their smarts and hard hard work. The jokes are not funny, the “well nothing can happen to HER”. I can’t even imagine what happens when they walk into a job interview and people think “Oh black, not smart, because obviously got in on some exception.” I’m not a scientist, but family members are, and I also know that engineers of color and also female have the same problems (don’t even look at their numbers, it’s so sad)

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  7. Edmund Hart says:

    I have to say after reading this, I feel like you’ve not done a particularly good job articulating how this is about race or class. To begin with, you’re certainly right, the gender part is easy. The rest of it though seems to wreak more of a certain PC thuggery that pervades these sorts of analyses that see the world through these triumvirate lenses and must link them all together. I’ll try and follow your argument vis a vis race and class. The racist part seems to hinge on this statement:”Dr. Lee, it seems, made the mistake of sounding too ghetto. She let that part of her get out, and oh no, we can’t have that.”

    You frame this as she was censored for “sounding too ghetto”, leaving the reader to infer that “ghetto == African American” (Something my Jewish wife might object too, but I digress). I find this puzzling though. I grew up poor in rural New England with our own vernacular. I couldn’t publish a scientific article, or a piece in the New York Times (or almost any other paper for that matter) if I wrote like I spoke during my redneck upbringing in a trailer park, just as an African American raised in South Memphis couldn’t either. Does that mean all these publications are classist, or racist in the latter case, because they don’t let people publish in their chosen vernacular? I think not. In fact I couldn’t make sense of DNLee’s post when she wrote ”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!” , in my world, Ofek is a Hebrew name. Was she talking to her Jewish friend Ofek? I don’t know. This seems to be your sole argument for racism. Am I to infer that every time an African American is censored it is due to racism? Because unless I accept that premise, I find your argument to be untenable. Having rejected your race argument, I can’t really accept the class corollary you posit.

    To begin with, we have zero information about DNLee’s class. I have no idea about her class. As far as I know she grew up in South Memphis. I’ve never been to Tennessee, so I don’t know what sort of class implications this statement has. But your argument centers around this idea that SciAm caters to “high wealth” consumers. So the class motive is wrapped up in the idea of race, that SciAm is treating DNLee as if she were the great black menace and they need to shield their “lily white” wealthy readers from her “ghetto” language. Given that I can’t accept your proposition regarding race, it follows that the charge of classism can also be rejected.

    So while I certainly see the blatant sexism of the e-mail, I fail to see how it extends beyond that. At best one might argue that “There are no coincidences”, therefore this happening to an African American woman is by extension racist, but I can’t really accept that premise. Another reason the post might of been taken down seems much more plausible to me. DNLee’s post was essentially her venting about a legitimate injustice. I work for a company, with a much louder megaphone than I have on my own blog. But if I suffered some sort of injustice I couldn’t write about it on the blog, I would need to do it on my own (much smaller) blog. SciAm doesn’t want to be involved with essentially an interpersonal conflict between two private individuals. Now, perhaps if she wanted to frame the post as “The problem of blogging and getting paid” or “the pervasiveness of sexist blog editors” and use this story as a hook for a larger framework, that might be different. But it’s largely just her using SciAm blogs as her personal soapbox. Instead your analysis comes across as falling victim to the dominant paradigm in sociology/anthropology. Yes, gender / race / class are often tied up together, but any of the one does not necessitate the other two. This seems like a case where sexist jerk crossed the wrong person, and I think perhaps she might have chosen a different venue to vilify them, not her professional setting. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar after all.

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    • daniel.lende says:

      Edmund,
      Social causation doesn’t work in the way of classic cause-effect relations. You seem to want to treat it as an all-or-nothing proposition; for example, if a publication won’t publish in a certain vernacular, then it’s either automatically racist or it’s not at all. Either it’s a cigar, or no cigar.

      But people do think with cigars, just as they do things with class, race, and gender. So if someone is smoking a cigar, even if you take the cigar away, well, the smoke is still everywhere, its effect vividly there in the air, in people’s lungs, on their clothes, and so forth. The effect of the cigar is still there, even if the cigar isn’t.

      What happens with race, class, and gender is the cigar almost never gets taken away; it’s just there, burning. Societies mark us in certain ways, as belonging to certain categories. And the smoke still billows out. So it then becomes a question of how we manage the smoke, how much we puff on the cigar, what sorts of meanings we place on the cigar and the cigar smoke, and so forth.

      I think it might have helped if you had read Dr. Lee’s original post more closely. You assume “Ofek” must be some slang. It’s actually the name of the now-fired editor at Biology Online. And you would also notice that Dr. Lee happens to African-American, and doesn’t shy away from showing herself as an African-American woman. And that’s a good thing. I only pointed to some of the linguistic shifts she employed in her piece, but I suggest you check out the original, including her video, as she is such an articulate young woman in whatever register she decides to use.

      I’m a bit flabbergasted that the contrast of urban scientist to urban whore is only a gender issue for you. You write, “While I certainly see the blatant sexism of the e-mail, I fail to see how it extends beyond that.” Scientist and whore are also occupations, and the contrast carries very weighted distinctions in class – certain types of people get to work as scientists, and certain other people work as whores. The initial debate was also around the issue of money and getting paid for work, which again relates to class.

      You highlight the legal side of things, that “SciAm doesn’t want to be involved with essentially an interpersonal conflict between two private individuals.” First, you might look to my follow-up post on the benefit of the doubt and who gets it and who doesn’t. I’d be fine with that stance from Scientific American if they didn’t apply a different standard in different cases. But that hasn’t happened.

      I also dispute that this is simply an interpersonal conflict. It’s clearly not, not in how Dr. Lee wrote about it and not in the many issues that it has raised among the science blogging community. Furthermore, the law is not the lily white thing you make it into. It’s also a reflection of society, and I think if you speak with some African American friends, they will tell you about the long and ongoing history of how the law is used against them. In my own work, that is most apparent in how drug laws are differently made and enforced for white communities and minority communities.

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      • Stephanie says:

        Why couldn’t Occam’s Razor be employed here? While I don’t agree with it at all, I don’t think SciAm’s removal of Dr. Lee’s post had anything to do with her use of “ghetto vernacular” or her gender or even her class. It was taken down within an hour of being put up. That’s an awful lot of discussion to have to make a decision about a post that was taken down so quickly. I think it was taken down simply because she named the person who had called her a whore, in writing, and the first thing that anyone thought about was a libel lawsuit, and that’s why they (the editors) wanted to verify the facts asserted in the post. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. (Also, I fail to see how “urban” equates to “Black”. To me it means “city” but maybe I’m just naive’ enough to believe that race and/or class should not be the first thing one thinks of when categorizing another or even themselves.)

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