WordPress Fail

The one where I question WordPress’ decision to highlight a Black Face apologist post over the reported 297,850 posts made this am from which they had to choose “Entertaining, Enlightening, and inspir[ing]” content

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have seen more diversity of topics and identities represented on the Freshly Pressed page than I have ever seen on it in the entire time it has been in existence. No one at wordpress.com has commented on this post but they were aware of it (I sent in a link).

UPDATE II: it took 2 weeks before they returned to highlighting racialized posts about black people and 1 month before they started in on questionable posts about Asians; today’s Fresh Press included a post by a white woman entitled “I Think I am Becoming Asian PART ONE” (emphasis mine). The insistence on highlighting the colonial gaze as representative of the top .003% brilliance on wordpress is appalling. If you blog here, please ask why authors who are not writing from this vantage point, you know the other 99.997% of us, are not as intelligent, amusing, or brilliant in the eyes of wordpress Freshly Pressed editors because I think just asking that question will make you wonder about what the focus has been here lately.

For those who don’t know, a colonial gaze is a viewpoint in which whiteness is naturalized, central to the argument about other cultures, assumed of the audience, and used to otherize non-white cultures in ways that are either meant to be amusing or belittling but ultimately reaffirm whiteness as normal and right and everything/one else as “odd”, “weird”, and essentially lesser whether it is the intention of the author or not. It can be held by members of the dominant culture and internalized by those outside of it. It operates in a hegemonic way, ie so widespread that it seems natural and normal rather than a biased and culturally specific way of perpetuating inequality.

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I came here this morning with a list of smallish posts on current affairs and pop culture to write, ie a typical day @ the blog. I remember having something about

  1. oil protests at the White House by women that didn’t get much coverage
  2. the arrest of Joran Van der Sloot
  3. the return of True Blood and the rewriting of Eggs murder as a key plot point

I was going to close with an amusing video first scene on Rachel Maddow’s blog where a fake border check point was set up by a white podcaster to stop people of European decent on the basis of their appearance to prove a point about racial profiling and AZ. It was a tidy little list that I hoped would generate conversation on twitter (where most of my commenters talk back these days) and maybe even here (like the old days).

However, much of my plans fell out of my head when for the second time in just-slightly more than 1 month wordpress highlighted a racialized, if not [internalized] racist, post on its main page.

BBC Asian Network/ Unattributed

For non-wordpress users, when you log in to wordpress you are diverted to the “Freshly Pressed” page which highlights 11 “outstanding posts” for readers. Unlike other blog formats that allow you to do some level of intelligent searching on your own or rotate through a medium list of newly posted material throughout the day to peek your interest, wordpress offers a static “Freshly Pressed” page and then a series of links inside your blog that are somewhat tailored to you like “tag surfer” and “blog surfer.” The difference between the former and the latter two options is that the former is visible to everyone who comes to wordpress looking to open a new blog or logging in to an existing one. The same 11 posts show throughout the day.

Roughly 1 months ago, 4/28/10 to be exact, I complained on Twitter about the trend I noticed in the “Freshly Pressed” section of highlighting content I felt was radically different than what was highlighted in the past. Before “Freshly Pressed”, wordpress highlighted both the most recent posts posted to the site from any blog and also highlighted specific blog posts they found interesting. These posts ranged in content from fluffy tv episode reviews to environmental disasters, race politics to restaurants to try, etc. In other words, it was wide and varied and often encouraged readers to find people like them and people who were posting completely different but interesting content. It also focused somewhat on new blogs so that you always got a sense of who was signing up.

Vanity Fair

In my tweet, I asserted a marked decrease in the variety of posts highlighted at wordpress as well as an over all trend toward a particular hipster perspective. I felt this trend, though certainly reflective of a section of blogs published on wordpress and often interesting, was leaving out a large cross section of wordpress blogs and bloggers. I pointed out that on that day’s “Freshly Pressed” page I had been directed to a blog that linguistically replaced “African Queens” with a white woman who was dating an African; the post in question also staunchly denied white privilege, basic, documented, immigration patterns, and offered up nothing about her relationship while chastising people for critiquing it from a decidedly privilege-ladden and defensive stance. I was appalled. And so were most of my tweeps. In fact it generated a heated discussion which I myself stopped by saying it wasn’t worth all of the energy we were spending on it.

A few hours later, wordpress’ official blog sent out a list of criteria for how they choose their “Freshly Pressed” posts,which included the general guide that chosen posts “represent how WordPress can be used to entertain, enlighten, or inspire.” (emphasis mine) and the specific criteria summarized below:

  1. “Unique content free of bad stuff” – bad stuff defined as “plagiarism, hate speech, fear-mongering, adult/mature content, improperly used images that belong to someone else, spam or content that is primarily advertorial
  2. includes images – especially your own or those properly cited “We like original images (meaning, your own), but if you don’t have any of your own and decide to use someone else’s, be sure you properly credit the original source” (emphasis mine)
  3. tags
  4. typo free
  5. compelling headline

Since this set of guidelines has appeared, I have seen any number of posts on the Freshly Pressed page that do not meet one or more of the expanded criteria for guidelines 1 and 2. They are especially lax with regards to highlighting posts without proper citation of images or adult content (at least twice in the past few weeks I have seen posts highlighted with closeups of women’s breasts or suggestive shots implying upskirt images). They have also on occasion included arch-conservative political posts that are clearly “primarily advertorial” in content.  I’ve actually applauded the inclusion of the latter, not because I agree with them in anyway, but because I thought it showed an effort on wordpress’ part to represent the viewpoints of more of its blogging community. The seeming lack of the commitment to showing a wider range of blogs and bloggers, especially with regards to “identity based” social justice posts in favor of content that directly negates it, is at the heart of my original complaint. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the posts highlighted during the days I logged in for the last month did not meet 1 or more guidelines. But I don’t work at wordpress and honestly, after noting an overall lack of diversity in the authors and the content they highlight (they do seem to gravitate toward posts about Asian food and Asian pop stars but other than that …) I just kept blogging. After all, it is not like their decisions are any different than any other liberal organization around (which means they are guilty not that they are all excused).

It was probably easier for me to shrug off the trend because I have no personal investment in being highlighted. I have my group of loyal readers and I believe in my content enough that I don’t need outside validation. I have also had my previous blog highlighted more than once by wordpress before the onset of “Freshly Pressed.” Not only did that bring in readers I still have, it also gave me faith that the trend I noticed could be reversed at any time and people who write about racism, feminism (non-mainstream feminism), classism, etc. would once again have their numbers reflected in what wordpress highlights. Put another way, I know that people writing about politics from and identity from a social justice standpoint make up a large enough percentage of wordpress blogs that their marked absence from “Freshly Pressed” is both disconcerting and hopefully unsustainable based on the circulated guidelines.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

However, this morning, I logged in and saw a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE highlighted in the “Freshly Pressed” section. According to wordpress’ own statistics, there were 297,849 posts besides this one to choose from this morning. That means that wordpress believes a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE is in the top .0003% of its total posts for the day in terms of its ability to “entertain, enlighten, and inspire.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Done?

If we judge this post on the basis of the circulated criteria it is a whole ball of fail:

  1. it contains an uncited photo that belongs to someone else
  2. while it does not include hate speech, and I do not believe the author meant to be hateful or offensive, it is a post whose primary thesis is that modern day black face in the media, and its current popularity in the fashion industry in particular, is acceptable
  3. the post itself starts by calling up the controversy it is about to examine and then takes a decidedly offensive tack, ie justifying black face (yes I am going to keep saying it), which by definition would make it advertorial by nature

In other words, like so many other highlighted posts in the past year, THE BLACK FACE IS OK POST HIGHLIGHTED BY WORDPRESS THIS AM OVER 297,849 OTHER POSTS DOES NOT MEET WORDPRESS’ OWN GUIDELINES FOR HIGHLIGHTING

What then can we surmise about how this post beat out the 99.9997% of posts to grace every wordpress user’s login page and global dashboard?

  • Was it “Entertaining“? – Minstrel shows brought in a wide audience in their day and were based around the amusement of white people at their own myth – making about the lives, intelligence, sexual appetites, and ability to be a part of society of black folks …

Mammond 1899

The post in question, actually has no stated knowledge of minstrelsy or its history, which is no doubt why it JUSTIFIES BLACK FACE. It does not draw on racist humor that would at least clearly explain the racism behind choosing it as 1 of the top 11 posts available this morning. There is actually no humor, racist or otherwise in this post, unless you find the quoted thesis of the post, listed below, amusing for its pure lack of understanding about how subtlety and hegemony work with regards to U.S. racism:

“Her makeup and hair was well done and she was not dressed, I feel, in a way to construe any negative connotations to the black culture.”

I guess there is something entertaining about seeing Claudia Schiffer’s over the top blond hair (which I believe includes extensions) being completely ignored when the author praises the Halloween-esque Afro she dons in the side image as part of her BLACK FACE because:

“If she had a bad weave … then there might be a problem”

The wig is tacky and she does have a bad weave, but we are trained in this culture to believe white women’s hair is always long and straight and super model white women’s hair is always extra long and thick and straight, while black women’s hair is kinky and short unless they paid for a weave. News flash: from reality tv “stars”, to actresses, to supermodels, weaves are a common part of the job for white women. I can not say for sure Schiffer has some form of extensions in her hair for the image the highlighted author chose, but given the volume of it, I’m inclined to believe she does and that it looks bad.

  • Was it “Enlightening“? Often racism, internalized or otherwise, can enlighten us about how deep racism is in our culture and how willing white people are to search for and then highlight any black person who says what they are secretly thinking themselves, ie:

“The most Schiffer and Lagerfeld are guilty of is not being sensitive enough to the feelings of the black culture.”

I don’t however think illuminating the depths of hegemonic racism is the reason Imani’s post was highlighted today.

Black Friend Gag/Comedy Central

Instead, I think her post was chosen precisely because it does highlight what one or more people making the decisions at wordpress’ “Freshly Pressed” page think about race and racism, ie that black people are too sensitive and that intention matters more than action. Of course, it is a little hard to miss the intentions in the images in question here, but you’ll need to think like a racism apologist for a moment. More importantly it excuses racism and calls out “over-sensitivity” in the mouth of a black woman blogger. It is the classic “see even black people said it” moment that is making my intellectual and personal blood boil.

If wordpress believes there is truth value here, then we have to be serious about the question of “enlightening” content.

Imani argues two things:

  1. Schiffer’s BLACK FACE photo does not have any stereotypically negative content and therefore is not racist – this is presumably based on a classist argument in which dressing Schiffer up as a black escapee from the old tv show Dallas (ie an 80s millionaire complete with shoulder pads and gaudy jewelry) means they are not being offensive. First, class is not race. Depicting her as wealthy does not negate depicting her in a racist manner in the same way that a multi-cultural photo could still be guilty of classism or sexism, or even racism. Second, race and class are intertwined. And while Imani is right to point out that the most stereotypical images of black folks assume poverty, there is also the more subtle class critique of wealthy black people that include “uppity” and “declasse”.  In fact, if we wanted to stretch this analysis to its furtherest point, we could look at the decision to put Schiffer in an Afro rather than braids or puffs in light of the dressing down of First Lady Obama. More likely, though, the image seems to be taking the declasse tactic. In blackface Schiffer’s appearance is at once gaudy, with big flashy jewelry and glittery clothes, and out of time, calling up soap opera divas of the 80s rather than modern business women and economic powerhouses.  Schiffer’s white photo on the other hand, shows her in a classic black suit emulating a madonna-esque power ensemble of sex and money. (You should note the original image is sexist; it replaces Schiffer’s shirt with a black leather bra. Nonetheless she is the picture of modern vis a vis the outdated and gaudy attire of her “black” counterpart.) These images operate on multiple levels, calling into question the class attainment of black people on the basis of race while also sexualizing white women and therefore subsequently desexualizing black ones.
  2. Karl Lagerfeld, the photographer, didn’t have enough black models to use so he made do. “maybe it was the lack diversity in the people involved with the photo shoot” – Imani has no way of knowing who was at that shoot therefore her argument has no basis. More importantly, there are a bevy of black models available and like any other photographer, if Lagerfeld had wanted a multicultural shoot all he would have had to do is call the agencies and request models from the various races he wanted to represent. The same people who represent Schiffer also represent Brazilian, African, and Asian models for sure and probably also Latin American, Latina, Caribbean, and Black British or Black French models, so he would not have even had to make two phone calls to have a multicultural shoot. The bottom line is Lagerfeld chose not to use models of color because his goal was to produce BLACK FACE and that decision is part of a growing trend in the modeling industry right now that at its heart is incredibly racist. Racist because it erases the presence of women of color. Racist because it takes jobs and money from women of color in order to keep it in the hands of white photographers, designers, and models who will not complain about the racism in the images. Racist because often the images themselves rely on racist stereotypes both subtle and covert. RACIST because it calls up a history of oppression whose antecedents are still readily felt especially in the fashion industry.

Not only is the information Imani includes incorrect but she also edited out pertinent information I found only after writing this post while looking for images to illustrate it.

  1. Schiffer actually appears in both BLACK and ASIAN FACE – something Imani does not mention until the very last sentence and does not depict
  2. the photoshoot was done for a conservative German magazine which regularly peddles in racialized fantasies

This information would have been not only enlightening but also added much needed depth to our understanding of what is actually going on in the controversial images. It would also have undermined Imani’s entire thesis without having to do the kind of work I have done here to show its holes.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

The full spread speaks to the convergence of sexist, racist, eroticism that is entirely missing from Imani’s analysis. Where I writing this post as a response to her and not to wordpress, I would take time out to deconstruct each of these images for that content and focus on how overt racism and sexism are making a come back as the interlocking tools of choice to express racial fears across the West.

In other words, if we define “enlightening” as something that gives us new, in depth, or profound information this post fails on all accounts because it’s naivete about race, racism, and racial history make its argument wholly unfounded and unsupportable except in the minds of racism apologists. To be fair, Imani never set out to analyze the photos but rather to excuse away people’s reactions to them as racist. But to do one, you ultimate have to successfully do the other.

  • Does it “Inspire“? – it inspired me to rant for 30 minutes in this post and on twitter and encourage people to retweet wordpressFAIL citing racialized thinking as often as possible, but again I don’t think that is what wordpress meant.

Harem Fantasies/Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse Collection/ BBC

Forgive me while I do something I tell my students not to do when writing a paper. According to Webster’s Dictionary, inspire means:

1 a : to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration b : to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on

Divinity aside, this definition argues that there must be something deeply meaningful and moving in the posts highlighted by wordpress. And yet the only thing this post gives us is a racism apology from a black woman who actually believes that a famous photography did a black face photoshoot because he couldn’t find models of color to use …

I am not inspired, I am heartbroken.

For all the work we have done to teach people about oppression and how to analyze, organize, and decolonize around it, we still have young black women justifying their own oppression due to a lack of knowledge and white people justifying their own unexamined uber-subtle beliefs about race through them. Worse, in the last 4-8 years of teaching I have seen a profound failure to understand subtlety, history, or basic critical thinking (ie the ability to look beyond the surface image or first reaction to the deeper meanings and connect them to other information from the past and present) on the rise amongst N. American students. This lack of critical skills relates to any sort of analysis not just oppressions work which is always hard the first time out. I believe the problem stems from the “No Child Left Behind” testing culture of middle and high schools. As so many have already proven statisically and ethnographically, testing culture has thrown out critical thinking for “the right answer” and learning how to deduce it without having to think or engage beyond the flattened out multiple choice options presented students.

I am concerned about how a seemingly arbitrary decision about education has translated into such a wide gap in the ability of younger people to deconstruct huge systems of oppression and what it means for the perpetuation of racism, sexism, etc. Couple this with the TX textbook controversy, attempts to shut down multicultural ed in AZ and underfund/combine/dismantle ethnic studies, women’s studies, and queer studies at the university level across the country and a pattern of planned ignorance seems to emerge that raises any number of red flags. This planned ignorance is then reflected in the increasingly polarized conversations that neither look at facts nor evidence on and off the internet.

Part of mural in London c 1966/ The Latest.com

In the midst of these large battles, blogging was once a way to write back to abusive power. It was used by many to highlight the perspectives, experiences, and analytical skills of people largely left out or ignored by mainstream media, publishing, and academe. As blogging mainstreamed however, the ability for counter-revolutionary voices receded. Now Ashton Kutcher’s fart tweets, Huffington Posts paid posts, and Shock Jock’s witch hunts receive the bulk of attention while people blogging for the sake of writing what is not available or not available in any large and tranformal way anywhere else get relegated to niche.

WordPress has a unique opportunity as one of the largest sites hosting blogs or providing software to independent hosts. As of this morning, there are 293,224 people blogging on wordpress. People who have been repeatedly highlighted on “Freshly Pressed” have received book deals, speaking engagements, invitations to cover important national events, exclusive interviews, and even regular tv commentary spots. In other words, WordPress has the opportunity to highlight a wide section of the population and influence their ability to speak to much larger audiences as well as gain mainstream legitimacy. When wordpress decides to ignore the bulk of its social justice bloggers who blog about racism, classism, sexism and the like in favor of identity neutral, hipster funny, and occassionally sexist or racist posts it makes a critical decision to work against not only a portion of its writers but the social justice I still believe the people behind wordpress would say they support. When it highlights a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE, especially on the heals of promoting a post erasing black women and denying white privilege a month earlier, one has to question exactly what the real criteria is for “Freshly Pressed” and exactly what kind of influence wordpress is aligning itself with. WordPresss itself has failed to live up to its own guidelines for highlighting posts and this instance it has done so in the service of racialized thinking if not straight up [internalized] racism and as a 5 year veteran of the wordpress blog I call Bullshit.


5 thoughts on “WordPress Fail

  1. I’ve linked to this.

    Was there a recent corporate shake-up at WordPress? I know very little about it as a blogging service.

    I really suspect lately that an awful lot of people have already erased from memory everything that happened before 1992.

    • I don’t know. After looking through the faces on the wordpress admin blog I noticed 3 things: 1) there are a lot more of them than I remember seeing before, which can be a good thing, 2) almost all of the people posting from 4/28-6/8/10 were white – one man’s photo could have been a person of color, 3) they are all roughly the same age. So I think that kind of lack of diversity at the top certainly helps shift the perspectives they highlight.

      I also think it speaks volumes about how little the internet seems to vary from the real world now that the revolutionary fairy dust has fallen from our eyes. As an educator, who believed in ed as revolutionary from the beginning of my career, I guess I am most concerned about how little all our efforts to teach people to think critically have done for either the way we organize ourselves or analyze our lives/society even on the Left.

  2. The mentality of those in charge is reflected in what they print/sell/say, etc.

    Wonder if WP will respond? Not holding my breath, but, there is always the off-chance…

    • Truthfully, I had hoped they would, espec after the last time. I even linked this post directly to the admin blog so they’d know it was here. However, the sound of crickets chirps on.

  3. A very insightful read along with a great blog post alltogether. Would you mind if I use some of your info for one of my websites? I will obviously give you a hyperlink to this site.

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