Netroots Nation and White Privilege


Right before Netroots Nation 10 began in Las Vegas, a blogging colleague mentioned she could no longer attend and put her tickets up on twitter. The cost of the tickets was more than cost of an undergraduate class at our local college (not including fees). It was also more than other similar conferences that include radical and left bloggers but do not have the same political and journalism participation as Netroots. The difference in the blogger attendance at these conferences is striking as others like AMC tend to have more female and people of color participation while Netroots has more white male formally credentialed (including members or wannabe members of government) participating. At the same time, many bloggers regardless of race or class have been attending Netroots precisely because it has become the legitimated space to network and make a name for oneself that the powers that be on the Left will take seriously. The level of attendance also means that it is a great opportunity for bloggers across the spectrum to meet up and think about what they do as political change; yet, those excluded on the basis of cost are almost always bloggers of color, especially women and currently parenting mothers, and therefore the cycle of legitimacy-illegitimacy on the basis of race, class, and gender continues.


I raised the issue of class at Netroots on twitter with those who were able to attend and found myself inundated with private chats not only about class inequality but also its connections to race inequality at the conference. People alerted me to the fact that several panels on race issues had no people of color on them. Still others, took a solidarity stance with issues of racism and immigration while failing to acknowledge the way the identities they represented overlapped, including queer, female, blogger, etc. Other panels interrogate the Left Media and the ideas that by nature of being liberal you have the right to call yourself progressive or radical or even a change agent if your staff, on air talent, and advertising continue to promote white middle class normativity. The latter panels were met with considerable resistant on and off stage from the very media they were critiquing and many of the people at Netroots who see the conference as an entry point into that media.

As I was taking in all of these reports and matching them against video of the event I had seen over the years, twitter lit up with discussion of Mock ICE. It seems some of my favorite people where engaging in an ICE stop of white Netroots attendees for being undocumented on Indigenous land in order to raise awareness about not only AZ’s new law but also the privilege involved in being able to walk around freely in this country.

For many people praising AZ’s new Papers Please Law, the defense has been based on the idea that carrying and showing papers is not a big deal. They have argued that the law to have ID has always been on the books AZ is just enforcing it, and so documented immigrants should have no fear because they should have been carrying their information all along. Besides the many ways the law can be used to stop and harass anyone brown, that have already been discussed on this blog, the assumption that no real harm comes from carrying and showing your ID in the course of your day is based on the privilege to ignore stigma, spectacle, humiliation, and even time.

As one person stopped at the checkpoint said, “I was just going to get some lunch and they stopped me.” Imagine for a minute that you had to go to an important business meeting and you got stopped by ICE for no other reason than “looking like an undocumented person” and all of the people you were going to meet for the first time passed you on the street being shaken down by the police. Do you think you would be able to make that business deal? Do you think you would have a job to go back to? What if you were going to a lunch with friends and all of the restaurant patrons could see you being shaken down by the police from the big windows in the front of the restaurant? Do you think the restaurant would let you in and seat you? Or that you could eat in peace afterward?

When faced with having to stop and show paperwork, many of the Netroots attendees happily complied with the checkpoint. Some did so because they have the privilege of respecting policing authority and assuming it is in their best interest and others understood or came to understand the awareness action of which they were ultimately a part. Others, especially white male participants with actual journalism or government credentials felt differently (scroll to 59 seconds to avoid video of them setting up):

Not only did they refuse to participate, but as you can see from the video above, some even threatened to call the police. Failing to recognize the irony of the situation he was in, one white male participant not only said he would call the police but added that they would then ask for ID, twisting the word “you” at his would be Latino Mock ICE agent in ways that clearly implied “you look like an ‘illegal alien’ and I hope you get dragged in.”

Why so much vehemence at such a “progressive” conference?

I find myself going back to the issue of cost and credentialing. Netroots Nation is cost prohibitive. That means that many radical and progressive activists, particularly women and people of color, cannot attend. This year was likely more multicultural just based on its location in Las Vegas but other years it has not only included a huge attendees fee, and travel fees if you are not local, but also been in cities that are predominantly white and upper class making travel costs even higher for people outside that demographic. At the same time, the Democratic Party and established media have given more and more credence to the event and the people who attend it, including packing some panels with paid bloggers. No similar attention has been given to other conferences and subsequently to the bloggers who have made a name for themselves there. The divides represent a reproduction of pre-existing inequity in the media, the Left, and political power in this country. Beginning with class constraints that transform into racial and gender ones, ie the intersection of the three, this conference that was envisioned as progressive space, and no doubt included many progressive ideas and work, continues the fundamental flaws that plague most mainstream social change in the U.S. In other words, despite claiming progressive ideas, on many levels Netroots represents an idea that started with unquestioned class assumptions which manifest along gender and race lines. These assumptions reproduce inequality on the basis of legitimacy afforded attendees who are overwhelmingly middle class, white, and male over those who cannot attend or due to the constraints on attendance appear to be in the minority.

It seems to me that we, people on the Left, have been doing the same thing for too long while expecting and even congratulating ourselves on things being different. We make minor steps forward in the representation of a handful of women (usually also white) or people of color (usually men) and that is supposed to make up for the fact that mostly things stay exactly the same on both sides of the political divide. Fanon published in the 1950s and 60s. Wollstonecraft in 1792. And yet here we are, claiming social justice when our basic premises remain the same. Take a look at that second video again and then ask yourself what unacknowledged investments you have made and whether or not you have masked them with the words “radical” “progressive” or “liberal.” Just because you recycle doesn’t mean that you have not envisioned a world in which brown people take out the bins.

4 thoughts on “Netroots Nation and White Privilege

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Netroots Nation and White Privilege « Like a Whisper --

  2. Hi, my name’s Raven Brooks and I’m the Executive Director over at Netroots Nation. I saw your post and wanted to respond to a few things.

    First, our approach toward making the convention more accessible involves a few things. We do have a student rate (which it sounds like you would have qualified for). We have been working with several organizations each year to provide scholarships that cover the cost of attendance, the hotel stay and with a few of them air fare as well. This year we were able to send 75 people through Democracy for America, America’s Voice, and National Council for La Raza. We’ve expanded it each year and we hope to do that again for NN11 including working with the NAACP for the first time. Finally, we stream most of the content live so people can watch at home. This year we stream 60 panels and all of our keynote sessions.

    The event costs a lot to produce, and we’re not backed by some wealthy organization that can just make it happen. Each year we approach sponsors and small donors to subsidize the majority of the cost to attend.

    More can always be done, and we’re open to ideas, but as it stands we’re leading the field here among large progressive events.

    Secondly, I worked personally with the activists that setup the Mock ICE checkpoint to make it happen. They originally approached us wanting to do something on SB1070 and as we got into discussion this emerged after I suggested their target should be attendees and the media. For the past year we’ve been working closely with latin@ organizers and organizations working on immigration to put it on the progressive radar. We’ve specifically been targeting those people that call themselves liberal but react poorly as you have seen in the video. The video does capture a few people acting out, but overwhelmingly it was received positively and opened the eyes of many.

    We’re proud of what the Mock ICE checkpoint did, and were happy to play a part in making it happen.

    And that keynote they were entering? It was one I created to talk about civil rights in the modern era featuring Kate Kendell, Eliseo Medina, Tim Wise and Rev. Yearwood. As you might imagine all of those speakers pushed the audience quite a bit on the social justice and white privileged front.

    Finally, I’d challenge you to take a new look at what we’re doing. The photos you have are from 2009, and selectively chosen. This year if you look at all of our keynote speakers only 1/3 of them were white males. In terms of both the speakers and the content, our agenda was the most balanced and representative it’s been. I’d encourage you to look through it at and watch the videos as they come online.

    There is no organization taking these issues more seriously than we are.

    So in closing, if you’re interested in working with us on this in the future and providing your insight to some of these problems we’d welcome that. You’re welcome to contact me at _____.

    • Raven, let me start by saying I appreciate you coming by personally to offer more context to my post. I think the more information available, the more clear a picture readers can have of the event(s) in question. I think people will especially benefit from the link to videos of the conference panels as review of those panels is a glaring absence in this post (tho I did review footage and live streaming from several previous years). It would be great if you could provide a citation for the numbers quoted in your comment for readers as well. When I have the opportunity, I will take you up on the offer for further discussion.

      Some clarifications are in order here. This post is about the aggregate of events over the years and people involved, not individual actions or panels. What an individual person did or did not do at netroots is less important to me than the overall perception(s) and reality(ies) of the event. Based on an admittedly limited sample of respondents to questions about NN10 and review of NN10 real time tweets (as defined by those using the #NN10 hashtag) it seems there are disconnects between the intentions of inclusivity you have outlined and the experienced realities of several participants; I don’t think these disconnects make either untrue.

      Your comments seem to imply that the people who learned from the Mock ICE event are missing in this post. Yet I clearly mention them and they are included in Nezua’s video, which I included specifically because it has both sides. From what I understand from organizers of the event and the immediate reactions to it, there were several people reacting with white privilege to the event and those people, whether the vocal minority or otherwise, require critical attention particularly in the context of interrogating the privileges that remain on the left. This is not something unique to Netroots but rather a larger and ongoing problem in “progressive” circles in general.

      Second, the pictures for this post were not “selectively chosen” and they are not both from NN9. They were chosen from the first several hundred pictures I viewed on Google, not having taken any myself. And they were chosen based on clarity of faces, clear documentation that they came from the Netroots Conference, and recognizable participants. The Google search only brought up 2 photos in that group with people of color in it. You will also note that the second image, which is from NN9, has more women than men in it and that I am drawing attention to both white male class privilege and white privilege in this post. For me both of these privileges need to be interrogated wherever they occur and especially where they can and do recreate inequality in how we legitimate voices, writing, credible sources, etc.

      To argue that “There is no organization taking these issues more seriously than we are.” given the implications of behaviors clearly documented at Netroots does a disservice to the good work that is being done at Netroots as well as elsewhere, and threatens to minimize the critical interventions that you say you were a part of and that need to continue. Even if no one had engaged in class, race, or gendered privileges to assume that you all have it down better than anyone else working on progressive issues speaks volumes about where your blindspots maybe.

      The breakdown of potential help with funding is also much appreciated. As faculty, I am less concerned with what I can afford and more concerned with what is available to underfunded students and impoverished community members and how accessible the information is to them. As your comment points to, funding is a critical issue in this post.

      I hope this brings some clarity to my perspective on the event and I do hope we have a chance to talk more thoroughly in other forums. I appreciate the offer to do so.

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