Advertising for Traffickers

In 2008, one of my students in a global feminisms course I was teaching brought in a Google Ad for dating Indian women that kept popping up on her yahoo mail account. She pointed out how the ad capitalized on a generic image of Indian exoticism both in its images and text. She encouraged the class to consider what type of email they used outside of the university provided one because free email was being paid for through marginalization of women of color.

Bindi Girl Exhibit – Prema Murthy

(amazing feminist critique of exotic erotic images of Indian women)

We had just finished watching two separate documentaries on child sex workers in India at the time and one of the students asked if there was anyway to know whether or not the advertised “dating site” was involved in trafficking. My answer was to send them back to Google to do research. I told them to ask Google:

  1. how it screens its ads
  2. if there are any ethical standards related to safety (ie child safety, anti-trafficking, etc.)
  3. general questions about race and gender in its ads

The responses they received were fairly expected. Google does not screen its ads for trafficking nor check the background of the companies that place ads through Google. Their argument is that the volume of ads placed with them is too high to do the kind of individual human rights work implied by such a check. They also do not choose the ads you receive on your pages, so there is no standard form they could use to determine who sees what, ie boycotting yahoo would not stop those ad from showing up on other sites nor would everyone who used yahoo see those ads. Instead, Google uses a cookie system to track your internet usage that generates ads based on your supposed preferences. Since the program is based on a heterosexual white male model, that means if you spend a lot of time on sites about women, you are likely to receive dieting, shopping, and dating ads or if you spend a lot of time on sites about India or women of color in general, you will receive dating ads specializing in hooking men up with women of color. The assumption in both cases is that you are either a man, needing a heterosexual dating services, or a heterosexual woman needing a man, and therefore needing to meet beauty myth standards. To cover its basis it sends both kinds of pop ups to you.  As implied, these ads not only represent gender bias by centering both male needs and female insecurity but also implicate you in heterosexism and potentially racism, since the ads seldom include sites that are queer inclusive nor those that fail to peddle in exoticism assuming a white male audience looking for the “dark mysteries” of the “exotic erotic”.

Besides the invasion of privacy aspects, this makes Google seem fairly benign. Google does not make the ads nor determine who receives them based on any disregard for your politics or rights. However, the answer also reveals two key issue: (1) Google is primarily a search engine with both human and program-based web crawlers and (2) Google plants cookies to track usage. So why is checking basic information on the people who place ads too difficult a task? It seems that while people are not likely to be forthcoming about using the internet to traffic women, Google’s own search engines should be able to reasonably flag connections to known traffickers and subsequently deny advertising space. Given the volume of ads, it could not guarantee 100% success but it could be a step in the right direction.

The second set of questions has to do with general standards and modeling. There are a number of products whose dubious connection to human rights could easily be excluded from Google ads. While this leads to questions about market based freedoms and potentially freedom of expression that I think are equally important, exclusions have long been a part of advertising strategies for certain markets. A less sticky option, would be for Google to modify the programs that select ads to stop assuming a heterosexual white male norm. Thus when cookies reported you spent considerable time on pages related to women of color, it would trigger a subset of programs that would cross-reference that usage for things like “feminism”, “social justice”, etc. in the same way that it checks larger categories like “women”, “health”, “education”, etc. So that feminists and feminist web sites were not being supported by demeaning or potentially anti-woman advertising. By anti-woman advertising I mean, for example, ads that show large women as disgusting and then try to sell you dieting pills that we all know will likely be recalled the following year for causing all kinds of health problems and even death in users, or more benign ads that focus on a sexualizing gaze at various women’s bums in order to sell you shoes. Imagine these ads popping up on body positive websites.

Take for instance, this blog. I recently discovered that there are similar ads to the one my student brought into class on my blog! These ads show up on pages about women’s sexual freedom and global feminisms. At least one shows up on a post about rape as a war crime. So on the one hand, my text is discussing women’s rights, equality, and to respect women as subjects and on the other advertising is telling you to participate in international heterosexist digital dating which may or may not be implicated in larger trafficking issues. A simple modification to Google’s programming could prevent such things from happening. However, I suspect that these types of ads generate more revenue than an ad for Make/Shift would. (There are also ads for skin lightening cream and hair straightening gel on posts about black women and beauty …)

The discovery of these ads and their offensive and contradictory placement on certain blog posts on this blog brings me back to the larger question about the meaning of “free” raised by my student. I regularly ask my students to think about “free” and “freedom” in my classes. I teach unit on reproductive justice where I point out how reproductive freedoms in the Western world were/are based on reproductive injustices to women of color, incarcerated women, and women in purposefully underdeveloped nations. The speculum itself comes from a myriad of abuses perpetrated against the bodies of enslaved black women and girls. Many advances in certain medical procedures and medications for birth control have been gained through practice or testing on marginalized women with varying forms of questionable consent. My goal in this lesson is to move them past the discourse of reproductive “freedom” to a global sense of reproductive justice in which one woman’s freedom is not bought on the backs of another’s oppression. Yet, it never occurred to me to ask who pays for my free email account? Who pays for my free blog? Isn’t my free lunch free?

For those of you who do not know, unlike other blogs, wordpress places Google ads on free blogs without the knowledge or consent of the blog owners. They recently let this practice be known because of questions raised by bloggers. WordPress claims that these ads offset the cost of providing free services to its 300,000+free blog users. WordPress and Google share the profit from these ads, bloggers receive none. You can opt out of this system by paying $120/year for your blog. Even if you are not as concerned about issues of oppression as I am, umm skin bleaching cream on a black is beautiful post had better upset you, basic math should point out that bloggers are getting worked in this system. If each time an ad pops up Google and WordPress split $1.50 even if each blog only had one visitor a day, that means they are splitting a revenue of $450,000/dy based on our collective labor while we get $120/yr in the form of a “free” site.

So it seems whether you are concerned about women’s and human rights or the market, there is a major problem here with how Google Ads work and for whom they work. Discovering these offensively placed ads on my site has not only made me have to take a good look at my own decision-making but also at the sustainability of this blog.

Ultimately, there was no real resolution to my student’s question nor the research projects and activism that it inspired amongst my students that year. Google is ubiquitous on the internet and so it seemed incredibly daunting to try and fight them collectively. Instead, we engaged in individual choice making in the hopes of making larger change. One of those choices, is that I pass out a handout on how to make complaints about Google Ads. While the most effective way to complain requires a google account and a complicated process for locating the actual complaint area on the page, you can also send a generic complaint via this link. If you see an offensive or offensively placed ad on my blog, please complain about it to Google.

Maintaining this blog, on this site, is a choice and it is a choice that is becoming more antithetical to my support of decolonized feminism every day. If you have suggestions of other blog sites that you are using and happy with, please let me know.

WordPress Wednesday Aug 18: The Fail Continues

Think about this as you read these stats, blogging is not only the new way of publishing it is increasingly the way to access the old way of publishing as well, it is also second only to twitter as a go to source for media pundits looking for “the pulse of the nation” or the “important story”, and it is one of two media sites that form the basis for much electronic research. When we are not included in the places that legitimate and draw attention to the voices on the internet we are in essence once again being erased and shoved out. Since blogging is a medium that so many diverse people have made their home, and wordpress among the top places to do it, doesn’t it warrant at least a question about why they choose such a narrow focus in representing both their brand and all of us?

brittanica.com

Here are this week’s stats:

Images

  • men of color: 18
  • women of color: 6
  • TOTAL PICS OF PEOPLE OF COLOR: 24
  • white men: 40
  • white women: 32
  • TOTAL PICS OF WHITE PEOPLE: 72

The number of white people pictured on chosen posts outnumbered people of color by almost 3xs as much this week. All of these images were of able-bodied cis gender people. Images of white women were 5xs more likely than images of women of color and even more were likely to be seen on the Freshly Pressed page pointing you there because images of women of color appeared in posts with images of white people and the latter were almost always chosen for the Freshly Pressed page image. White men outnumbered men of color two to one and would also have been overrepresented on the Freshly Pressed page for the reasons listed above.

Authors

  • men of color: 3
  • women of color: 2
  • TOTAL AUTHORS OF COLOR: 5
  • white men: 12
  • white women: 30
  • TOTAL WHITE AUTHORS: 42

The number of people of color featured remained constant from last week representing an average of 1.7% of the total available bloggers for highlighting. The number of people of color blogging on wordpress is unavailable but they certainly make up more than 2% of the 280,000 bloggers from which to choose. There were also three authors of unknown race, only one of whom was a woman and one author who identified as asexual gender neutral, who was white.

Gender & Sexuality

  • pictures of cis women: 37
  • pictures of cis men: 55
  • pictures of trans women: 1
  • pictures of trans men: 3
  • female authors: 33
  • male authors: 17
  • gender unknown: 1
  • gender neutral: 1
  • articles about feminism: 3
  • articles about queer rights: 1
  • articles about, related to, or otherwise assuming overt heterosexuality: 17

Interestingly, this week marked the first time since the study began where a photo of a white women used in the post was replaced by a photo of a white man not used in the post to highlight the post on the Freshly Pressed page. In other words, the blogger used an image of a woman and the wordpress staff replaced it on their page with a picture of a man.

On the plus side, this week marks the first time a post about transgender, gender queer, and transmisogyny has been highlighted during the study and in all the time I can remember glancing at the Freshly Pressed page. On the negative side, that post included 4 photos of transgender or gender queer people engaged in a photographic awareness campaign, none of whom where people of color. In looking at the source material I discovered that of the 20 photos in the exhibit the author had to choose from, there was only one person of color photographed. The failing then is both with the author of the blog post who failed to mention racially disparity or choose the only pic available of a person of color to include with the group of other images chosen and the project itself. I also noted that while this post was highlighted, there were several posts, including on this blog, about a similar project specifically highlighting the dual erasure of black trans people from mainstream society and trans communities, as well as highlighting their diversity across the African Diaspora, none of which were ever featured on Freshly Pressed.

There were an unusually high number of feminist posts this week as well given their general absence on the Freshly Pressed page. One of these posts highlighted global feminism but was actually a blog for an organization that features innovative speakers and puts the videos up on its website. The post was literally the name of an international speaker and the theme of her talk accompanied by the video. There was no analysis, no prose, nothing. Given the number of posts written by marginalized people on wordpress about global feminism this seemed like an odd choice to represent the best wordpress has to offer. Another post on feminism praised a movie that was essentially a colonial fantasy in which a white woman finds herself through a vacation in India, Brazil, and other exotic erotic places, complete with hooting at brown men, spending money to “save” poor kids, etc. The point of the post: anyone who disliked this movie was a sexist hater. The final feminist post critiqued the same film and originally questioned the classism and racism involved but was followed up by a non-featured post apologizing and claiming it was really a critique of narcissism.

While we are documenting the number of posts that reference heterosexuality outright, please do not take this to mean other posts are sexuality neutral. With few exception all of the posts highlighted on wordpress are written by or read as heterosexual posts due to their lack of queer content.

As white women continue to gain in the featured section, I wonder if this is why we cannot get any traction on this issue. Like the woman who sees critiquing colonialism as a sexist endeavor, is the fact that white women often dominate the freshly pressed section preventing them from engaging in a feminism or social justice mindset that includes the rest of us? And if so, why is this an all too familiar position for a group that would largely define themselves as socially engaged and inclusive? It should be noted that many of the people making decisions about features on wordpress are also white women who considered themselves social justice folks.

WordPress Criteria

  • grammatical errors: 11
  • copyright: 41

This category counts the items wordpress says will preclude you from being featured. Interestingly, this week wordpress published another post referencing the importance of copyright on images used on blogs at the same time that the number of copyright infringement based on freshly pressed images was at its highest.

This week also saw the largest number of blogs featured that had been featured before and/or were not actually blogs (company “blog” pages that simply pointed people back to the company and magazines that are hosted on wordpress.org) instead of looking at diverse authors who had not been highlighted prior. The number of professional journalists and photographers is also much higher in general on the freshly pressed page than people who blog as bloggers. Given the gender, race, sexuality, etc. disparities in print media, you can see how this would translate to similar disparities on the freshly pressed page.

WordPress Wednesday

brittanica.com

Last week, WordPress Freshly Pressed highlighted a post written by a white female author about “turning Asian” in which she listed a bunch of anecdotal behaviors that highlighted the “strangeness” of Asian people. This post concluded with a reference to the way Asians speak English as “a special regressed level of English.”

It was the second time in less than a month that I had been deeply disturbed by what WordPress staff thinks is the best blogging WordPress has to offer. The first time, the highlighted post was written by a black woman excusing away black face in the fashion industry. Surprisingly, my twitter followers were more upset about the former than the latter even though both seem extremely racist, or internalized racist, to me.

When one of my twitter followers/blogging colleagues took the initiative to contact WordPress about their decision to highlight “racialized posts” on the Freshly Pressed page, the response she received was “what does ‘racialized’ mean?” In other words, not only are the people at WordPress picking posts with racialized and/or racist content as the best of the best blogs on their site but they are not educated enough about diversity to even name what they are doing and own, defend, or change their decisions.

So I decided to help them. Ok, well only indirectly. What I decided to do is document the disparity for all of you and to ask you to link to these Wednesday posts as a way to raise awareness about the problem. Hopefully, instead of getting further marginalized by my blog hosts, this will foster some learning and growth. If not, I’m sure it will make for great publication and presentation material the next time I am asked to present on social media at a conference or write about it for a journal or anthology.

simplyzesty.com

The Project: Every Wednesday I will present several stats related to highlighted posts on Freshly Pressed designed to show who and what is being valued and who and what is being erased.

The Method: The same questions will be asked of, data collected on, each Freshly Pressed post and the information will be made available here in both raw and analyzed form

While I have tried to remain consistent with the questions I’ve asked, the first week of collecting data has raised some important questions about unmarked distinctions in what I have been tracking. For instance do posts that have been marked as “white identified”, ie those that assume a white audience without racializing that assumption in offensive ways, always reflect race or does it some times reflect race and class together? Why did I choose to track sexism but not gender, when both of these seem like salient variables? And when a post is marked down as having photos of white people, should the number of photos be counted? ie if there are 12 photos and only one has a white person in it, then is it misleading to say this is the same as a blog that has 5 photos all of which are of white people? And should a photo be counted twice if it has a white person and a person of color (ie once for a white photo and once for a poc photo) or should there be a third category for mulitcultural photo? It seems to me that these distinctions matter when trying to quantify the identity politics, particularly racial ones, that seem to underpin the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress and ultimately the success of certain bloggers over others and the face of WordPress overall. So I;m still tweaking the questions/data collection process and it will likely look different from week to week until I am satisfied with a core set of questions. What this means is that some sets will not be comparable to others when all is said and done. For blogging purposes however, the key information will remain the same.

So Here is the raw data for week 1:

Every week there are 11-12 posts highlighted per weekday on Freshly Pressed. On the weekend 1-2 new posts maybe added to the highlighted posts for Friday, knocking off 1-2 Friday posts. The number of bloggers and blog posts available to choose from varies but on average there are between 277,000 and 278,000 bloggers and 300,000-360,000 posts from which to choose from. The number of bloggers of color, queer bloggers, female bloggers, etc. is unknown however several of the more recognized blogs from perspectives written by traditionally marginalized authors as well as academic blogs are housed on WordPress.com or wordpress.org vs alternative sites.

Race

When the racial identity of the author was unavailable, it was not recorded.

  1. pictures of people of color: 4
  2. pictures of white people: 29
  3. authored by person of color: 4
  4. authored by white people: 58
  5. colonial gaze: 4
  6. white normative but non-colonial: 7

Gender & Sexuality

  1. reference to wife/husband, kids, boyfriend/girlfriend (hetero): 13 – this item only counted 4 days
  2. reference to partner, bf/gf (same sex): 0
  3. reference to same sex attraction or queer identity: 0
  4. sexist content: 2
  5. image of big women: 1
  6. feminist: 1 (this post was about correcting disparities in women driving stick not a self-identified feminist post)

Content

This category includes data collected specifically because it violated the rules established by WordPress to qualify for Freshly Pressed status. These rules include: original photographs or properly cited and correct use of grammar.

  1. uncited or improperly cited photographs: 12
  2. grammatical or spelling errors: 14
  3. activist posts: 1
  4. product review: 6
  5. travel: 13

Other

This includes things that we found interesting because they stood out from other posts

  1. second reference to “real Africa” in less than a month, this time positively deconstructed
  2. “I was taught the laws are there to protect our freedoms” example of white normative but non-colonial/non-racist stance
  3. posts with pictures of older people: 3

I don’t have enough data yet to make conclusions. However, as you can see, it is pretty clear that the majority of wordpress posts highlight white, heterosexual, authors over the wide range of authors present on the wordpress format. I am also hypothesizing that the preference for artfully illustrated food blogs, travel narratives, and expensive product review tips the scales toward white and upper class authors and that all though today’s Freshly Pressed included a post railing against the baby products industry that there is an overrepresentation of young, urban, white, parenting authors as well. While I expected to see regularly offensive posts based on my random glance over the Freshly Pressed blogs over the past year, which included racial over tones and sexist images, I was surprised to find far less colonial gaze, outright racism, and outright sexism in collecting the data so far.

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.