When Does Politics Become "Personal"?

Typically when those politics affect women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups.

But let me back up a moment. Scientific American‘s actions in deleting Danielle Lee’s post on being called a whore for turning down an offer to work for “exposure” rather than pay has blown up to the point where it’s hit Buzzfeed, Metafilter., and The Raw Story. It’s escaped the community in which it started, which is a bad sign for SciAm. (Additionally, all the major science writers I follow on Twitter have told SciAm that their behavior is unacceptable. As well as most of their bloggers. And many, many readers.)

SciAm’s editor-in-chief, Mariette DiChristina, appears to have recognized that she has a problem on her hands with the broader public, even if she hasn’t figured out what’s going on in her own community. (I expect that she has, but hasn’t decided how to respond.) She released an explanatory statement to Buzzfeed.

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. Dr. Lee’s post is out extensively in the blogosphere, which is appropriate. Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science. We are pursuing next steps.

The problem, of course, is that this explanatory statement explains nothing. Maryn McKenna has a good collection of other SciAm bloggers saying both that posts they’ve written don’t fit the criteria DiChristina seems to be trying to impose and that no such expectation for their posts has ever been communicated to them. Janet Stemwedel makes the point that the issues involved here are distinctly issues of science and how–and by whom–it is practiced.

More important than either of those, though, is Dr. Rubidium’s post “What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female atheist of color“. While many people have focused on the fact that the editor who called Lee a whore works for a SciAm partner, this article focuses on the other point that differentiates Lee’s post from the still-standing posts of her colleagues.

Notice that one of these three four @sciam bloggers is not like the other? Was it perhaps the same one that had their “not appropriate” post taken down?  Was it the one that is blogging while brown?

Yeah, it is.

Now before anyone comes running to DiChristina’s defense, telling me how not-racist she is, I’m guessing she’s generally pretty egalitarian in her outlook, even if her practice has suffered here. I’m agreeing with Dr. Rubidium that race is relevant here for the same reason gender is, and neither is it because I think anyone said, “Oh, I don’t like those black ladies.”

I’ve talked before about how sexual harassment is too often considered to be a personal matter between two people instead of the social problem it actually is. Just today, as a story of sexual assault and its aftermath has come out of the Ruby programming community, I saw one woman remark that HR had told her it was up to her to get her harasser to stop, as though the two of them were having a disagreement over something trivial. Women’s political concerns are less important, downgraded to personal differences. That dynamic is probably at play here in some small way.

More likely to be a relevant factor, however, is the language in which Lee made her complaint. If you haven’t heard of code-switching, go find a writer of color who’s written about it find out more. I was aware of code switching as something I did before I heard the term, but only as a curiosity. If you really want to understand it, find someone in whose life code-switching plays a much bigger part and pay attention to them.

The point is, Lee consciously code-switches less than most other scientists of color who communicate their science to the public. As her bio says, “DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups.” She speaks to the people she wants to reach in the language they speak.

In this post and video, Lee used phrases she identified as “South Memphis”, just as she does in the rest of her work. She used selfies to identify her mood. She shone with attitude, though less than usual.

These are some of the things many of us like about Lee and her work, but writing the way she does has costs. The language Lee uses is broadly seen as less educated, less formal, and decidedly less scientific. Those judgments are passed on to her message. In this case, that means her blog post is read as less formal, less political…and more personal.

It isn’t really. Nothing Lee has said is anything her colleagues wouldn’t have said. They’d just have used different–whiter, more sciency–language. They have in other posts. DiChristina may not see that yet, but she really needs to step up and learn and it quickly, or this is just going to keep blowing up in her face.

When Does Politics Become "Personal"?
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7 thoughts on “When Does Politics Become "Personal"?

  1. 1

    In this post and video, Lee used phrases she identified as “South Memphis”, just as she does in the rest of her work. She used selfies to identify her mood. She shone with attitude, though less than usual.

    I’m thinking it’s a pretty solid bet that anyone who isn’t a straight white male and doesn’t act just like one gets called ‘unprofessional’ more often than someone that is S, W and M. Probably because the SWM group grabbed and held all of the professional jobs for a long time and now to be a good ‘fit’ in the ‘professional culture’ one is expected to blend in with that particular corps.

  2. 2

    I agree, smhll, but even with that caveat, the actual professional communication – the email – seemed entirely workplace-normative. The final refusal was rather brief, which encodes a certain dismissiveness, but even that was using rather than defying the conventions of work-related writing and talking. (Also, dismissiveness was reasonable in context – after all, working for free is the exact literal definition of “unprofessional.”) The part where Lee “shone with attitude,” as Stephanie put it, was in her (Lee’s) blog. It’s not that blogs don’t have standards, especially when you blog for a network, but they’re not at all the same standards that people mean when they say “professional.”

  3. 3

    They’d just have used different–whiter, more sciency–language

    I just had this very fucking conversation over dinner about an unrelated matter. (Well, specifically unrelated. Generally, totally related.)

    “Be more professional.” According to who? (According to the people with the power, or what you imagine the people with power want. Doesn’t make them, or you, right.)

  4. 5

    Three other SciAm bloggers have written about the insult (all women, noticeably), and the fact that Ms. Lee’s post was removed. Is SciAm now going to remove the posts of other bloggers who comment on Ms. Lee’s post being removed?

    If they remove the other posts, then they’re avoiding the issue of abuse. If they don’t remove them, they’re being hypocrites – one is personal, one isn’t?

    DiChristina didn’t elaborate (v.), she was elaborate (adj.) in her excuses for duplicity.

  5. 6


    “Ma’am? Ms. DiChristina? We want you to put down the shovel, and come out of the building. We can talk about what you need*, as soon as you put down the shovel.”

    * I’m gonna go with “more education about intersectionality, racism, and sexism” for $200, Alex?

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