Where Logic Meets Love

Taking Affirmative Action on My Daily Reading

Friday, July 19, 2013

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Taking Affirmative Action on My Daily Reading | Faith Permeating Life

The last week or so has brought more of my attention to issues like systemic racism, ableism, and other issues that I don't tend to focus my attention on as much as some issues. And to an extent, that's OK -- as I've said many times before, we have limited time, energy, and resources, and we can't be the champion of every cause. However, I can still take steps to educate myself so that I don't say or do problematic things in my day-to-day life. And I want to be mindful of intersectionality, so when I'm speaking out on one issue I'm not doing so in a limited way that is hurtful or even damaging to others.

As I wrote about earlier this week, sometimes I come across contradictions about what is helpful vs. offensive. But in talking with some other people offline this week, I had to reiterate that these kinds of instances (where large swaths of a single group have directly contradictory opinions about what they need from their allies) are fairly rare. And in many cases, getting caught up in these kinds of details can be a way of distracting one from larger issues at play.

So for instance, I wrote about how I saw disagreement among people of color about whether white people should speak out and condemn the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his killer, or whether they should only "quietly boost voices of color," as one person said.

Focusing on this disagreement, however, can distract from the fact that both groups agree that white folks should be sharing what people of color have to say about the incident; they only disagree about whether white people should also add their voices to the fray.

And this points to a much larger, more important issue, which is that if white people aren't regularly reading "voices of color," they're not going to have anyone to boost. At most, you see people sharing that one same article by that one black person that their other white friends shared with them. And as we've already discussed, there is enough diversity within any one group that a single viewpoint cannot possibly speak for everyone who needs to be heard.

So here's where I turn the finger around and point it at myself.

I like to think I expose myself to a variety of viewpoints (this is one of the central reasons I blog and read other blogs) and that this helps me keep an open mind and help me continue to seek truth. But I'm a very statistically minded person, and wherever something has the ability to be supported or disproved with data, I want to see the numbers.

With this in mind, I undertook a diversity study of my own feed subscriptions.

Briefly, for anyone who cares about the details: I analyzed the sites (primarily blogs) I have in my feed reader and the people I follow on Twitter. (There's a lot of overlap.) I excluded the few sites and Twitter accounts that represented an organization rather than an individual. I also ignored any blog or Twitter account that hadn't updated in the last six months. (I have a "rarely updated" folder in my RSS reader for people I'd want to read if they ever started blogging again.) This worked out to 50 blogs and 38 Twitter users that I read on a regular basis.

For each person I attempted to discern their gender, race, ability (mental illness, physical disability, or none), country of residence, religion, sexual orientation, and if they were cisgender or trans*. I left out class, education, and other factors that are important but were impossible to discern for most people.

It was easier than I expected to gather the remaining information on most people -- bloggers are even more open about their lives than I realized. In cases where I couldn't discern something, I assigned the majority designation to the person. (Normally I do not advocate the majority being seen as the "default," but in this case I was specifically interested in the extent to which I was exposing myself to alternative voices from my own.) The exception was religion, where I made a note of "unknown" if it was something they'd never mentioned.

So here are the stats I came up with for the people I read regularly:
Gender: Bloggers I read are 80% female, 20% male. Twitter users I follow are 50% female, 50% male.

Ability: Among bloggers I read, 64% have neither a mental illness nor a physical disability of any kind, or else they've never written about it. Similarly, 66% of Twitter users I follow share my current able-bodiedness and lack of mental illness.

Country: 94% of the bloggers I read currently live in the United States, as do 92% of the Twitter users I follow.

Religion: Of the bloggers I read, 10% are Roman Catholics, 52% are other Christians, 10% are agnostic, 10% are atheists, and 18% I have no idea. Of the people I follow on Twitter, 29% are Roman Catholics, 55% are other Christians, 3% are agnostic, 3% are atheists, and 10% I don't know.

Sexual Orientation: 78% of bloggers I read identify as straight, while 82% of the Twitter users I follow do.

Cis/Trans: 96% of the bloggers I read are cisgender, as are 100% of the Twitter users I follow.
And the kicker:
94% of the bloggers I read are white, and 97% of the Twitter users I follow are white. The rest are Asian/Middle Eastern.
Does this affect my worldview, my awareness of my own privilege, and what I tend to share with others? You bet it does.

The point is not that I need to hit some sort of quota or specific distribution in each of these categories. The point is that my understanding of the world and the articles that I tend to promote to others are drawn from what I read on a regular basis.

I was already aware of the "agenda-setting bias" of newspapers telling me what I should pay attention to, but I wasn't thinking about the lack of diversity among the voices I do read on a daily basis causing the same kind of problem. Saying that I share the articles and retweet the tweets I do solely because "they express ideas the best" is to ignore the pool that I'm drawing from. It's like a hiring committee that insists they only hire the most qualified applicants and that the best applications just happen to be white men most of the time, while ignoring that they only advertise the position in a handful of places frequented primarily by white men.

And perhaps even important: The "whiteness" of my reading list tells me that I probably have an underlying bias about whom I subscribe to or follow. After all, I know that there are people I follow who recommend other bloggers/Twitter users of a variety of races and ethnicities. This means that there is probably an unconscious part of my brain saying, "Oh, this person is black/Hispanic/etc, so what they say won't be relevant to me."

Since running these numbers a few days ago, I've taken steps to correct the imbalances in my feeds, particularly by including more people of color and transgender people. This doesn't mean tokenism, which is something like, "I will add this person solely because they are black." It means recognizing and being aware of that underlying bias I just described, so when someone I follow or subscribe to recommends someone else, I follow/subscribe to them and read them for a while before deciding whether they're providing me with valuable information. (I also try to regularly trim my feeds of all the people I'm not gaining something from so I can devote my limited time and energy to those I learn most from.)

I invite you to try something similar with your own regular reading sources. Even if you don't agree with my assessment of underlying bias or the need to take steps to correct such a bias, it's still valuable to know which voices are most strongly represented in your reading and which are absent altogether.

What groups are most strongly represented in the blogs, Twitter feeds, or other sources you read regularly? What might this say about how you decide who is worth reading/following? How might this be shaping your worldview?


  1. This is an interesting concept, but I think it's worth considering how much of it is to do with the WAY in which you find people. There are a lot of people who I've started following on Twitter because they followed me. I look at the bio of my new followers, and then their recent tweets and if they mention stuff I'm interested in, I'll usually follow back. The same goes with blogs - they leave me a comment, I go check out their blog.

    Also, if I ran my numbers, I'd probably find a larger proportion of the bloggers I follow are based in the US than are based in Australia. It's not that I've actively made the choice to follow US bloggers, it's more a product of the 20SB community, and the fact that the US has a much bigger population - there are simply more US bloggers out there than Australian bloggers. Similarly, there seem to be many more female bloggers than male.

    For me, at least, I'm more likely to consider the writer's voice and what people are talking about when I follow them more than considering the diversity behind the blogs. You know?

    (Apologies if this makes no sense. It's midnight and I've eaten my body weight in cake today, leading to my current state of sugar slump...)

    1. Actually, what you said is exactly in line with my point. So, I think you're right that the 20SB community is primarily American women, meaning if you find most of the people you follow through 20SB (or they find you there and you follow back), that's who you're going to read. And I'm not going to try tell anyone what they should be looking for in the blogs they read -- if your goal is to see life primarily through the lens of white cisgender American women in their 20s, then your current method of finding bloggers and Twitter users is probably working for you. For me, I read blogs because I want to better understand the perspectives of people other than myself, and after realizing that the subset of perspectives I was getting was still quite limited, I'm taking steps to adjust that.

      I'm more likely to consider the writer's voice and what people are talking about when I follow them more than considering the diversity behind the blogs.
      This is what most people would say, I'd imagine, and it's why I brought up the example of the hiring committee. People say, "We just hire the very best candidate out of our pool; we don't weight people one way or the other because of their race or gender." And they probably honestly believe that because they feel like they focused solely on people's qualifications, interview skills, etc. But 1) there have been many studies showing that unconscious biases are at play in hiring (here's an illustration of one way this can play out), and 2) if the position is advertised only in places where the primary audience is white men, then the applicant pool that the committee starts with is going to be skewed.

  2. If you haven't already, may I suggest following Christena Cleveland (@CSCleve on Twitter). Not only is she fantastic, she frequently introduces her readers to other similar bloggers in her weekly Reconciliation Replays.

    1. Yes, she is one of the first people I added this week, and she is great. I had only added her on Twitter, but have now subscribed to her blog as well thanks to your comment!

  3. Interesting! Of course you do have to consider in your analysis of the stats how much they correspond to the proportion of each group in the overall population. For example, 4% of your bloggers are transgender; if transgender people are less than 4% of the population (which seems likely, but it's hard to measure since so many trans people are closeted) then you can pat yourself on the back for that one.

    I've found in the last few years that reading Catholic blogs (which started when my second cousin, a very strict Catholic, invited me to read her blog and I found others from there) and evangelical Christian blogs and stay-at-home mother blogs (which are common among contributors to the Works-for-Me Wednesday blog carnival I enjoy) has increased my empathy for people in these groups and understanding of what they're trying to do with their lives and why. It doesn't make me agree with them, usually, but it does teach me. More importantly, I find that despite the differences I actually have a lot in common with many of these bloggers, and that decreases my prejudice.

    Recently I started reading The Roxx Box, a food blog whose author makes a wide variety of cuisine for her lunchbox and her children's. When I noticed her photo, I caught myself feeling surprised that a person of African ancestry was making all this Indian and Thai and Japanese and other non-African "ethnic" food!! I had not realized that "black people only like American and African food" was a prejudice I held, but apparently it was. But my son's godfather is black and is always talking about how much he loves the local Indian restaurant, so what's wrong with me? Gee.

    Here's a blog by a Muslim that I like:
    Kate's Apartmentsteading. She writes mostly about home life, parenting, and social issues, with her religion mentioned only occasionally as it comes up, but every once in a while she writes about Islam specifically.

    1. The proportion thing is interesting and actually one of the contributing factors to my doing this project. Basically there was a discussion about whether J.K. Rowling is racist for having only a handful of characters of racial minorities in her books, and I pointed out that (based on the statistics I could find) 92% of the population of the UK is white, so given the small number of total students at Hogwarts (which is somewhat debatable) it's not that surprising that there would be a small number of non-white students. And even though the three primary characters are white, Dumbledore's Army is only about 75% white. The explanation that I was given was that the primarily white population doesn't need representation in literature as much as racial minorities do. I still think it's debatable whether you can actually call a white writer racist for not creating main protagonists of color, but I wanted to know how the proportions of minority students : white students, taking into account the number of named characters : total Hogwarts students, actually stacked up.

      Anyway, at the end of the day I decided starting with myself and analyzing the diversity of my own reading habits was more important than attempting to defend an author of books that are already published and done.

      As I said, my goal is not that the proportions in my reading lists correspond to or exceed specific proportions in the population. It's to be aware of the extent to which I'm exposing myself to other viewpoints. So, both of the trans* bloggers I read were transmen, and clearly there was not much racial diversity in either my blog feeds or my Twitter feed. Following several black Twitter users and one transgender woman this past week has already given me new things to think about.

  4. This is a really interesting exercise and one that I might take the time to try out (though, I follow so many people it might end up being an all day exercise... Eep!).

    However, I do know that my reading within the past couple of years has diversified greatly, particularly along racial lines. I think largely because I now live in a neighborhood that's predominantly Latino and/or black, and finding myself living somewhere where I'm a part of the racial minority has ended up challenging a lot of the unconscious biases I've held.

    1. It took me about 4 hours to do 50 blogs and 38 Twitter accounts, so you can extrapolate accordingly :)

      What's interesting about the area we live in is that it's socially progressive but fairly racially homogeneous (white), so you end up with a lot of people who think, "I'm liberal, so I couldn't possibly be racist," which is not true. Diversifying in both relationships and reading is important for challenging those kinds of beliefs.

    2. It's true... Until I had to come face to face with my prejudices on a daily basis, I didn't even realize that I would have some of the thoughts I've had... I didn't realize that there would be some cultural issues that annoy me that I feel like I can't say anything about because I don't want to be the crotchety white lady... It's definitely been a learning experience.


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