Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Does the blogosphere reinforce white, American male privilege in the UMC?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

I am a white, American, male.  In this regard, I look a lot like most bloggers in the United Methodist blogosphere.  I was reflecting on this fact after reading a post by Drew McIntye in which he questioned Jeremy Smith's critique of the proposal to close General Conference as only coming from white men and pointed out that Jeremy was himself a white man.  I thought to myself, "Here are white American men arguing with each other about their whiteness.  Isn't that how the blogosphere goes?"  I decided, as a white American man, to do some research to see how extensive the white American male perspective is in the UMC blogosphere.

I chose as my source last week's blogs posts on the Methoblog platform.  I included everything posted from Sept. 30 through Oct. 6, with the exception of posts by GBGM (which I'll talk about next week), stories from UMC (which are news, not opinion), posts from UM Insight (which are re-posts), and posts where I could not determine the gender or, if male, race of the author.  That left me with 183 blog posts written by 92 authors in the last week.

Of these 183 blog posts, 79% were written by white American men.  14% were written by white American women (and 1% by a white American woman working abroad), 2% by American women of indeterminate race, 2% by white men from the British Isles, <1% by an Asian American male (a single post), and <1% by a Filipino male (a single post).  There were 0 blogs written by African-Americans, 0 blogs written by Hispanics, and 0 blogs written by Native Americans.  Of the authors, only 76% were white American males.  This is because white American males made up a higher percentage, 84%, of the frequent bloggers (more than twice a week, the average for all bloggers).

Whichever set of numbers you use, the conclusion is clear: white, American men have a voice in the blogosphere that is about three times as great as their proportion of the UMC membership.

First, a couple of caveats, and then some interpretation.
1. Methoblog does not include all blogs written by United Methodists.  African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and UMC members from outside the US may be writing lots of posts that aren't included in Methoblog's roles.  Even if true, this still seems like an issue to me, as it means there are separate online conversations by race and nationality in the UMC.
2. I relied on pictures of people to determine their race, and racial identity is not always something that is easily identifiable by sight.  That being said, it's unlikely that I'm wrong in enough cases to significantly alter the results.
3. Sometimes people write about things other than the UMC in their blogs, and sometimes people have guest bloggers write on their blogs.  I didn't read every single blog posted.  (I do have a job.)  I did try to determine authorship of posts on multi-writer blogs.  Again, these considerations probably apply only in a few cases, and that's not likely to significantly alter the results.

Even given those caveats, the conclusion seems to remain: white American men have a voice in the UMC blogosphere that is disproportionately large compared to their percentage of the UMC membership.  Now, there are two interpretations one could take of this fact.  First, one could assume that this reflects pre-existing white American male privilege.  White American males have more access to positions of power and to technology than other groups, and this makes them more likely to write blogs.  In this interpretation, the high proportion of white American male bloggers is a result, not a cause of other forms of privilege.

A second interpretation would see this inequality as causing or reinforcing white American male privilege.  While differences in other forms of privilege may explain some of who blogs and some of who doesn't, if the blogosphere becomes a forum for decision-making in the UMC, it means that those decisions will primarily be made by white American men.  If white American men receive a disproportionate voice in making decisions because those decisions are made in the blogosphere, then the blogosphere has not only reproduced by reinforced other forms of privilege.

I'll continue investigating this issue over the next several weeks, looking next week at blogs by the General Board of Global Ministries and other official church agencies and then finally critiquing this blog and examining the collection of authors it has hosted.

21 comments:

  1. Your research jives with my instinct. I blog occasionally, but I more often make comments on the blogs of others in order to present the perspective of a traditional, albeit feminist clergywoman.

    I have noticed that I am often the only woman commenting on a blog post too.

    My suspicion is that active clergywomen (I am retired) are just too busy working in their appointment to get too involved in cyberspace. So, what does that say about these young men, spending hours and hours debating online?

    The truth is, that bloggers will have very little influence at GC2016 unless they are elected as delegates.

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    1. Holly, my concern is less about bloggers voting at GC2016, since it seems like they'll be a small fraction of the delegates. My concern is that they'll influence and shape the proposals that end up at GC2016. It matters less who's voting if the only choices are ones put forward by white American men.

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    2. My experience as a United Methodist since 1976 indicates that the Council on Bishops, the General Board and Agencies, and now the Connectional Table have the power to "influence and shape" the proposals. Fortunately, these groups do tend to be more inclusive.

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  2. Thank you for raising this issue! Visibility and voice across race and gender are so important in building an inclusive body of Christ! We must be mindful of who the gatekeepers and platform-makers laud and who is not at the table. When we find folks are missing we must ask why that is and how we can adjust ourselves and our institutions to bring change. Thanks again!

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  3. David,
    I think you may have gotten the posts and names mixed up here. Jeremy critiqued the proposal to close GC (which is not "my" proposal but endorsed by several people) on grounds that most of the supporters were white men. I accused him of making a straw man argument because, in fact, many of his interlocutors were not white men, but he still chose to present it as if the only supporters were white men. I at no point attempted to engage in a conversation about privilege or my white maleness, but to argue for a better GC than last year's and request honesty about what I and others had said.

    The actual post where I presented the case for closing GC was here at Via Media Methodists, where I also linked to others: http://viamediamethodists.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/insanity-or-integrity-on-closing-the-floor-at-gc2016/

    Thanks,
    Drew

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    1. Drew,
      I'm sorry if I misunderstood your post. My interest in this post wasn't to comment one way or another on the merits of the proposal to close GC, but rather to make a large point about the participants in online conversations about the UMC.
      Thanks,
      David

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    2. I've altered the third sentence of this post to reflect better the content of Drew's post. This better represents his points while not affecting the point of this article.

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  4. This is important work and I'm glad that you backed it up with quantitative research rather than feelings. The sooner we realize what lenses we are wearing, the better it is for our writing, readers, and others.

    As an aside, it does help me see more clearly why the collective freak-out over my naming people's white privilege was shared rather widely.

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    1. Jeremy, as David has acknowledge, his data collection has not demonstrated white privilege, only that white males like to debate issues via blogging. Funny thing about privilege terms, you do not have to demonstrate it in order for it to be real. You only have to say it and it becomes real. Allow me to quote from David: "I recognize that I've not yet proved blogging as a privilege because I've not proved blogging is influential, even though I have shown it's dominated by white American males." Assume this. Over 42 percent of GC voters will come from Central Conferences that do not blog with us. Fifty percent will be laity, the vast majority of which do not blog with us or read our blogs. Another 30 to 40 percent will be women. David has shown they are not into blogging like white males. Considering this, how influential are the blogs of white males in shaping the issues or determining votes at GC? Truly, we cannot say. As such, it is premature to cry white privilege. See my post on cultural and gender preferences.

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    2. Bill, I've acknowledged that I haven't conclusively demonstrated white privileged, but obviously I wouldn't have written the blog if I didn't think there was a danger of it. As I'd also said in my private email to you, it's not just about GC votes. It's reductionist to say that power is only equal to GC votes. Power manifests itself in many ways in the church, and my larger point is that if blogging is ones of those ways (and yes, that's an if), then white American males have privilege by their over-representation in this form of discourse. Christy's and Dana's comments below give us reason to think that this is something we should be at least somewhat concerned about.

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  5. I'll take the ideas of these bloggers more seriously when/if they draft and submit legislation to GC2016. By the way, the Judicial Council has ruled that individuals may still submit resolutions to GC2016 despite the vote of GC2012. That #GC2012 vote was NOT presented correctly and so individuals may STILL present petitions.

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  6. I'm one of the female UMC bloggers and am often shocked at how difficult it is to get "reads" on my blog UNLESS I'm being deliberately provocative. Because I prefer a more nuanced approach, something the church needs as a whole instead of the wild polarization, I'm pretty routinely ignored.

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    1. Christy, I agree with your concerns. Even as a white American male, I sometimes feel the same tension - Wild polarization and focusing on hot button topics all the time doesn't build up the church, but it's hard to get readers for nuance.

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  7. Thank you, David, for this thoughtful post. I wonder if the "confidence gap" is a reason why fewer women blog. Speaking personally, I certainly do not feel comfortable in throwing out my opinion widely, unless I have done a lot of research and checked and re-checked what I wish to say. Perhaps the blogosphere is an extension of the well-known phenomenon whereby culture-dominant males are free to offer their opinions without worrying about negative repercussions. What is perceived as "leadership" for a male is seen as "pushy" for a female. It is commendable, therefore, that the UM & Global blog features guest bloggers from a variety of cultural and theological perspectives.

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    1. Thanks, Dana. I think you may be on to something. Blogs are frequently about opinions that, while perhaps thought out, are not researched or justified in the same ways, and women and minorities are often judged more harshly for such statements, meaning that they're less likely to blog.

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  8. David, I think you should ask a follow-up set of questions. 1. Why don't women and "people of color" blog in the same proportions as white males? Over 33 percent of my students are black. Yet, I only see a few of them using social media to make opinion based statements. By contrast, my white male students share their opinions all over social media. Still, most of the students carry smart phones to class even though I do not use a smart phone. Across the board, whites and Blacks consume media at different rates (see http://www.unc.edu/depts/jomc/teenmedia/pdf/NewspaperResearchJournal.pdf). In this case, it seems to point to cultural preference more than to access. Additionally, other reports show that women and men consume news differently. Furthermore, you will find that white women are less likely than white men to blog on opinion based issues. This may point to a gender preference. If gender models have any validity, I would guess that women prefer to approach contentious issues in less confrontational ways. Perhaps, they prefer to talk to people instead of talking at people. On the other hand, data has shown that black pastors, (overwhelming male) are more likely to vocally confront social issues from the pulpit. Whereas, white pastors tend to avoid directly addressing controversial social issues from the pulpit. In my classes, my black male students are much more likely to "debate" contentious social issues than the white students. Finally, age plays an important role in how one uses media. For example, older Americans are much more likely to write a letter to the editor than to post a thought on an online blog.

    In a related vein, a recent report in Christianity Today shows that African Christians prefer to read books by American authors. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october/christian-books-by-africans.html Even when theologically trained representatives from the African church write books, those books have less value to African people than books written by Americans. For this reason, we have a paucity of literature that reflects the African perspective. I am very concerned about this because it silences the voice of the African church. If it is not in print, it is not real. Additionally, the African authors that are read in America are mostly ones who were trained in America and socialized by American higher learning processes. The unfiltered voice of the African church is almost completely absent in our US seminaries and larger culture. We must find a way to address this.

    One last thought, I am less concerned that White males like to blog than I am that all the people of the UMC do not have a common forum in which they intentionally interact with each other in order to discern God's will, learn to appreciate different perspectives, and build community. Technically, General Conference is the place that this happens. Still, once every four years hardly seems like it give sufficient time to this process.

    So, black males prefer to oral communication, women prefer relational approaches, Africans give too much heed to American opinions, older adults like newspapers (forms of print media), and white males prefer to blog. I can't believe that I have made such broad based stereotypical conclusions. In the end, perhaps blogging this has less to do with privilege and more to do with cultural-gender preferences.

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  9. David, thanks for mentioning UM Insight among your potential sources for this research. I'd like to point out, however, that Insight also publishes original material on a regular basis, particularly from some of the under-represented cohorts you cite in your research. We do publish a high number of re-posts because our editorial mission is to be a forum for diverse perspectives, especially those that don't always get a hearing. So I suggest that you and your readers give us a look on a regular basis.

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    1. Cynthia, Thanks for the correction, and I appreciate the good work that you and UM Insight do.

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  10. It's funny what you think about when you read an article. My first thought: to obtain personal information about me, somebody has been combing through the 800+ posts on my site looking for the 3 that had a personal photo attached. That thought didn't really make me feel happy or secure. This author may have had benign intent, but other may not. I've removed all remaining photos of me and my family.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Mitchell, for some authors (yourself included), I found pictures not on their blogs but by Googling them. Your family was not in the picture I found. Even as I was doing this project (with benign intent), I did have a similar thought to you about how much information is available about us on the internet nowadays. It's sort of a scary thought.

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