Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., has blogged for Scientific American for over two years. Her blog, called "The Urban Scientist," focuses on "sharing science to general audiences, particularly under-served groups, via outdoor programming and social media." When she took to her blog to write about a sexist email she'd received, it was quietly deleted. Following an uproar on Twitter and the blogosphere, SciAm has offered an apology and an explanation — but is it enough?
Some background: on Thursday, Dr. Lee received an email from a blog editor at Biology-Online.org inquiring as to whether she'd be interested in guest blogging for their site. She asked about compensation, and the editor told her that there wouldn't be any (you can screengrabs of the email exchange here, if you're interested). Reasonably, upon hearing that she wouldn't be compensated for her work, Dr. Lee politely declined:
Thank you very much for your reply.
But I will have to decline your offer.
Have a great day.
This was the editor's response:
Because we don't pay for blog entries?
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?
This response, obviously, is a hideous steaming pile of sexism, racism, unprofessionalism, and all-around general shittiness. Dr. Lee took to her Scientfic American blog to reflect on the exchange:
It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand.What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?
She also addressed her concerns in a YouTube video, which was embedded in the post:
I do need you to recognize that how you behave matters. It matters. Not just to me, but to a lot of people, because it sets the tone... Recognize that folks are professional. Not just in how you interact with them, but their time and their energy is worth something. And that's the really important part I want scholars out there — particularly if you come from these backgrounds that are underrepresented, it's important that you recognize your professionalism and your worth, and that you be compensated in some sort of way that's commensurate for you, and then you can negotiate more and more and more... For far too long, the presumption has been that if you're a woman, a person of color, or from a lower socioeconomic status, that folks think they can get you, your talent, you expertise and your energy for free. That's not available.
These are all valid points — and points that desperately need to be made. It's beyond admirable that Dr. Lee took this opportunity to encourage other professionals and scholars to learn from what happened to her. What countless humans with less thoughtfulness and tact would have dismissed as a horrible insult, Dr. Lee saw as a teaching moment.
However, the editors of Scientific American deemed the post inappropriate. Without giving Dr. Lee notification or warning, they removed the post (thankfully, Isis the Scientist has reprinted it in full). Mariette DiChristina, the editor-in-chief of the publication, tweeted this shortly afterwards:
Removing black woman's blog post in which she addresses a deeply unprofessional sexist comment with racist overtones amounts to silencing a woman of color. It's as simple as that, and it's completely not acceptable. This fact hasn't escaped the DNLee's colleagues and peers, who started the #standingwithdnlee hashtag in response.
Today, DiChristina published a lengthy post that offers an explanation and expresses regret:
We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post... In removing the post, we were in no way commenting upon the substance of the post, but reflecting that the underlying facts were not confirmed.
We deeply regret that we were not able to communicate our decision to Dr. Lee before removing the post on a late Friday afternoon before a long weekend. We recognize that it would have been better to fully explain our position before its removal, but the circumstances were such that we could not make that happen in a timely way...
We take very seriously the issues that are faced by women in science and women of color in science. As a woman who has worked in science publishing for more than 20 years, I can add that we intend to discuss how we can better investigate and publicize such problems in general and search for solutions with Dr. Lee and with the wider scientific community. With the help of Dr. Lee as an author, Scientific American plans to provide a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science and the related research in the coming weeks. I am personally grateful to Dr. Lee for her support in these endeavors and am looking forward to working with her on these issues.
There's no question that this was mishandled completely. As Maryn McKenna points out at Wired:
If [the editorial staff] felt Dr. Lee’s account was inaccurate, they should have said so. If they found her language inappropriate, the better response would have been to flag the post in some manner, obscuring it with an image or temporarily replacing it with a notice — instead of creating the appearance of censorship by disappearing it entirely — while they communicated with Dr. Lee and worked with her to bring her post under whatever their standards are.
It's heartening to see DiChristina express genuinely contrite sentiments after this fiasco, but I don't find her response entirely encouraging — and, following the #standwithdnlee hashtag, it seems like the majority of people share this opinion. DiChristina's post is replete with excuses, and it seems fairly short on a willingness to take responsibility. This is the bottom line: it's totally disrespectful to delete someone's published work without telling them, and, no matter what the justification is, doing so smacks of censorship. Preventing a black woman from sharing her specific experience serves to marginalize her perspective, regardless of intent.
Would a sensitive post written by a male scientist or a white woman have been quietly removed in this way? There's no way to be certain — I personally don't think it would — but, then again, a white and/or male scientist likely wouldn't have had to face this sort of discrimination in the first place.