It seems to happen almost monthly: Organizers of a prominent event announce a panel featuring so-called tastemakers that includes nary a woman or minority. A Twitter uproar ensues, and bloggers weigh in on this latest travesty in diversity. After that, the white, male panelists—genuinely surprised to be called out—apologize, saying they had no idea things would skew so white and male. The event organizer also apologizes and tacks on an excuse: “I reached out to women and minorities, but...” There’s mocking and maybe some genuine outrage, but nothing really changes.
Which brings us to this week. When the lineup for I Want Media’s “The Future of Media” panel was announced Monday, the more progressive minds on Twitter let out a collective groan. The annual panel attracts the most elite of media elites—the likes of Nick Denton and Arianna Huffington—and this year there wasn’t a single woman or person of color represented. “The future of media: all white, all male, apparently,” tweeted Irin Carmon, a writer at Jezebel.
Of course, it’s not a problem confined to media, and it’s not just panels. The pattern extends to “trend” stories like The New York Times’ “Washington’s New Brat Pack” article, a profile of a few young white men atop D.C.’s pundit class; a widely lambasted story about “dude-itors” in WWD; and, back at the Times, the “Room for Debate” roundtable about wealth inequality that sought the opinions of only well-educated white people.
After watching this happen again and again, something occurred to me: Why don’t the white men who are asked to engage in this nonsense simply stop doing it? The boycott is a protest with a long history of success. If white, male elites started saying, “I will not participate in your panel, event, or article if it is all about white men,” chances are these panels and articles would quickly dry up—or become more diverse.
“I think it’s ridiculous that this kind of thing goes on in 2011,” says Wired magazine’s Spencer Ackerman, a white guy who’s often written about and asked to be on panels thanks to his vaunted national security reporting. “It’s especially bad when it happens in progressive media, which makes an effort—or at least pays lip service—to promote the idea that media diversity isn’t just an optional thing but a necessity.”
Asked what he thinks about a white-dude panel boycott, Ackerman said it makes sense. “It’s within our power and it’s up to us to say, ‘Why don’t you include my colleague who works on something similar, who has possibly more to say because they’re not listened to as frequently,’” he says. “And if we don’t do it, there’s no incentive for people organizing these things to think more critically about why it is they’re not including these diverse voices.”
David Carr, a media reporter at The New York Times, is one of the white men scheduled to appear on the much-mocked Future of Journalism panel. He noticed a lot of complaints on Twitter, but he didn’t respond. “In Patrick’s defense,” Carr says, referring to Patrick Phillips, the founder of I Want Media, “he’s always been really good, especially about getting women.” Though, Carr adds, “The makeup of the panel, especially with that title, is unfortunate.”
Carr is a perfect example of why white guys should ask these questions. He isn’t a racist. In fact, as editor of the Washington City Paper, he says he worked diligently to change the fact that, in predominantly black D.C., his reporters were predominantly white. “It’s obviously the right thing to do, but it’s also for our self-interest,” says Carr. “I see it as a logic and a business issue.” As for the notion of a boycott, Carr says he’d think about it. “On the one hand, I would be loath to boycott Patrick because he’s got a track record with me,” he says. “But am I going to start analyzing in what context I’ll appear going forth? Yeah, I think so.”
Some event planners are a step ahead of him. Carr says South by Southwest organizers worked with him to ensure his panel was racially diverse and gender balanced. And even more stringent is the progressive media event Netroots Nation. Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots, says they “pretty much reject out of hand” any panel that’s composed of all white men.
After all the Twitter mockery, CNET writer Caroline McCarthy was added to the “Future of Media” panel, which Carr says makes it “more fair, if not balanced.” But had McCarthy—or another woman, or a black man, or an Asian—been added at the beginning, it would have saved everyone a lot of frantic phone calls and apologetic tweets.
Carr says that years ago he was on a panel with Jack Shafer, who is now a writer for Slate, when someone pointed out to them that the panel was mostly white men. Shafer joked, “But the entitled white male perspective is such an interesting perspective,” and everybody laughed. When Carr told me this, I laughed, too. But I think the time for laughter has passed. It’s now time for the likes of Shafer and Carr and Ackerman to get serious about this subject. We know people will listen—there’s a million white-dude panels in history to prove it.