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I Wrote A Letter To Gene Lyons

Yes, it’s true! I am also putting up two posts a day, apparently. Because, long story short: This is really racist and sexist. And it deserves a response. And it’s getting a response, from a lot of people. That response deserves your attention. My letter is quoted below, with only three edits. All of those edits were for the purpose of adding links, or embedding a link rather than simply quoting the HTML.  Because: I don’t know Melissa Harris-Perry. At all. But I know that people shouldn’t have to deal with attacks like the one just written by Gene Lyons, as a common result of having done their jobs.

Hi Gene —

Basically, I never do this. And I’m sure it’s not the most professional thing I’ve ever done. In fact, I have to make it clear that I’m speaking purely for myself here, and not for any publication I work with. But I too have published at Salon, and have the greatest of respect for them, and I have to ask: What on Earth were you thinking with that piece on Melissa Harris-Perry? And don’t say it wasn’t about her. It clearly was. Calling on her looks and simultaneously calling her stupid — “an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things” — was the purest sexism I’ve seen in quite some time. How could your opinion on the looks of a female colleague possibly be relevant to a published piece? Similarly, your opening paragraphs were some of the most racist vitriol I’ve seen from a progressive in recent years. You claim that Harris-Perry is somehow intimidating people into giving her tenure — oh, no, a scary black person! And another implication that she’s stupid, which this time has racist as well as sexist overtones — and is somehow comparable to the KKK, and that her idea that people of color (er, especially scholars who study race) might have a keener understanding of race than your average white person is somehow obfuscatory or dishonest, something to be glossed over with a “yadda, yadda.”

Well. You hardly proved her wrong, with statements like those. I also had serious problems with your claim that for the Obama administration to address some of the obvious racism aimed at it would be an admission of “weakness,” or “politically stupid.” Addressing race and racism is definitively not weak. If anything, it takes tremendous strength and courage — which Melissa Harris-Perry has proved, by talking about it and becoming subject to vicious character assassination from folks like yourself. It’s also not “stupid.” It’s a difficult topic that takes tremendous insight and composure to address adequately. But it is something that people steer away from, because of the climate you’re creating, in which to address racism or sexism aimed at one’s work is to invite further racist and sexist treatment. The work you are doing here is the work of making race unspeakable in America. And that work explicitly supports racism, by making it impossible for people to challenge racial discrimination. It also, not coincidentally, creates a hostile work environment for writers of color, and for female writers, thereby repelling them from the field. As a white woman who has experienced some effects of this hostile work environment, I can assure you that it has a real impact, and significantly dissuades people from participating in the political discussion at all. I’m sure that as a liberal, and as someone who values writing, you don’t want to be a part of that enormous problem.

I know that pile-ons and angry e-mails can be difficult to deal with, and I’m not writing this to hurt you, although I’ll understand if you do feel attacked or hurt. But I hope you can hear what I and many other people are saying: that piece simply wasn’t acceptable from anyone who professes to be a “liberal,” or for that matter from any published writer. I need to make it clear here that I’m far from the only person to have been dismayed by your piece, and I’m not taking any sort of “lead” here. For more reactions from colleagues for whom you’ve created a hostile work environment, I’d point you to @JamilSmith’s Twitter account, or to this piece from Elon James White. You may have seen these reactions already, but I assure you, these two men are far from the only two people reacting to your actions with dismay, anger, and hurt. And you owe it to all of those people to set things right. To do anything else severely undermines your credibility as a “liberal” or political columnist. I trust that you’ll deal with this in a responsible and public way.

As I’ve said, I have great respect for Salon. Salon publishes fabulous writers, and has great editors behind them. I also know that Salon maintains the highest editorial standards, especially when it comes to corrections. At one point, they appended a formal correction to my work because I used one incorrect word — “charges” instead of “allegations,” in a piece about the Julian Assange case. Which makes the lack of formal apology and correction on your piece very puzzling, to me. It may be that you need to take the initiative here, in terms of publicly admitting wrongdoing. So I’ll eagerly await your formal and public apology, and your admission of accountability for smearing and attacking a colleague, in an overtly racist and sexist manner, under cover of writing a piece about (of all things) bridges. Speaking of bridges, I know that I might be burning mine. But yours were apparently firebombed the moment you chose to send in that piece.


Sady Doyle


  1. Lu wrote:

    I’m sure you’ve seen the followup by Elon James White, republished on Salon today ( I’m only 2 pages into the responses, and already an appreciable number of huffy white people are taking their ball and going home (protesting their civil rights credentials and basically saying, “shouldn’t this ‘scholar’ be grateful to me instead of calling me a racist?”). p.s. I’m white, too, and certainly no paragon of anything, but the predictability of their umbrage is so tiresome.

    Friday, September 30, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Angela wrote:

    the piece has since been taken down by Salon. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, it didn’t deserve the internet space, and Salon didn’t deserve a traffic uptick for publishing garbage. On the other, removing the piece sort of feels like they’re trying to pretend it never happened.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Brandy wrote:

    They did a poor job of taking it down, actually, since you can still find it on the site:

    Monday, October 3, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  4. Hillary wrote:

    I honestly couldn’t believe that was on Salon. WTF.

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink