Sepia Mutiny’s Closure Is a Reminder: Blogging While Brown Ain’t Easy

The blogespehre was once a place where people of color could go to escape the racism of mainstream media. But the same forces that created online opportunities for bloggers of color are now devouring them.

By Jamilah King Apr 12, 2012

When bloggers at the South Asian American website Sepia Mutiny announced that the site would close last month, readers were saddened, but not necessarily shocked. Since it began in 2004, the blog had become an all-important virtual community square to talk about everything from politics and cultural identity to fiction. But in recent years, the website faced many of the same challenges that have plagued bloggers of all stripes–white and of color, broke and economically self-sufficient. "The blogosphere has evolved quite a bit since we first started and for a variety of reasons [Sepia Mutiny] has not been able to keep up in recent years so as to remain a cutting edge product both from a content and technological standpoint," the blog’s authors wrote. It had always been a labor of love; all of its contributors maintained full-time jobs from the blog’s inception. There was something else, too. The Sepia Mutiny team added that it felt its mission was complete, noting that there are many more media representations of South Asian Americans in 2012 than there were in 2004. "A Mutiny should naturally give way to a more organized movement of some kind. I believe SM did its job in sowing the seeds for that next chapter, whatever forms it now takes." Still, Sepia Mutiny’s closure hints at a broader dulling of the once-vibrant landscape of blogs run by and for communities of color. I talked to a handful of bloggers of color who described the unique challenges that come along with trying to maintain a safe space to talk meaningfully about race online. Some are paid for their work, but most aren’t. Together, they painted a picture of a steadily shrinking blogespere that, ironically, is being gobbled up by the same forces that helped create it. "Blogs are professional entities now, hosted by papers of record like the New York Times and staffed by seasoned journalists," Anna John, one of Sepia Mutiny’s co-founders, told me over email. "In one sense, it’s a lovely development, a validation of what so many of us were trying to do; on the other hand, it’s impossible to compete with that sort of abundance when you’re a small, all-volunteer labor of love." "There aren’t that many indie race blogs any more–but I think that there are less independent blogs in general these days," adds Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious. "Everyone wants to build a better Gawker or a brown version of Rookie." Peterson points to the Microagressions Project and Yo, Is This Racist? as two shorter format blogs that deal with race. And one study from Pew Internet and American Life in 2010 found that blogging is one the decline in favor of social media that favors shorter updates. But Peterson argues that "there are times when you just have to break things down"–and there are fewer and fewer people who are in a position to do that. "If we were to end Racialicious tomorrow, I can’t definitively point to something that would step up and take its place," Peterson says. "And that bothers me." Blogs have also offered a critical opportunity for communities to fill in the holes–and correct the errors–of the mainstream conversation about race. That’s what compelled Gene Demby to start blogging, around 2004. Comedian Bill Cosby had just given what later came to be known as his "Pound Cake speech" at the NAACP Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. In it, Cosby took aim at the use of ebonics and criticized black parents who gave their kids "names like Shaniqua." All of which, in Cosby’s explanation, was setting black Americans up to fail. Demby, who is black, is a former New York Times staffer who grew up in Philadelphia. He was playing basketball one day with a group of kids in Brooklyn when a CNN reporter walked up to interview the group about Cosby’s comments. "I pushed back on him really hard," Demby says of his interview with the reporter. "There are people who think black people’s condition in the world would be better if we just looked better. ‘Pull up your pants.’ It seemed so petty that we were having these conversations." So Demby started PostBourgie, a group blog modeled after conversations he’d long had with friends who shared his frustrations. "We wanted to have conversations that assumed that black people were human beings who were complicated and imperfect, a space that wasn’t super didactic." Susana Morris tells a similar story. In 2004, she was a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta who often felt uneasy with popular conversations about race and gender. At the time, the region’s crunk music was popular, and the term stuck. "When we’d approach people in lectures we joked, ‘I had to get crunk in class,’ " says Morris, who now teaches African American Literature at Auburn University. In 2010, Morris co-founded the Crunk Feminist Collective blog as a safe space to have intelligent conversations about issues that mattered. Like many of its blogging peers, Crunk Feminist Collective contributors often write from the grey areas of progressive politics. For instance, one recent post deals with how to reconcile wanting justice for Trayvon Martin (and thus prison time for George Zimmerman) with also believing strongly in prison abolition. Work your way through many of the most popular blogs in communities of color and you’ll hear story after story like Morris’s and Demby’s. And like Sara Ines Calderon, who grew up in a Latino community in Los Angeles and worked as a beat reporter for 10 years in Texas. She was often frustrated by what she calls the "cultural blindness" of corporate media. One day, her editors became intrigued by Latino vendors who sold ice cream on the street. Calderon didn’t see what the big deal was: she and nearly everyone she grew up around already knew that paletas were cousins to ice cream and sold by paleteros. But her editors wanted the story anyway and so she reported it. "I went around talking to these people and it scared them," she remembers. When she was approached by three other Latino journalists about starting a website that would target Latino audiences, she jumped at the opportunity, and News Taco was born. "The appeal was being able to talk about my experience, community, friends, culture, that wasn’t gushy–overly done." In each case, blogging began–and in many cases, remained–as a labor of love. Like Sepia Mutiny’s contributors, the bloggers I spoke with wrote their posts before and after their demanding full-time jobs, or in between classes. While racism often drove them to blog in the first place, it also exhausted them once they were there. "Writing about structural racism is an uphill battle," says Peterson. "There are so many people dropping into the conversation at so many different points and with different experiences, it feels like an exercise in futility." "Just writing and covering and talking about racism daily is exhausting and really emotionally taxing," Peterson adds. "I think people don’t realize that we aren’t desensitized–reading about these horrific things happening or reading yet another mind-numbing report on how systemic racism screws us all does get to us." On the other hand, blogging about race can also pay off in both praise and profits. Morris’s work at Crunk Feminist Collective has caught people’s attention. In February, the bloggers were invited to speak about hip-hop and feminism at Syracuse University. Then in March, they took up an invitation to speak at Yale University’s Women’s Center, where they met former Black Panther and current Yale Law Professor Kathleen Cleaver. "I had a total groupie moment," admits Morris about meeting Cleaver. "But people were fairly familiar with our work." PostBourgie became a favorite of many progressives, including many high profile bloggers. "A part of it is you’re in the conversation because a white person somewhere decided your voice was worth hearing," says Demby, who was able to take the blog with him to Huffington Post Black Voices when he became the website’s politics editor last spring. The increased visibility has its drawbacks, namely the influx of new readers who aren’t as willing or able to talk about race. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bloggers who are best equipped to sustain their blogs are people who already have experience in media and advertising. While blogging was once a fringe outlet for people who were fed up with mainstream media, that media’s caught up with the times. Rod McCullom worked in TV production for years before starting Rod 2.0 around 2008, a blog that targets black and Latino gay men. Since he was already familiar with the business end of media, he knew from the beginning that he needed advertising to survive. "If you look at successful sites, you know what you’re looking for," McCullom says, who supports himself financially with advertising revenue from his blog. "A lot of bloggers moved on to bigger jobs in the media," says editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay. "Small-scale blogs are ultimately not sustainable without proper funding sources–people can only work for free for so long and as a result they lose steam." For Mukhopadhyay, the shift in blogging culture signals a lack of infrastructure for people who want to talk about important issues in ways that don’t generate income. She suggests a progressive startup plan that’s funded by big non-profits and advocacy groups whose campaigns are often supported by bloggers and that can generate income. "The larger activist community needs to come together to figure out how to support our voices, since they matter." Sepia Mutiny co-founder John thinks that there is still a need to highlight elements of culture that seem too niche for mainstream press. "People respond to passion and sincerity," she says. "And people are hungry for unrepresented voices to shift and elevate the current level of discourse. It’s not a question of what we see in the media, it’s what we don’t see."