Sorry to 'The New Yorker,' But I Don’t Care if the Woman Calling Out Their Racism is ‘Likeable’

The magazine fired archivist Erin Overbey in July after she spent months tweeting about workplace inequality.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Aug 12 2022

13 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

‎Last September, then-New Yorker archive editor Erin Overbey published a long Twitter thread breaking down data she’d analyzed about the stories published by the magazine during a 30-year period, with a few extra data points spanning its entire 96-year history. A few key takeaways:

  • Between 1990 and 2020, only 3.6% of the book reviews published in the magazine were by Black critics or writers. Less than 1% were by Indian-American writers, 12 (not 12%, literally just 12) were by Asian-Americans and 7 (again not 7%, 7) were by Latinx writers. Only 28% were by women.
  • During that same time period, the magazine published 1 profile by a Latinx writer & 4 by Black women. Only 0.7% of profiles written between 1990 and 2020 were by Asian-American writers, 5% by Black writers and 32% by women.
  • During that same period, it published 0 film reviews by writers or critics of colour, 0 art reviews by writers or critics of colour and 0 classical music reviews by women or writers of colour.
  • At that time, the magazine had only published 4 book reviews by African-American women, ever. It had never published a Critic at Large piece by a Black or Asian woman.
  • In the 15 years prior to Overbey’s thread, less than 0.01% of features and criticism had been edited by a Black editor.

The numbers were damning, if not actually surprising, and even those who tried to defend the magazine—like Michael Luo, who runs NewYorker.com—couldn’t argue with her findings. He could only say that the magazine, and its long-time editor-in-chief David Remnick, had been prioritizing diversity and inclusion in recent years and that the magazine had recently hired a diverse slate of editors, staff writers and contributing writers. But there weren’t many people defending the magazine anyway; most of those who I saw engaging with the thread praised Overbey for calling out a legacy media publication’s racism, especially since she still worked there.  

Interestingly, the day she published the thread, Overbey (who is one of my Twitter mutuals) told New York magazine that she hadn’t received any institutional pushback, and she hoped she wouldn’t going forward. “This is data. It’s honest data. If we’re not even open to the data, how are we actually going to move the needle forward?” she asked.

Well, about that.

Condé Nast hasn’t learned any new tricks, I see

Though they didn’t say anything publicly, the higher-ups at both The New Yorker and its parent company, Condé Nast, were clearly angry about Overbey’s whistleblowing, because over the next few months, she says she felt a “tremendous amount of pressure” at work. This culminated in a performance review in July 2022, ostensibly for “being ‘disrespectful,’ potentially ‘insubordinate,’ ha[ving] factual inaccuracies in [her] writing [and] ‘violating policy’ by resurfacing similar themes & content & speaking about Hiroshima,” but more likely because of her continued insistence on speaking out about workplace inequality. ‎

‎Overbey posted a point-by-rebuttal of these claims on Twitter, including the fairly shocking accusation that Remnick had deliberately added factual errors into her work knowing she was under a performance review and could be terminated for such an infraction. (Email correspondence backs up her claim that Remnick introduced errors, though it's possible this was accidental.) Predictably, this thread went viral, too. Within a few days, the magazine had fired her and launched what she characterized as a smear campaign against her, including a strangely gossip-y exposé in Gawker that, much like Luo’s tweets 10 months earlier, ignored her actual critique about how many racialized people get published in the print magazine in favour of bringing up information I would classify as irrelevant—in this case the fact that seven anonymous sources did not like Overbey and believed her Twitter threads were suspiciously timed to “inoculate herself from disciplinary action.”

A second piece published this week in media criticism newsletter The Fine Print repeats similar talking points, though it's more balanced and offers significantly more context about the culture of the institution, which is driven by gossip—and the notion that what happens at The New Yorker should stay at The New Yorker, instutional etiquette that is absolutely playing into its reaction to Overbey's tweets.

She is a prolific writer of Twitter threads and has all the receipts, including screenshots that debunk claims that she wasn’t very involved in internal diversity efforts at the mag, so I'm not going to go into that side of this story. Instead, I’m stuck on the idea of ‘likeability.’ One Gawker source claimed that when Overbey was passed over for a promotion, her “joie de vivre around the office and her sociability [had] really curdled into a kind of resentment of the magazine.” Another implied the sole reason we haven’t seen anyone from The New Yorker speak up in her defense is that she has no allies there: “Look, I don't think you can find a single example of anyone who currently works at The New Yorker speaking up for Erin, and I think that probably says it all,” they said. And even legitimate-sounding critiques—that she didn’t cooperate with union reps, for example—also make her seem, well, unpleasant.

In The Fine Print piece, critiques about Overbey also centre on her personality, with sources variously claiming that she was difficult to work with, once yelled at a copy editor at a holiday party and, bizarrely, that she was the inspiration for a character in a play that commits mass murder. (According to the playwright, a former New Yorker employee, she was not.) But, as another source says, “I’m sure Erin made her mistakes. I’m sure other people made their mistakes. But it seems to me, just from my experience working there, and the things that I was privy to in my role, that a lot of it is just about personal dislike, and then having an opportunity now to get rid of her. I think there are different standards for different people at the magazine. Some people turn in incredibly messy, totally, factually shaky work all the time, but because of the writer they are, they’re never going to come under performance review for that unless they did something else that embarrassed the magazine, and then that would come up.”

What does Erin Overbey’s personality have to do with literally anything?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this extremely well-respected, seemingly progressive legacy publication decided their best chance to spin this situation was to paint a woman who ‘wronged’ them as mean. (If this sounds clumsy in a very familiar way, Condé Nast also owns Bon Appétit, and I’m sure you remember how that went.) I'm also not surprised that people who already didn't like her seem to be taking this opportunity to explain why they were right along. In both instances, this seems like a clear attempt to harness the ‘likeability paradox.’ According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article by sociologist Marianne Cooper, “decades of social science research—by psychologists like Madeline Heilman at NYU, Susan Fiske at Princeton, Laurie Rudman at Rutgers, Peter Glick at Lawrence University, and Amy Cuddy at Harvard—[has] repeatedly found that women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.”‎ Some of those things? Being assertive, firm and principled. Sounds familiar.

Most of research about women and likeability centres on work and leadership. For example, in 2019, the likeability of female presidential candidates (or rather, the lack thereof) was a major topic of discussion. Surveys by the New York Times and Siena College presented voters with a statement—“most women who are running for president just aren’t likable”—and asked whether they agreed. A staggering 40% said they did.

But likeability is a factor in all spheres of life. I mean, we all know the internet can turn on female celebrities with little warning, a phenomenon that writer Rayne Fisher-Quann has brilliantly dubbed being ‘woman’d.’ “Anne Hathaway, Britney Spears, Millie Bobby Brown: time and time again, young women have been sentenced to death in the court of public opinion for the crime of being too visible, too successful, too proud, not good enough at performing humility or coolness or whatever new mode of womanhood is enforceable that week,” she recently wrote in I.D. Sure, Overbey is not a celebrity, but as any woman who says things on the internet knows, this dynamic can come for anyone.

Of course, I’m not actually convinced Overbey was mean, but for the sake of argument, let’s take these anonymous claims at face value. In addition to being a ridiculous critique—sorry, but women don’t actually have to be accommodating, compliant, magnanimous or nice when they’re critiquing their workplaces, or any other time for that matter—her allegedly grating personality is also irrelevant. Reports of vague unfriendliness are not a credible rebuttal of her data, and I don’t think her smiling more or whatever would magically add more racialized writers to The New Yorker’s archives or editors to the masthead, you know?

All of this gossip about Overbey is a distraction from what really matters: the numbers

I wanted to start this newsletter with Overbey's initial thread because the numbers are actually the most important part of this story, and sorry to be repetitive but I have to remind again you just how bad they are: in 30 years, The New Yorker published exactly ZERO art, film or classical music reviews by writers of colour of any gender. In almost 100 years, a time period that covers literally hundreds of issues and probably thousands of reviews, there were only four instances when New Yorker editors assigned a Black woman to write a book review, and there are sections of the magazine where they never saw fit to publish a Black or Asian woman.

‎Apparently, according to Gawker, “some staffers [take] issue with [Overbey’s] characterization—the data largely focused on the print magazine rather than the website, where most new hiring has taken place and where a more diverse staff has been assembled.” But even that is discriminatory because while NewYorker.com does publish a more diverse slate of writers, it also pays those writers a fraction of the money their white counterparts get for print stories and offers them significantly less prestige to leverage elsewhere in the industry. And while the magazine may have hired diversely in the past year or two, that doesn't change the fact that, for decades, there were no Black editors on staff. I'd also be curious to hear how senior those new employees are, tbh, because media is notorious for hiring assistant editors and producers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but the more senior (and therefore powerful) an editor, the more likely they are to be white.

For the record, I know this because of data. The American Society of News Editors' 2018 newspaper diversity survey found most newsrooms are whiter than the cities they cover, and even when there is a more ethnically diverse team, leadership is concentrated among white people. This trend holds in Canada, too, btw. Last year, the Canadian Association of Journalists published its 2021 Canadian Newsroom Diversity Survey, one of the few sources of data about the ethnic makeup of Canadian newsrooms. It found “a distinct lack of diversity in Canadian newsrooms. White journalists tended to hold more senior and stable jobs [emphasis mine], with white journalists holding 81.9 per cent of supervisor roles and 79.6 per cent of top three leadership positions. Approximately 90 per cent of outlets that participated had no Latin, Middle Eastern or Mixed Race journalists on staff. About 80 per cent had no Black or Indigenous journalists.” (The results of the 2022 survey haven’t been released yet.)

‎I’ve written extensively about what those stats mean on a practical level for racialized journalists working in this country, but I don't think I've talked as much about how much time and effort I personally have spent thinking about likeability. For all of the amazing experiences I've had as a journalist, I've also often felt lonely in newsrooms, and like I'm responsible for how the publication covers every race, not just my own. I've had to constantly navigate microaggressions—and to decide which ones I have the energy to address, while simultaneously feeling like it's irresponsible to let things go because I'm on deadline or just don't have the energy. And I worry, a lot, about how I sound when I say that something is racist: Am I being nice enough? Will the person I'm trying to inform get offended? How will speaking up affect how my colleagues and bosses think of me, and what opportunities they think I deserve? I think less about these things now, but it's not like the impulse to be likeable has just gone away.

So, maybe I'm biased because I know what it feels like to have your (objectively excellent) work overshadowed by someone else's feelings about you, but honestly, who gives a fuck if Overbey was unfriendly sometimes?

The editorial decision to assign white writers and hire white editors for almost everything at your publication is not an accident or oversight; it is an example of active, impactful, ongoing discrimination. That's what the magazine and its defenders are trying to distract from with this shit, and we should not let them.


And Did You Hear About…

This really thoughtful essay on the (justified) outcry over Lizzo and Beyoncé using ableist slurs in their recent songs—and why it’s a problem that they’re held to a higher standard than other artists.

My favourite/least favourite Twitter feed of the week.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s fascinating column on Yellowstone, the “soapy conservative prestige television juggernaut” that perfectly illustrates the difference between how liberals and conservatives consume pop culture.

The trailer for House of Hammer, the documentary about five generations of problematic men—yes, including Armie.

This smart essay on nepo babies, Sydney Sweeney and who really makes the money, a counterpoint to last week’s And Did You Hear About link about Sweeney’s annoying, oh-woe-is-me PR strategy. (I’m still not going to defend any literal millionaires, but this did make me re-think my initial reaction.)

Bonus: doggy surfers.

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