Whiteness as default

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I’m guessing that a two-minute video produced a student homecoming committee was not meant to appear in The New York Times in this way. And yet, in 2020, here we are again: Still discussing race as it exists in America, and grappling with the realities of our racial condition from one decade to the next.

This isn’t a criticism of the University of Wisconsin or of its actions, simply because I believe that the there’s little left to be said and other people are saying it better than I can. I do believe that everybody involved in the situation had good intentions and acknowledge that missing out all the people of color from a university video celebrating the campus is a terrible, bad, and inaccurate thing to do. (As one commenter on YouTube pointed out, it’s like creating a documentary about D-Day and only including the Canadians.)

Instead, I’m discussing two observations we can draw from the video: First, nobody noticed the whiteness and thought it was a problem until after the video was published and students of color noticed and complained. Second, the university’s follow-up video was a feature on students of color and their achievements on the university.

Nobody noticed it was so white

That the video was published only featuring white students means we can reasonably conclude that nobody thought this was a serious enough problem during the video’s editing and production. (The Times article notes that Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, had been filmed; they simply weren’t included in the final cut.)

It signifies the unfortunate reality of race in America: Whiteness is seen as the default and standard, for the presence of an all-white group of people of any kind does not arise any suspicions or signify any alarm bells.

We would probably not say the same if the video — or theatre casting, or stage performance, or any other media production — were all Black, all Latinx, all Asian American, all South Asian or, more expansively, all people of color; nor would we probably be so insensitive if the characters featured were all visibly masculine or feminine.

This is a sign of the white supremacy that race theorists describe in the United States. White people are not a racial category in and of itself, but rather the default category from where the “other” races are drawn. An all-white video for homecoming arises no suspicions at all. Whiteness is the null value for race in the United States.

The burden of correcting white people’s mistakes… again disproportionally falls upon people of color

When the problems were finally identified and students of color began to speak up, the university’s response was a series of statements acknowledging and apologizing and promising to improve, as well as a video of students of color each stating their achievements and aspirations at the university.

It is difficult to watch because it is such a painful and poignant reminder that the mistakes of white people on race become obligations placed upon people of color. It necessarily becomes the work of people of color: to actually fix these problems, and to resolve the guilt of the white people who committed the source mistakes so that they can get to problem solving.

Neither are ideal or acceptable, but are necessarily evils that many people of color face every day just to move on with their lives. These students are, as the video insists, doctors and researchers and practitioners and musicians and artists and more. But their very presence and the video’s very existence also belies the contradiction and their unalterable identity: They are people of color and they are there, stating their name and work, because we have to continually make the case for our own existence.

We can never be just scholars. We can never be just Badgers, or just Wildcats, or just Americans. We will always be that, and more.


Hong Kong, a poem

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a convention was signed, forced upon unequal
and then there was the 99-year sequel
and so I was born, all alive and free
until Victoria granted letters patent to thee

and George — well, he got it wrong more than right
from harbors to railroads to cities walled by blight
and as the people suffered from poor sanitation
the answer was to establish a peak reservation

And when young men arrived, championing a new cause
he scampered off and left some maple to their claws
and they spoke in tongues even I didn’t understand
of a Greater Prosperity in and among this land

But a bomb was dropped, and then another
and she greeted me like a surrogate mother
“Elizabeth,” she said, her voice a command
that she would, once again, rule us by her foreign hand

Then one day he turned up, war-battered and torn
so Elizabeth let me go in the middle of a storm
saying goodbye forever, and I won’t forget you
your grandpa and I, we declared it as truth

Jin — well, he too got it wrong more than he got it right
but I didn’t believe he was doing it from spite
for he said that he would most certainly leave me alone
to heal the wounds left on my hip and jawbone
and, that day, to celebrate our reunification
he gave me a flower as the gift from a nation

I needed the time, I needed to think
but he’s here again, now dressed up in pink
and apparently he thinks he’s been waiting too long
for me to agree that I did so belong
so he came to encourage me to speed up the process
of healing, love, understanding and rest

I said “no way” and turned round to leave
so he grabbed my arm and tore off my sleeve
and I looked in his eye and I saw no love there
no more than Elizabeth had once laid out bare
and so he slapped me; across the face, three times
Article 23, election powers and breach of the peace crimes

And now I am here, bleeding out and in tears
crying out amongst gases and peppers and riot gear
and as I fight back, the one thing I’ve learned
who asked me if I consent to be governed?

“Embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” I’m not sure if these journalists are describing the Daily Northwestern or themselves.

Future Of Journalism / Journalism / Posts

After The Daily Northwestern apologized for actions by its student journalists during a recent campus visit by former attorney general Jeff Sessions, the professional journalists began to pile on.

Robert Feder, known for his coverage of the Chicago media scene, described the Daily’s editorial as “bizzare” and “embarrassing.” Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for The Washington Post (my current employer), said it was a travesty and embarrassment. Stephanie Zimmerman, currently with the Chicago Sun-Times (my former internship employer) and an instructor for Medill’s high school summer journalism program, said it was “ridiculous” and “journalists at @thedailynu should not apologize for DOING THEIR JOB.”

Their words are incredibly disappointing.

None of these journalists appeared to have done any reporting into the underlying circumstances of the issue. The Daily apologized for two separate and specific concerns of their reporting process: First, that they published photographs of student protestors at the event, and second, that they reached out via text to some protestors to ask them for comment.

I’ll address the second concern early, because it’s a pretty simple circumstance: The source of the protestors’ contact information was the University Directory, which is not an open, publicly-accessible data source. The University’s online directory at https://directory.northwestern.edu is available to the public, but information such as physical addresses and phone numbers are only presented to on-campus network users and those who sign in with a Northwestern NetID, not members of the general public. This information is sourced from the many forms that students complete throughout their time at Northwestern, including for emergency contacts.

It is reasonable for all students — including these protestors — to expect that their private data provided to Northwestern for purposes such as campus emergency notifications would not be used by The Daily’s journalists for reporting, and such contact would be seen as an infiltration of privacy, in the same way that any professional journalist should not be using a non-public data source for their reporting. (And if you are, then we do need to be having a conversation — and it’ll be a conversation about journalism ethics, privacy expectations, and the law like GDPR and California’s data protection legislation.)

There’s also a pretty simple response to the professional journalists’ criticism of supposed infringements of the First Amendment: Northwestern University is a private university and the First Amendment does not apply. But I feel that this would be a disingenuous response to their criticisms, because I think they are upset that The Daily has seemingly caved to public pressure and refused to stand up for the principles of the First Amendment as they apply to the freedom of the press.

To this, I respond that the freedom of the press not includes the freedom to publish the news, but the freedom to not publish the news as well. As members of professional news organizations, these journalists should have recognized the right of the newsroom editors to make calls about what is and what is not published, and the right of the same editors to respond to their readers’ criticisms of those decisions.

I have witnessed many meetings where senior editors have decided not to run certain images or videos because they felt the specific impacts on victims outweighed the newsworthiness to the general public. The only difference here is The Daily is doing it after-the-fact, and admitting their first instincts were probably wrong.

The First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause protects journalists from retribution or punishment by the narrow interests of those wielding government power, but does not mean that journalists are immune from the general public’s criticisms of their coverage. In fact, journalists should be hyperaware of and sensitive to criticism, because the public cannot hold journalists accountable through the regular mechanisms of democracy’s government machinery in institutions like Congress.

Nor are journalists an unaccountable arm of the law and the secret police of the government, which is why institutions such as the storied Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — which, as many of these journalists did correctly note, does not operate The Daily, but is where many of the student editors study — put such heavy emphasis on consequential rights and protections, such as shield laws for journalism, in its courses and teachings.

Many of these professional journalists criticizing The Daily entered the industry during a time when society did not have access to the same technological tools as we do today, such as facial recognition algorithms and tools for large-scale data mining. The best practices of journalism must learn and adapt to these new threats for democracy. If anything, these students have a better understanding of what’s necessary for journalism’s future if our liberal democracy is to survive.

Finally, I’ll note one observation for the pedagogy: Many of the professional journalists criticizing The Daily Northwestern are white. Many of the student editors who signed the Daily’s note are not.

I’ve reminded of this excellent soundbite from Nikole Hannah-Jones: “White journalists’ obsession with objectivity comes from being a white person in a white-dominated country in which all of the laws were in the favor of whiteness.”

These professional’s criticisms of the protestors — that they “should have stayed home” and maybe “wrote a letter” from their dorms — are such patronizing comments about what I know to be a patient and well-informed cross-section of Northwestern’s already exceedingly intellectual community of students. These patronizations are stocked in the same aisle as the “There’s nothing you can do about it” lollipops and the “I’m not a racist but” detergents.

They invalidate these protestors’ activism, they patronize these protestor’s criticisms of Jeff Session’s complicity in the racism, sexism, and encouragement of violence by the Trump administration, and they seek to wash these journalists of the guilt of the media’s historical and continued indifference when it comes to the plight and suffering of the peoples of color, the LGBTQ+ communities, the immigrants and newly-naturalized populations, the poor and the needy, and anybody else who does not look or live life like the senior editors in the offices of these professional newsrooms.

Cut it out, you all. I’m not having it.