K Paoletter 19: Step Back

What are you willing to give up to end white supremacy? 

This, our nation’s most recent bout of reckoning with pervasive racial injustice, has blessedly already swept away all manner of noxious media figures, and forced many others to embrace a new level of accountability for how little they have done to ensure equity at their organizations. Bon Appétit’s Adam Rapoport, he of the brown-faced Halloween costume and tokenizing treatment of non-white contributors, has been the most high-profile to lose his job, though other leaders, including Refinery29’s Christene Barberich and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Wischnowski, have likewise been forced out because of their ugly treatment of people of color and general tone deafness. 

Dethroning figures who have not just failed to create an inclusive environment at their media organizations, but have actively made the lives of their non-white employees worse, is the easy part. It is something of a mark of progress that we now take for granted that leaders say the right things about wanting to create a platform for a more diverse array of voices, and that those who are actively hampering that agenda are summarily dismissed. Yet the idea that the departure of figures like Rapoport represents some sea-change for the media is silly. The real break from the past represented by the past few weeks is that not only are the most odious people being weeded out, but the rank-and-file of many organizations are now pushing the white leaders who have failed to transform the culture of the offices they oversee to either do better or step down. 

The current situation at the Ringer is an apt example. The union that represents the sports and pop culture website’s employees recently called out management for the finding that 86% of the speakers on its podcast network were white, as well as the fact the site has no Black editors and, until last month, no Black writers assigned to cover the NFL or NBA. The Ringer’s founder, Bill Simmons, acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times that the site “fell short” while also defending the lack of diversity on its podcasts by saying, “It’s a business. This isn’t Open Mic night.” Predictably, that quote triggered a tsunami of criticism, most of it expressing disbelief that Simmons somehow didn’t trust any of the handful of Black contributors to the Ringer’s website to develop a podcast audience yet still gave multiple podcasts to a friend from college with no media experience whatsoever. 

What’s particularly galling about Simmons’ regime is that he had an opportunity to start fresh. The Ringer was only launched in 2016— that its staff has failed to remotely match the demographics of the constituency the website seeks to serve is indicative of the unspoken (and unacknowledged) bias that governs the decision making of so many supposedly well-meaning white people. That even a company of such recent vintage can prove indifferent to assembling a diverse staff helps to clarify the abysmal record of  media institutions with a longer history. The number of non-white editors-in-chief of national magazines is vanishingly small, and Radhika Jones (by far the most prominent) only ascended to the top of the masthead of Vanity Fair last year. In a recent appearance on the Longform Podcast, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet joked that only two Black people had ever held the top job at a major newspaper, “and both of them are me.” 

The writer Jay Kang, in an interview with the Diversity Hire podcast last week, described the unhappy six months he’d spent as a web editor at the New Yorker in 2014, a period when you could count the number of other non-white editors in the office on one hand. Kang left because he could not bear the dissonance between that environment and the high-minded rhetoric about racial justice he heard from his white colleagues. The experience left him completely disillusioned with the ability of legacy institutions to ever confront the unspoken white supremacy that governs their hiring practices and management: “How do you convince them to change the way that they think and give other people chances without really jeopardizing their own jobs? Most people in those situations care very deeply about keeping those jobs because they’ve worked their entire lives to get there.” The answer, Kang believes, is for non-white writers to abandon these instituions completely. (To that end, Kang recently co-founded the newsletter and podcast Time to Say Goodbye with two other Asian Amerians, journalist E. Tammy Kim and historian Andy Liu. I highly recommend both it and Diversity Hire.)

As a white writer, even one committed to the abolition of white supremacy, it’s natural to feel left out of such resolutions. And that’s exactly the point. We have little precedent to look to in seeking to understand what an anti-racist media organization looks like, and thus also no idea if there can possibly be a role for a white person at that sort of outlet. At the same time, those of us who have some measure of access to the legacy institutions these new organizations are being developed as an antidote to still have a responsibility to advocate whenever possible for the hiring of non-white staffers, as well as for reporting assignments at those publications to go non-white writers, artists, and photojournalists— even when that means less work for us. 

So I ask again: how much are you willing to give up to end white supremacy? Are you willing to hamper your own career, or even find a new one? It’s easy to tweet venomously about a wealthy white magazine editor dressing up as a “Puerto Rican,” but much harder to confront how the less overt racism of the industry has granted you admittance into spaces where there are no Puerto Ricans. I’m a long way off from figuring out how to establish a stable career for myself—yet another white guy who likes to write — that doesn’t come at the expense of the people who have too long been denied that opportunity. Maybe the answer is figuring out a different path entirely. As the reckoning continues, I encourage my white colleagues to not get defensive or feel compelled to prove their wokeness. If you’re white and you want to end white supremacy, you’ll have to give something up. So what’s it gonna be?

I spent most of the late spring reporting out this oral history of the Seaport for Boston magazine— it uses the voices of thirty or so artists, developers, music promoters, valets, bureaucrats, urban designers, and residents to describe the machinations that transformed a district of parking lots and mobbed-up restaurants into one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Last month I also wrote about Arizona Highways for the Columbia Journalism Review, arguing that the publication’s rise over the course of the 20th Century from an engineering circular to a tourism magazine with a half million subscribers helps to explain the eye-popping population surge of the Grand Canyon State.

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or (still) walking around the MIT campus in search of baby bunnies. 

Your pal,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s