The first and only article I ever published in my high school paper was an assignment for journalism class.
It was about an event launching the newest Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by my shero Dr. Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Despite the momentous occasion that people from around the country had gathered to honor, my little dinky high school paper was one of the few to cover it.
Why? Because that is how systemic oppression functions. What people of color think about, feel, do and achieve is often marginalized or not considered “newsworthy.”
This is nothing new.
My entire body of work is predicated on these truths: what I have to say is important, my life matters, and the lives of people of color matter. Our experiences deserve to be centered, validated, and shared.
To that end the articles I write are often stories that don’t get told in mainstream white publications. And when I do write about “mainstream issues” (read: shit that white people care about), I write from a perspective and in a voice that is not often heard.
From time to time I’ve made a point to provide counter narratives when #journalismsowhite gets it wrong again. But for the most part I am less interested in being reactive and more interested in proactively promoting the incredible work that is taking place in my community, whether it’s art, activism, or just a great southend brunch.
In the three years I’ve been a columnist for The Seattle Globalist, as well as publishing articles with the Black Girl Nerds Blog, the South Seattle Emerald, Crosscut, and Yes! Magazine, I have never been “scooped” before. You would think I would have experienced this journalism rite of passage, but I have a pretty good guess as to why not:
White media doesn’t care about, or maybe even actively wants to erase, the things I write about.
So I was surprised (and surprisingly pissed off) when, literally 30 minutes before I finished writing what I still consider to be the most comprehensive piece on Natasha Marin’s Reparations project, The Stranger popped up with a five paragraph nothing article “breaking” the story. The piece was a place holder, the entire purpose of which was to say “hey this black lady used the word ‘reparations’ and is asking for shit, who knows what’s going to happen next.”
After derailing my schedule to conduct interviews, spending hours transcribing and putting together a piece that actually delved into the nuance of the project and the historical context behind it, I wanted to punch the writer, Rich Smith, in the face. I called my editor to help me breathe through my rage. He was mad too, but he assured me my piece was better and that, in the scheme of things, that was more important than it coming out first.
Part of me was furious at the way white media took this really interesting project and smushed it into racialized clickbait.
Before long, Reparations.me went viral and I watched the story get picked up first by all the other local mainstream media, then by the Washington Post and even the BBC.
I was excited that Marin’s project had become so well publicized. She is a fellow black woman artist (and a friend) who has been creating fascinating work for years with little to no fanfare. In fact, the article I wrote about the Red Lineage project she created just a few months back (you know before white media “discovered” her) was some of the first media attention she garnered, despite showing her art internationally.
But part of me was furious at the way white media took this really interesting project and smushed it into racialized clickbait. It’s like journalists read the word “Reparations” then didn’t bother to read the rest of the project description. They took a project that centralized the needs of people of color and doing the work to create a bridge through this collective racial trauma towards some sort of healing and spun it into a story about black people begging for charity.
Not only did I feel marginalized as a journalist, as my story got shunted aside in favor of the inaccurate, mediocre whitewashed retelling, but then I got to watch white media marginalize black art and a black artist…again. What is the point of “mainstream media” providing coverage of non-white issues if they aren’t going to take the time to get it right?!
I decided to give voice to my frustration. First I posted the link to my article on all of my social media and asked my friends to read it and share it. Anytime anyone posted an article on the subject that missed the mark, I put the link to my piece in the comments to supplement the anemic narrative.
Then I took it a step further. I went through every article written by a Seattle news outlet and began to send the writers my unsolicited critiques via the comments section of their articles (in addition to posting the link to my piece there too).
Yes, this was my version of a temper tantrum — me screaming at the top of my lungs that I had a voice that deserved to be heard.
I’m glad you want to join me in writing articles that move people of color’s experiences… But get it right.
Strangely, writing critiques was the thing that pulled me out of my anger and returned me to myself. For the past several years I have felt a strong calling to teach writing. It began with a dream about my grandmother from which I awoke with the curriculum plan for a memoir writing class. Teaching that class has been such a gift to me. In empowering others to tell their stories and to use their voices I found myself connecting on a deep level with my students and their lives.
Moreover, I found a universal truth, the common thread of their humanity woven through their stories. It didn’t matter if I was reading about a young Korean woman’s tales of religion and sexuality or an elderly white man’s stories about coming of age in a small town. No matter how radically different their lives were from my own, there was something they said or felt that resonated with me.
As I began to critique the articles about Reparations.me, those writers became human to me again, not simply agents of the faceless white supremacist patriarchy that is systematically working to silence me at all times. They became my students and if you have ever taken a class with me, you know that I am exacting. I demand a lot from you, but I do so with compassion because I understand what one must sacrifice to be worthy of the gifts writing has to offer.
So, dear white media, here is the gift I want to give you. This simple truth will make you a better writer, a better person, and will prevent me from having to call you out on your lazy, tone deaf, apathetic attempt to include people of color in your journalism:
If I can remember that you are a human being, then you can remember that we are human beings too — all those people who may or may not look like you, dress like you, eat the same food, have the same color skin, or speak the same language.
You may look at me and see my differences, but don’t stop there. See all of me. Develop what columnist Sarah Stuteville calls a “staring problem.”
I am calling you in. I’m glad you want to join me in writing articles that move people of color’s experiences from the margin to the center. It’s about frickin time. And there is more than enough for all of us to write about. But get it right.
Media is a mirror of our culture. This experience has highlighted for me the fact that the majority of journalism is not created with a respect for humanity. I don’t know when or why, but this need to be detached and to appear objective has caused in erosion of our common sense.
What is needed now is for us all to become more connected. You can’t report accurately about a community if you don’t understand it, and the best way to cultivate understanding is to engage and participate. You owe it to yourself — and yes, you owe it to the communities you’ve been charged with covering — to be diligent, to be ethical and to tell the truth.
So please take this as an invitation to rejoin the human race. And do better.
You can join Reagan Jackson and Natasha Marin for a discussion of the Reparations.me project tonight at the Northwest African American Museum.
Reagan will also be joining a panel discussion on #JournalismSoWhite at Town Hall Seattle on October 25th, along with Seattle Globalist News Editor Venice Buhain and others.