15 Women Signed This Letter Asking JAWS to Address Racism Within its Ranks

Subject: A response from the diverse fellows who attended JAWS CAMP 2018

Dear JAWS members,

We were honored to have been selected as fellows for the Journalism and Women Symposium CAMP this year, where we had the opportunity to meet so many legends of journalism. As a group, we find JAWS and its aims admirable and have already sought ways to support its growth. JAWS is valuable to both us and the broader media industry.

While JAWS opens doors for many women, doing so does not excuse the effects of discrimination by some of its members. To grow and survive, JAWS must redouble its efforts to offer women of color equal opportunity — and we feel the organization and its members need a serious look into the attitudes of privilege and dismissal of the views of perceived outsiders.

After the conclusion of CAMP, and Sunday’s diversity talk, we feel the need to voice our concerns as a diverse group of women journalists so that they can be better understood. There has been much chatter on the listserv regarding the final night of CAMP and the discussions that were held. In many ways, we feel like the “debriefs” from the conference on the listserv have not fully illuminated the true incidents and feelings that were felt that night, particularly by women of color.

It is important to note that we have given the JAWS board a full documentation of what occurred Sunday night and at CAMP more broadly — including naming names — because we believe people should be held accountable for their behavior. For the listserv, we’ve decided to omit names and condense our remarks for the sake of brevity and clarity.

— — -

On the last night of CAMP, we were disappointed to see no fewer than seven white members grab the mic to share their views on the organization’s diversity endeavors before a single woman of color was given the chance to speak — and only after that woman of color insisted. We wish the earlier speakers were as eager to listen. What was said that night was so concerning to us that all 15 women of the fellowship cohort have catalogued it below, along with suggestions for improvement. It is our hope that if JAWS members realize just how blatantly inappropriate and misinformed many of the comments we heard were, that they too would be inclined to help change this organization.

  1. The diversity talk was the last item of the conference, on the last night, which gives an impression of how little it was valued. The evening hour meant there was alcohol being served and consumed — alcohol and complex discussions about race do not mix. In the future, consider having this discussion in the morning to avoid this issue.
  2. For discussing such sensitive issues surrounding the JAWS diversity study, a professional facilitator should have been brought in to mediate the conversation and prep the crowd via various exercises to ensure that everyone was working with the same vocabulary and understanding of terms, at a minimum.
  3. As another first-time CAMP attendee pointed out, several members were smirking, laughing, talking, grumbling or rolling their eyes as survey results about the lack of inclusivity at JAWS were read and as women of color shared their viewpoints.
  4. An anonymous comment written on the diversity board (“I’ve never been to a conference with so many old white women”) set an uneasy starting point as some members’ defenses were up coming into the discussion. As a direct result of that comment, which none of the 15 JAWS fellows wrote, diverse women faced harsh questioning. We were further misled in thinking that we were sharing candid thoughts in a safe space, only to have anonymous comments weaponized against us.
  5. One longtime member spoke first to say: “We were the first diversity issue.” This statement stood out to many fellows because it is oblivious to the privilege such a comment represents. Indeed, upper and middle class white women were pioneers in the newsroom, but to not recognize the context that prevented certain racial minorities and women from lower-income backgrounds from having the same privileges is ignorant. White women were not the “first” diversity issue; while white women were entering newsrooms, women of color were facing discrimination and, in many cases, raising the children and cleaning the homes of white women to enable their entry into the workforce.
  6. Navajo Times reporter and Emerging Journalist Fellow Pauly Denetclaw bravely stood up and told the room how the discussion and comments made to her during CAMP had made her feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, including being called “Indian” several times — a term so flatly racist that The Associated Press has not used it in its Stylebook for decades. Another CAMP attendee referred to the colonization of North America as “homesteading” — a term that erases the history of stolen Native lands and genocide. Only one woman who made these comments spoke to Pauly afterward. There were also many white women who told Pauly they felt uncomfortable with what was being said but failed to voice it.
  7. At the table assigned to discuss race and ethnicity during the breakout session, awkward exchanges gave way to insensitive jokes. One former board member noted aloud that she felt threatened and excluded at the dinner table. She instantly put the women of color there on the defense by asking if the fellows had a problem with herself and another longtime JAWS member being at the table. They then asked if it was because they were white; in fact, the group shifted gears only because they were all fellows who had been hanging out all weekend, not because they had an issue with white women joining their table.
  8. After making some progress at the table, the former board member excused herself to the bathroom and the longtime JAWS member at the table made a cruel joke, saying: “Make sure you go to the colored bathroom.” These two women also referenced Christina Tapper, managing editor at The Bleacher Report, as “Jazmin №2” during table talks, while a fellow by that name shared the table with them. It is offensive and racist to imply women of color are interchangeable or indistinguishable because of their complexion or hair style.
  9. The longtime member involved in the interactions stated above also commented “It’s not like you have to please Massa.”
  10. The two white women at the table excused these offensive comments as jokes, with one woman saying that she experienced anti-Semitism as a Jew in Detroit. That is a false equivalency that does not excuse racism. The failed argument it offers is: people were discriminatory against me once, so I get to be racist for the rest of my life. They then made another false equivalency when they compared efforts to include more women of color to the efforts of past JAWS to bring in politically conservative women. The idea that conservative women suffer the same level of discrimination that women of color do is, frankly, insulting.

The series of seemingly small interactions and tense exchanges dimmed the light of an otherwise emotional and resonant experience. Hours after leaving that table, some fellows had literal nightmares about the racist comments made. One of this year’s African-American fellows could not get images of black people being attacked with high-power hoses and police dogs out of her mind. It also triggered thoughts of lynching.

11. At one point, the table discussed representation of women of color on a panel from earlier that day, “Repairing the neglect: How journalists can begin to cover marginalized communities.”

When the fellows advocated that this panel should be led by women of color, there was resistance from a longtime member who suggested this would not be a reflection of everyone in the room, as it might exclude white women.

While we do not believe every panel must include speakers from every race, the notion that women of color should lead a panel about reporting on marginalized communities is hardly radical. With the mission in mind to look at how journalists can use empathy and listening to engage deeply with diversity communities and begin to repair those relationships, future panels about engaging with marginalized communities must be led by women who belong to those communities.

12. One honored speaker and longtime member told her table, “When will white women stop having to feel guilt for things our ancestors did?” The impacts of generational trauma has resulted in slavery still harming the basic existence of black people in America, and will for generations to come. It created a power structure she has very much benefitted from. Fighting bigotry doesn’t end with the end of bad seeds; instead, it morphs indelibly, shifting disadvantage from one generation to the next in various forms.

13. Several of the women of color fellows reported experiencing more casual racism and microaggressions during CAMP than they ever have. One longtime member approached several women after the events of Sunday night to jokingly say fellows and newcomers weren’t supposed to be so outspoken — that typically, they were quiet and shy. The implication: fellows should be happy to even be allowed at that conference, and that attendance alone should be enough. Being offered a seat at the table does not mean we can be told to be seen and not heard.

14. During the membership meeting on Sunday morning, classism was on full display as a long-time JAWS member stood and pledged a $100 donation, asking others to join her. Then, another JAWS member said that EVERYONE should donate, even if it’s $2. These actions and comments are inherently classist; more financially stable members from an older generation put others on the spot, demanding that they give money. No one should ever have to feel pressured into either donating money or being ostracized for not raising their hand to match a $100 contribution.

By the end of the weekend, many of us were feeling deeply triggered and struggled to support each other while coping with traumatic experiences on our own. We felt that our concerns were minimized, gaslighted and that there were few allies willing to publicly speak up for us. Conversations about race are meant to be uncomfortable, but they should never be framed from the perspective of whiteness. These conversations should take place in a safe space, where the experiences of racialized women are heard at the outset. White women cannot decide what is or is not racism, any more than men should get to decide what is or is not sexism. Long-time members must understand that broadening the organization and its understanding of women in journalism does not erase them, their work or their legacy. In fact, it serves to preserve and continue it.

Going forward, we hope that members will examine their privilege in not only the space they hold in JAWS, but also the space they hold in the journalism industry and the outside world. JAWS is supposed to be a space where all women — especially those from marginalized groups — are fully supported and heard. Our hope is that JAWS members will look at how their words and actions have negatively impacted the women of color at CAMP and in the organization in general — and then work to repair those relationships and find ways to become better allies.

We ask that if members have any comments, questions, or concerns regarding this letter and its contents, please contact our spokesperson, Betsy Wade Legacy Fellow Shaya Tayefe Mohajer at shayamohajer@gmail.com.


The JAWS fellowship cohort, 2018

Marielle Argueza

Jazmin Bailey

Mariana Cid De Leon Ovalle

Pauly Denetclaw

Marina Fang

Asal Ehsanipour

Jazmin K. Goodwin

Sydney Greene

Katie Jickling

Aysha Khan

Sana A. Malik

Leezel Tanglao

Shaya Tayefe Mohajer

Amy Westervelt

Ariel Worthy

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