JAWS fellows request proper inquiry and balance

[The below note responds to this statement from JAWS board.]

Dear JAWS Board,

In our previous letter, we painstakingly pinpointed three white women who actively targeted women of color at JAWS CAMP 2018 for racist comments, identifying a pattern of behavior that we felt offered a clear depiction of racist attitudes. To author the letter, we spent weeks reviewing the mistreatment of women of color at CAMP, an emotionally draining process. Because we believe in the transparency that governs journalism, we signed our names to our allegations and went on record.

In addition to impressive support from within the membership, our letter inspired notes of support from former board members, a major funder of JAWS, and women and people of color outside of JAWS who were appalled by the experience we outlined, including a well-shared Twitter thread from Gene Demby, co-host of NPR’s Code Switch. JAWS has promised to hire a diversity consultant and offered an apologetic written response, which the fellows applaud.

In their letter, the JAWS board claims many apologies have previously been made to the fellows: This is simply untrue. We have not received any invitation to conversation or apology from the three women we named to the board. A woman who was not among the three we named to JAWS apologized via the listserv after using the term homesteading, which we noted with some appreciation and expected others to follow. The JAWS Listserv has proven a deeply flawed communication venue; perhaps we missed these apologies. Do they exist? Were they sent to us? Were they signed? We expect an honest apology to include taking responsibility.

What’s more, and importantly as journalists, the JAWS board’s letter offered this alarming false balance:

“Several attendees made unacceptable and harmful comments toward women of color during CAMP, while some older members said they felt disrespected and irrelevant because of their age,” the JAWS Board wrote.

In one sentence, our carefully sourced allegations found false equivocation in vague, unattributed claims. We named names to the board, and expected those who apologized would name themselves publicly. Instead, the response from the JAWS board appears to speak for a vague and apparently elite class of JAWS membership that secretly felt aggrieved but is staying off record. In JAWS’ letter, there are zero examples of ways these older members were mistreated by women of color, or the 15 fellows who signed the letter. These claims of ageism or ableism must be fully investigated, and treated with respect.

In the spirit of transparency, we ask:

Who are these women who say they were mistreated?

What are their specific claims?

Who are their complaints against?

Do they plan to draft a letter to go on record, or stand behind any of these claims publicly?

Are any of them claiming that they made racist comments to the fellows in retaliation, because their age or relevance was disrespected by the fellows?

If not, why was that included and what privilege do they enjoy that confers equal treatment to their unsupported complaints?

Upon investigation, the fellows expect the board to clarify to the membership that no woman of color or fellow took any hostile action toward this secret class of women. We suspect we are being gaslit here, to distract from inexcusable behavior.

The letter also included this note:

“At the same table, the fellows reported that, when this same member excused herself to the bathroom, another member said: “Make sure you go to the colored bathroom.” This other member said she did make that joke and acknowledged it was in poor taste. For that, she apologized at the table and has apologized again. [[Note from the fellows: There have been no apologies. See item #10 of our letter for detail of the interaction.]] She said she made the joke in reference to a memory from high school when she and her friend discovered on a field trip to Jamestown, Va. that bathrooms were separated for “white” and “colored” people.”

To respond to the shocking excuse given by the woman who thought it was funny to bring up colored bathrooms to women of color: Colored bathrooms literally existed to tell people of color that they weren’t good enough to shit where white people shat. They were a crude failing of American society. People died to end their use. The first black college student to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement, Sammy Younge, Jr., was shot and killed at an Alabama Standard Oil station in January 1966 after demanding to use the bathroom. The man who shot him, Marvin Segrest, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, leading Civil Rights leaders to declare opposition to the Vietnam War for the first time to honor Younge, who was also a Navy veteran.

Information about the Civil Rights movement and the traumatic history of race in America is abundantly available — it is not up to women of color to educate, police or coach the actions and words of white women. If white women feel judged when they make cheap jokes about deeply racist things, like slave masters and colored bathrooms, they should. Much like we would never greet a woman we just met with rape jokes, we ask others to respect appropriate boundaries with commentary that deals with atrocities of racism. The total lack of consideration here was alarming. When it’s repeatedly directed at women of color, it’s racist.

This week as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we ask women everywhere to consider how deeply out of place it would be to hear these sorts of comments at a family dinner table — how unloved and unwelcome it might make diverse members of your family feel. JAWS CAMP was intended to be a place of friendly sisterhood — and often achieved that goal outside of the actions of three women. With problematic and offensive behavior comes the need to not only have an internal evaluation of one’s actions, but also take full responsibility of those actions by directly apologizing to those who were hurt, while holding oneself accountable going forward.

We hope that the women who committed these racist acts will not hide behind the JAWS board and will directly apologize to the fellows for their actions. This is a key part of “moving forward” as an organization — admitting your faults and learning how to improve on them.


The Fellows

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.