Sidekicked and Then Some: A Call for Journalistic Accountability

What can you really do with “Sorry, not sorry”?

The first thing I did was screen-cap it.

What good is an apology if it is not sincere? What good is an apology if it’s not followed up with a commitment to change? What can you really do with “sorry, not sorry”?

These are questions I’ve been reflecting upon after a series of unfortunate events between myself and the Seattle Times.

I’ve been a musician and performer in Seattle for the last nine years, most recently as the lead singer of the electronic R&B trio The Flavr Blue. We recently released an album, Love Notes, and so we were excited when an editor from the Seattle Times assigned a writer to preview our hometown concert in print. It was our first write-up in our city’s only daily paper. The interview was extensive, well-researched, and entirely focused on our discography. We were stoked.

A week later, in our basement space rehearsing for our show, a notification popped up on my phone that the article was live. Many artists can recognize the nervous adrenaline one has just before reading a critic’s take on their work. I couldn’t help myself; mid-song, my curious finger clicked. But before I could even get to the article itself, my anticipation was immediately deflated by its headline:

Warmth and intimacy from The Flavr Blue, with Macklemore sidekick Hollis Wong-Wear.

Sidekick? Really?

I am a proud Seattle resident, a working artist, and I credit my ability to pursue my passions to the city’s unique cultural climate. I was lucky enough to become a part of a brilliant and inclusive creative community that unapologetically centers people of color, women, youth, queer folks, and every combination thereof. In addition to my work as a poet, musician and mentor, I sit on two Seattle city commissions and the board of directors of our county’s public art agency. Simply put, I’m invested in what my town puts out for the world to see.

Over the past six years, I have worked with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as a music video producer, songwriter, and strategy consultant. I was the featured vocalist on their single “White Walls,” and continue to collaborate with them into the present day. We are close friends, and I have no problem with our association; I’ve been a lot of things to Macklemore. But a sidekick is not one of them.

Labeling me a “sidekick” was a backhanded compliment at best. Let’s be clear: sidekicks show up in popular movies primarily to bolster a white male hero. And there’s a long history of Asians and Asian-Americans in Western media made to play the ever-so-safe sidekick, a symptom of a “model minority” construction… or else be cast as the perilous yellow villain. Only after his death was the superstar Bruce Lee allowed a Hollywood role that portrayed him as a protagonist, instead of the sidekick or the villain… and Lee, who passed away in 1973, may still be our most globally recognized Asian-American actor. In 2013, Suey Park’s hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick pushed into the mainstream, a virtual protest that challenged the ways that Asians and Asian-Americans both historically and contemporarily are portrayed and considered. #NotYourAsianSidekick collected thousands of voices that refused to be silenced, pushed aside, and made complicit to satisfy white supremacy.

But in December 2015, there it was, in plain sight: I, a mixed-race Asian-American woman, had just been sidekicked, marginalized in a headline about my own art. The article was otherwise thoughtful and complimentary of The Flavr Blue, and furthermore made no mention of Macklemore past the headline. But because of how I had been labeled from jump, even the most flattering article would have been spoiled before opening.

I slept terribly that night. The next morning, before I went back to bed, I posted a short statement as a Facebook status about how unsettled I was by the headline. My resistance to being defined as a subordinate, my frustration in how my band’s work had resulted in this boldfaced, simplistic description, and my interest in critically examining how it could have appeared in print after the Times’ editorial process.

My community reacted. They shared the post, offered their thoughts, and asked the editor to be accountable. The Times appeared initially to be sorry. Its editors modified the headline, saying, “we apologize for the misunderstanding.” They left a comment on my Facebook status offering an ostensible, elegant apology, saying they would reach out to me personally.

If it had just been that, it’d be the end of the story. I said my piece, they said theirs. But as it turns out, they had many more last words.

I first received an e-mail from the editor of the article, the author of the headline, who apologized for not being aware of the “racial freight” of the word sidekick. “So sorry,” he wrote.

The subsequent five paragraphs, in the e-mail, were all classic “not sorry”: justification.

When your goal is to serve readers, which is what we’re about, it’s just a fact of life that, at least so far, more people know who you are because you sang on “White Walls” than for your own career. Maybe this will change, […] but for now, if you Google your name you will find a reference to Macklemore and/or “White Walls” in every story — and for good reason. That’s how people know who you are. And you are probably just stuck with that, for better or for worse.

Not sorry.

You will also find the word “sidekick” in the headline of a lot of those stories, [Ed Note: no story ever published about me and my work has ever contained the word ‘sidekick,’ in the headlines or the copy] which I presume was, for those other headline writers, as it was for me, a deliberately gender-nonspecific way of avoiding the word ‘sideman.’ It felt accurate and innocuous.

Not sorry.

One of the copy editors on your story was an Asian American woman and the layout person for our Friday magazine is also an Asian-American woman. I did an informal poll around the paper this morning and no one — including those Asian American women — had heard of the #notyourasiansidekick movement. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have, but that perhaps your perception that this was a high-profile moment isn’t altogether accurate.

Not sorry.

He then detailed, as a friend of mine described, a “litany of cultural heroics” from his previous career as a city event programmer, listing off a number of ethnic identities he had interacted with, and citing his partner’s executive position working with refugees and immigrants as evidence of their shared and accumulated cultural competence.

He concluded the e-mail with an attempted mic drop: “My hope is that knowing this will help sideline your apparent outrage into something more positive.”

As if a moment of challenge and growth isn’t positive; as if my speaking out against a widely appreciated slight was outrageous. As if I should continue to step to the side.

Not sorry, not sorry, not sorry.

I reached out to the Features Editor who had authored the initial apology on my Facebook comments, in hopes we could connect and discuss how troubled I was by such an extensive retort from her associate. Perhaps, I thought, they could use it a teachable model of how not to communicate with the subjects of their featured content. But before I could propose such an exchange, what I received from her made it clear that as an institution the Seattle Times wanted to put the incident to rest, stat.

As a privately held company, we typically do not reveal personnel information. Our minority staffing numbers are in line with national figures provided by American Society of News Editors. Recruiting and retaining minority staffers is a challenge throughout the industry, including at The Seattle Times.

There are many shades of deflection here, but it is worth noting that many public media entities, such as Gawker Media and Buzzfeed have thoroughly reported on the demographics of their staff as a gesture of public-facing accountability.

She then boldly stated, “People who are trying to make this about race or the race of our staff are focusing on the wrong issue.” Her e-mail was padded with how they had already apologized, what they had already learned.

Not. At all. Sorry.

The Seattle Times publically apologized for its verbiage, but then dumped its overarching rightness in my inbox. They called me inaccurate; considered my community misguided. They regarded any appeal to report and reflect upon their internal composition — particularly the number of staff writers and editors of color in their employ — as an affront instead of an opportunity to simply be accountable to their readership and the subjects of their articles.

A word is a branch that grows from the tree of intent. Clipping a word from one’s vocabulary does not get to the root of why that word sprouted in the first place. Using the word “sidekick” was a poor choice. But when faced with how insulting their articulation was, the regret was the word itself and not its actual implication to my character. Essentially, they said sorry that they unknowingly used a word that was touchy with my people, but refused to even try to see how it undermined me, and instead chose to reaffirm their position as cultural authority while gaslighting me into the role of the angry Asian woman.

What good is “sorry” if that’s all there is to it, the premise left intact? It is an empty gesture, a hollow branch, easily broken off.

Inauthentic apologies are quick fixes, rote policy, “corrections,” end-of-story. Real apologies build bigger connections, keep the conversation going, and catalyze genuine reflection and growth. It’s what I know from the cultures that I come from — from poetry open mics to community organizing to the intersecting discourse of my artistic communities. It’s how we hold each other accountable, how we ensure that we are constantly elevating our craft and ourselves. There is more value in “getting checked” than avoiding the discomfort and initial embarrassment of it. We must push past our egos to embrace evolution.

I want to see Seattle, the city I love and create within, win. I want to see local artists of all ilks and backgrounds to feel that their local and traditional press narrativizes them in a dignified way. I want our work and our stories to rise up, framed by genuine social equity. Because of this, I believe that our media and press have a responsibility to evolve; to prioritize the inclusion of voices of color, to tailor an editorial process with a higher standard than what currently exists, to communicate with respect. There is a privilege to telling the stories of innovators, artists, and people within our community; there is a responsibility to value their insight and opinion before the words are written and after the ink dries.

My experience with the Seattle Times was disheartening, but it’s just one of countless instances of non-white, non-male subjects disparaged and subsequently disrespected and denied by traditional media. As these channels identify as objective and authoritative, these moments create a rippling, discouraging effect for artists and creative generators, and fuel distrust. It is the reason thought leaders — in Seattle, local writer and editor, Ijeoma Oluo, and nationally, Jose Antonio Vargas, to name a few — have been clamoring for attention to call for accountability amongst newspapers and printed media to address their staunch whiteness. #JournalismSoWhite questions not only the over-representation of white people in positions of authority in media, but also the damaging cultural bias of using the white American experience as normative.

A few weeks after these communications, Seattle Times requested my involvement in their upcoming multimedia series called “Under Our Skin,” an outward-facing resource that explores issues of micro-aggressions, privilege and more. My question is whether they are spending a similar effort to look inwards, and engage in rigorous analysis and education that elevate the consciousness of their staff, their approach, and addresses their need to have a multitude of voices of color at the editorial table. Having a team generate content to demonstrate cultural competence does not change what currently exists.

The tide is changing quickly, and we’re moving towards a near future where my community will no longer be a niche market but the lion’s share. As Caucasians steadily become the minority in this country, and as the perspectives of women and the historically marginalized are understood to be of essential importance in how our institutions and systems operate, we are rapidly advancing towards a collective consciousness that will simply have no time for elementary flubs and righteous self-satisfaction in the press. Such behaviors will demonstrate fundamental irrelevance; those who refuse to adapt will be left behind. But in our path to that better future, how many artists of color will be harmed, silenced and sidekicked due to the status-quo’s fear of change? As my friend and artist Davida Ingram has said, “the world we are arriving at will be brown and down.” Are the Seattle Times and traditional news sources across the country ready to lower their defenses and get down, for real?

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