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Journalism, and grappling with race
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Journalism, and grappling with race

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” — Benjamin Franklin

This week, I look at how Whoopi Goldberg’s recent controversy explains a growing challenge in journalism.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

No you didn’t.

Whoopi Goldberg grabbed headlines last week when she made remarkably ignorant remarks about racism and the Holocaust on her wildly popular, frequently influential show The View. She claimed that because the Holocaust involved violence by one group of white people against another group of white people, it was not a racist act.

“Let’s be truthful about it because Holocaust isn’t about race. It’s not about race. It’s not about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man.”

You should watch the exact exchange to get the full picture, but suffice it to say it was an incredibly stupid thing for Goldberg to say. It does, however, illuminate the growing complexities and nuances of society’s ongoing debate about racism, and journalism’s attempts acknowledge racism in all of its different forms.

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This image released by ABC shows co-host Whoopi Goldberg on the set of the daytime talk series "The View." (Jenny Anderson / ABC via AP)

Goldberg eventually apologized, both for her original comments and then for doubling down during an appearance on the Stephen Colbert show which was taped later the same day. She was suspended from the show by ABC News President Kim Godwin for two weeks, for her “wrong and hurtful comments.”

What exactly was so wrong about what Goldberg said? This incident has rallied some of the best opinion writers in the world to analyze and make clear the issue behind Goldberg’s comments. One of the best summaries of hot takes was written by Jamelle Bouie, one of the most powerful column writers at the New York Times. (Which is, like this newsletter, a piece of content available only to subscribers. And like the Free Press, well worth the cost of a subscription.) In it, he quotes another frequently potent political columnist, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic, who wrote the best single sentence I could find on the Goldberg incident.

“I don’t mean to pile on Goldberg here, who I think is struggling with an American conception of ‘race’ that renders the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust illegible. I regard her remarks not as malicious, but as an ignorant projection of that American conception onto circumstances to which it does not apply.”

What exactly is Serwer referring to when he talks about the “ignorant projection of that American conception?” I’m reluctant to attempt a direct translation of such an elegant sentence, but I will tell you what it evoked for me: the realization I came to some years ago that not all people of colour want to be lumped together in conversations about race.

Round about the summer of Black Lives Matter, the Free Press was working diligently to get its collective mind around the underlying issues behind the protest movement and how they translated to Canada. There were BLM protests here in Winnipeg as well, and they revealed a lot of what we always knew, and clearly didn’t know, about racism as experienced by racialized communities.

Black friends and sources made it clear to me the importance of BLM was as an opportunity in Canada to, finally, bring attention to the unique experience of Black Canadians. Many of them noted — quite fairly — that the debate in Canada about racism always focused first and foremost on the experience of Indigenous Canadians. That’s not remarkable, in and of itself; Indigenous people and their abuse by non-Indigenous people is an intrinsic story in this country. But the experience of Indigenous people, as my Black friends would tell me, does not accurately reflect the experience of Black Canadians.

Daily rallies organized by Justice 4 Black Lives took place in Winnipeg during the summer of 2020. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Back to Goldberg and commentary on her remarks. Goldberg was clearly trying to claim racism as a white-on-Black (or people of colour) phenomenon. Other instances of “man’s inhumanity to man” may be similarly egregious, but they are not racism. Her point of view clearly does not accurately reflect the origins or nature of racism in its various forms. But it does explain why reporting on racism is so tricky.

Journalism often employs shorthand terms to describe people involved in big, seismic societal events. In other words, we try to lump groups of people together to create clearly defined conflicts between “us” and “them.”

Sometimes, that is an accurate way of reporting. During the BLM protests in the U.S. two summers ago, it was pretty easy to deduce that African-Americans were the principal activists, and white police officers were the objects of derision.

But into that debate, we started to hear the term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) used more and to describe a larger constituency behind the BLM movement. The acronym BIPOC was not a byproduct of BLM, but it certainly got a much bigger profile during the protests.

Some welcomed an inclusive term; other Black activists felt that while there was great commonality between all people of colour, the intent of BLM was to expose the particular experience of African-Americans. In that context, “BIPOC” does dilute the focus of the debate.

Where do journalists come in? In short, we’re trying to make sure we don’t gloss over the critical differences that exist between groups that might be sometimes lumped into the BIPOC label. Our Reader Bridge project is the best manifestation of those efforts.

Although there is a heavy emphasis on stories from the Indigenous community, we’re also trying to pay particular attention to the issues of importance to Black Manitobans, and to other communities that are sometimes unfairly consolidated in the “people of colour” part of BIPOC.

It's not a perfect solution and a single year of Reader Bridge isn’t going to build bridges with every community. But we certainly are acknowledging that while we all share many characteristics, there is great value in celebrating our differences as well.

Back to Goldberg, one more time. Anthropologists, historians and even newspaper columnists all feel confident that the Holocaust was, in its essence, a racist act. And that skin colour is not, in and of itself, a prerequisite for experiencing racism.

Bottom line? Getting a handle on these issues requires a commitment to lifelong learning. Something Goldberg will be able to undertake during her two weeks of suspension.

 


 

Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.

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