Editor’s column: ‘Be less white, please’

Gazette Editor in Chief
Published: 9/21/2018 8:20:44 AM
Dear readers,

“Be less white, please!” This was the subject line of an email that recently popped up in my inbox. It was written by a regular reader of the Gazette who was horrified to read the news of Reg Andrade, the black UMass Amherst employee who was walking across campus last Friday when he was stopped by police. The two plainclothes officers were responding to a call to the university’s anonymous tip line, reporting that a “very agitated” African-American man was spotted with a “large duffel bag.”

The caller remains unidentified, but it soon surfaced that Andrade works as a case manager in the disability services office. He was carrying a gym bag.

“How can somebody just walk by me, not even speaking, and try to discern that I was agitated?” Andrade said in an interview with the Gazette (“Police called on black UMass employee walking to work,” Sept. 17). “This is when it becomes dangerous, when people know how to push the buttons of law enforcement … Those were those strong key buzzwords: agitated black man dragging a heavy bag.”

Ever since a campus police officer was called on Smith College student Oumou Kanoute in July, there’s been a lot of conversation about the importance of having conversations. And yet, the most important conversations are not being had: If the caller had simply approached Andrade and said hello, instead of calling the cops on him, that would’ve been the end of the story. Instead, this “tip” turned into a front-page story, one that now is painfully familiar — and yet, totally avoidable. Yes, some circumstances merit calling the police, but as a society we need to reexamine what those circumstances might be.

We also need to reexamine our own spaces, public and private. The reader who requested that we “be less white” was mainly talking about the Gazette’s news coverage. While she appreciates our reporting of “these terrifying and painful incidents,” she said, she also wants to see more stories and photographs representing “people of color — especially black people — as ordinary citizens participating in Valley events.”  

That’s something we believe is important, too. In the newsroom, we’ve hired reporters who speak multiple languages, which has helped provide more extensive coverage of people from all different backgrounds in Hampshire County, which as of the 2010 census was 88.7 percent white. On the photography side, our photographers regularly fan out across our community to capture life in all of its colors. “We work really hard to represent the community as a whole,” says our photo editor, Carol Lollis, “and not just different races, but different ethnicities and classes. My eyes are constantly scanning in any situation I’m in.”

In addition to our news coverage, I’ve also been thinking about our editorial makeup inside the building. Earlier this week, we as an editorial board discussed writing an editorial about the incident at UMass. Sitting in a room with my fellow editors, all smart and thoughtful people, there was the sense that something essential was missing. Can you guess what it was? All of us are white. There wasn’t a single person of color in the room. Our reporter Dusty Christensen had interviewed Andrade and gotten his perspective into the story — capturing the fear he felt, and the trauma. Andrade, who had been stopped by police on campus twice before, compared the experience to an athlete spraining an ankle several times. “Each time it gets deeper and deeper and more intense,” he said. “And psychologically, emotionally and physically, it’s just draining.” For me, that kind of testimony, that lived experience, while in the article, was very conspicuously missing from our meeting.

In the Gazette newsroom, we have made improvements in diversity when it comes to gender. But we have a long way to go in regard to racial diversity. When my Smith College intern Zoya Azhar, who is originally from Pakistan, started working with me this summer, she made an observation along those lines. One of her friends was going off to work at a global poverty action lab on MIT’s campus, while Zoya was headed to our newsroom. Together, Zoya and her friend sat down to compare the respective company websites and staff pages, and the difference was telling. “In a way, it made sense that she was going to be meeting people of all races and ethnicities, because of the nature of the work,” Zoya recently told me. “But I still thought it was strange that there were not more people of color writing in the newsroom, no matter how big or small the organization. There shouldn’t be a shortage of writers of color.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to change that as we move forward. At the Gazette, we typically post new openings on traditional job sites, like Indeed, and industry-specific sites, like Journalism Jobs. But in the future, I will make an effort to also post them on sites such as the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

I’ve made calls for columnists, including more people of color, and I’m excited to get important new voices on the page. 

One thing I’d like to do as an editorial board is to investigate our own journalism — to examine previous articles and accompanying photographs to look at who we talk to and why. To make sure we’re reflecting our community in all its cultural richness. To make sure we’re covering people who are EWB — existing while black — and not just when it’s bad news or a trending topic on Twitter.

As an editorial board, we believe it is not only our place to voice the opinion of the paper but to amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented. We have a platform with this paper. We want to share it. Please write to us — especially when we’re falling short. We’ re listening. What are your suggestions?  


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