According to a Pew Research Center study, in 2014, Blacks made up only 4.7 percent of U.S. newspaper employees. Pew also found that, in 2015, Hispanic journalists made up only 4.2 percent of U.S. newspaper staff.
Since 1975, and 1984, respectively, the National Associations of Black (NABJ) and Hispanic (NAHJ) Journalists have sought the professional advancement of their ethnic own. There are also groups that advocate for the inclusion of Asian, and Native American journalists.
Every year, both NABJ and NAHJ hold conferences aimed at teaching young journalists new (and old) methods of the craft. Last week – for the first time ever – the two held a joint conference.
And I, a first-time member of NABJ, attended.
Wednesday, the groups collaborated to hold a festive opening ceremony, hosted by Byron Pitts, of ABC News, and Maria Hinojosa, of Latino USA. The night featured addresses from NABJ President, Sarah Glover, and NAHJ President, Mekhalo Medina, as well as representatives from a few of the event’s sponsors: Coca-Cola, Disney, and Buick.
Kenneth J. Barrett – General Motors’ (which manufactures Buick cars) first, and current Chief Diversity Officer – spoke on behalf of the car company.
For the most part, he read his speech from something – either paper, or a smartphone – atop the podium.
And then, in closing, he seemed to speak form his heart, as he looked out into the crowd.
What he said demonstrated two things: a flagrant misunderstanding of the shared purpose of organizations like NABJ, and NAHJ; and thus, the continued need for advocacy groups of those underrepresented in, and by the media.
“When I look out upon this magnificent crowd,” began Barrett, “I don’t see Black journalists, or Hispanic journalists. I see great journalists.”
“You guys have a great event,” he closed, as most of the audience applauded.
I did not. Not only because I was busy recording, but, also because, in that moment, I was surprised that he had gone there: to the forbidden land colorblindness.
Mr. Barrett does not deserve ridicule, but rather, enlightenment as to why his likely heartfelt closing was unfortunate.
Addressing Mr. Barrett:
To begin: bear in mind that you are representing your company at the National Association of Black Journalists’, and National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ joint conference. For you to look out into the crowd, and not see Black or Hispanic journalists is concerning, beyond the obvious question of visual acuity.
Neither NABJ, nor NAHJ are advocating for colorblindness, or invisibility. Both exist with the opposite goal in mind: for people to see Black, and Hispanic journalists.
I do believe that you meant well in your closing. But, again, there is nothing complimentary about not being seen as Black, or Hispanic. Our cultures are rich. And, we bring unique experiences to newsrooms, when given the opportunity. As do journalists of other ethnic groups.
As a Chief Diversity Officer, you would indeed do well to understand that greatness comes in many colors, shades, accents, hair textures, and lands of origin. Seek to understand them; ask questions; and, I promise, you’ll appreciate them, just as those belonging to the group do.
Diversity alone – the presence of a variety of people – is not enough. I challenge you to embrace cultural understanding.
I hope that you are not offended by what I’ve said; just as I was not offended by what you said. It seemed to be a function of misunderstanding. And, assuming that neither NABJ, nor NAHJ has told you that your sentiment was ignorant, I’ve assumed the role.
Thank you, and GM, for your continued support. And, I’m glad to have been able to share these thoughts with you.
If you have even a single question, please, do not hesitate to contact me.
With all appreciation for your efforts, and optimism that your future as an advocate for cultural inclusion is bright, I bid you farewell.
Reece T. Williams
NABJ Student Member