Staying in the room

A professor's experience with social justice
Staying in the room
Photo by Thomas Yonash

In a room on the top floor of the Madison YWCA where I was attending a three-day workshop on social-justice training, I began to sweat. I was face-to-face with the realization of how much my white, middle-class unearned privileges had played in my success to date. My thoughts drifted to the stories I had written as a white business reporter about “the American dream” and my fervent commitment to the notion that hard work was all it took to achieve success.

I was confronted with how hundreds of years of discrimination had entrenched our institutions–from schools to the news media–and directly inhibited others’ success. I saw how complicit I had been in perpetuating the problematic dialogue that surrounds this issue, and how I continued to reify these systems in my teaching of journalists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I felt ill. I was tempted to leave early.

Still, I forced myself to stay in the room, to engage with my white self, to name that racial heritage. It was, to be blunt, uncomfortable–especially for someone who still identifies as a journalist.

The idea that journalists should stay in a room where people are demanding participation cuts at the heart of traditional notions of objectivity. A generation of newsroom protocol–the kind I trained under and teach at UW-Madison–mandates that reporters remain free of conflicts of interest: Don’t cover issues you are involved in. Don’t put political signs in your yard. Don’t participate in rallies. Keep yourself out of the story.

It was easy for me to attend a once-a-year newsroom training about how to find sources who are not white and figure I’d been trained sufficiently. It was easy for me to call my four or five sources who are not white for a quote when the topic of race became part of a story on my beat. Objectivity for me as a journalist, as a journalism teacher, had been easy. Stand apart, don’t engage and be color-blind.

So I started to engage more. It did not go well.

When I interviewed people in communities of color, my assumptions were challenged. Why should they talk to me, a white woman, when I hadn’t built trust with them first? They wouldn’t, and that was humbling.

I brought in more non-white speakers to my classes and made my assignments and reading lists more diverse. But I made mistakes. For example, I told one speaker my class was all white when several students identified as another race. I also scheduled a mandatory in-class assignment during a major Jewish holiday.

I researched my family history, discovering that one of my ancestors had massacred Native Americans, and others benefited from racist government policies. What could I do about that? I felt helpless and defeated.

I watched as the new startup media nonprofit Madison365 criticized the white-dominated news media in Madison for its failures to cover adequately communities of color in the city. I thought to myself: Why bother, then?

But any journey is fraught. I kept at it, determined to understand my own racial past and present. I volunteered locally, helping youths of color train as journalists. I expanded my social circle. I chose more diverse news sources. I felt “white guilt,” processed it and moved past it.

I listened to people without expecting any quote in return. I listened a lot and got my white self involved and entangled in a way I never had before.

I have come to believe that professionalism as a white journalist or journalism professor demands both objectivity and personal engagement around issues of race. Indeed, the second depends on the first.

Journalists–and those of us teaching them–are responsible for creating a deliberative environment within which all voices can be amplified. But to accomplish this, we must appreciate that there are racial obstacles–biases, assumptions, histories–embedded within ourselves and we must work to undermine them. In other words, journalists must not only stay in the room, but also admit they have racial pasts and presents, and that they have privileges that shape their perspectives and innately influence their work.

I developed a course called “Reporting for Social Change: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in Local Community” to help journalism students embark on their racial journeys to rethink what “expert” means, collaborate with citizens on stories and interrogate their own biases. Somewhere around the fourth week, a student from the class knocked on my office door.

“I am having trouble thinking about how to do things differently. I keep getting caught up in what I’ve been taught before,” the student said.

We talked about how I was not advocating that we throw away journalistic principles, but rather that we approach them differently. Be critically distant with the facts, but be close to the community. We talked about practicing journalism in a different model and not worrying about failure.

Curious, I asked how the social-justice training had gone for her, a white senior from a middle-class family in Wisconsin.

“Oh. It was … uncomfortable.”

“Yes. For me as well,” I responded. I remembered how, after the exercise where everyone with privileges took steps forward and everyone without took steps back, I stood as far forward as the space would allow. Some of my students were as far back as possible.

The student added, “But it was important, I think. I’m already thinking differently about my biases and what they mean for this story I want to do.”

I was just glad she stayed in the room.

Sue Robinson is the Helen Franklin Firstbrook professor of journalism and a William T. Evjue faculty fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.