Regardless of which network or publication you first received the news from, you likely never once heard or read the word racist.
By Ja’Loni Amor Owens
Following the 2016 election, ABC Entertainment reevaluated its strategy in hopes of connecting with a demographic the network believes it left behind: the (white) working class. In pursuit of winning over working-class Americans, ABC rebooted “Roseanne”.
18.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the debut of the reboot back in March. Three days after the show’s premiere, ABC renewed the show for 13 more episodes. Critics raved about “Roseanne”, writing that working class families finally have media representation. No, seriously.
The “Roseanne” high was short-lived. Last week, ABC Entertainment president, Channing Dungey released a statement announcing that the show had been cancelled and Barr was fired.
The reason for the highly anticipated reboot’s cancellation depends on where you first heard the news. If you first heard it from The Hill, you probably read that a “racially charged ‘bad joke’ about Valerie Jarrett” led to the show’s cancellation. If you came across the announcement while tuning into E! News, the show’s cancellation came after a “racially charged tweet [sparked] outrage”. If you regularly read The Guardian, ABC Entertainment cancelled “Roseanne” after some “‘abhorrent’ tweets”. If Barr broke the news to you herself, an Ambien-induced rant at 2 AM led to the show’s cancellation and her firing.
Regardless of which network or publication you first received the news from, you likely never once heard or read the word racist. Each time a headline with one of, or a combination of phrases such as “racially charged”, “culturally insensitive remark” or “controversial joke”, appears on my Twitter timeline, I’m reminded that I am expected to report blatant and violent racism as “racially charged jokes” or “culturally insensitive comments”. I’m reminded that I am only valuable in a newsroom if I can remove my Blackness from my perspective so that I can pretend that white supremacy isn’t life-threatening on a daily basis.
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Being a journalism student, I thought I had a fairly solid understanding of what objectivity meant. To write objectively, simply meant to write the truth. It turns out, objectivity means something very different in journalistic contexts. We legally cannot determine whether someone has lied without proving malicious intent or manipulation — there is carefully crafted language and wording applied to writing reported pieces. I completely understand and respect the intent of these journalistic rules. I understand that I must develop competency in this language and in media law in order to protect myself going forward in my career. I understand that it is so incredibly easy to slip up in an article and for my words to border on defamation or slander. But when even Fox News’ coverage about the cancellation of “Roseanne” refers to her comments as racist, my understanding can only extend so far.
Each time a journalist reduces racism to an “inflammatory remark”, “a lapse in judgement”, or a “misinformed assertion”, that journalist abandons the truth and the people. That journalist is accepting that journalism has deviated from its roots to such an extent that it is now complicit in the violence and destruction that we promise to expose and to protect the public from. It could simply be a deviation, or an acceptance of the white supremacist status-quo that this nation was founded upon. When the press is a tool of the oppressor, the people need freedom from the press or a press which represents an upheaval and unravelling of oppressive structures.
When the options are to either expose racism or to enable racism, journalists are not confronted with a difficult decision nor must we choose the lesser of two evils. This means that white reporters and editors have to be willing to see white supremacy as a structure in need of being abolished. In the meantime newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white and their questioning white supremacy — something they benefit from — isn’t something that is happening enough unless it threatens their own livelihoods. There is a very clear right and there is very clear wrong and if journalists are the champions of justice and truth like we suggest we are, it’s far passed the time that we do better and writers of color cannot be the only ones attempting to do so.
Doing better is more than traditional damage control or rapid response initiatives. Integrating people of color into industries or institutions that have historically enabled and continue to enable our oppressors will not address this problem. It is this exact approach to inclusivity and diversity that led ABC Entertainment to reboot “Roseanne” despite Barr’s well-documented, extensive history of racism. ABC rebooted the television show under the leadership of Channing Dungey, the network’s first Black American president, and Wanda Sykes remained attached to the project until last Tuesday. Yes, Dungey did cancel the show. Yes, it is reasonable to assume that if the president of ABC Entertainment had been a white person the show would not have been cancelled. However, people of color cannot afford to only matter during damage control because by the time damage control is even a thought the damage has already been done.
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When I say that it is time for us to do better, I mean that it is time for journalists to reconnect with the roots of our craft and to use it to dismantle systemic oppressions — this includes white supremacy. It is especially time for reporters and editors to be fearless and to name things what they are. If it is racism, then name, speak it. It is time for publishers to bring more Black and brown writers and editors into their newsrooms — not to fulfill a quota, but because we have undervalued and underrepresented perspectives which the world needs to read and to hear and it is our moral responsibility to uplift their voices. It is time for journalists who cover issues relating to race to speak to those most directly impacted by racist violence and to accept this as the truth. It is time for journalists to learn the difference between objectivity and complacency. It is time for journalists to be worth protecting and for freedom of the press to be worth defending.
In summary, it is time for mainstream publishing services and all widely consumed media to do what BIPOC-run media have been doing since the very beginning: call racism by its name. Do not allow the clicks of your keyboard or the strokes of your pen to become a tool of white supremacy. Instead, let every sentence you type and every word you write be written in effort to dismantle it.
Author Bio: Ja’Loni is currently studying public policy and public service (ppps) as well as journalism at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. In addition to being a full-time student, Ja’Loni is a community organizer most passionate about issues of or relating to racial justice, sexual and reproductive freedom, gender and sexuality and anti-war/peace.
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