Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston asked me to be a guest on his show, and I never turn down time with therapists. So we ended up having a wide-ranging (and rather discursive) conversation about this once-in-a-century global pandemic we’re all enduring, the roots of my identity, how to pay better attention and deepen our relationships and a lot more.
We are witnessing this weekend an exodus of Republican party leaders from Donald Trump, their nominee for the highest office in the land. The floodgates broke open after an 11-year old video leaked in which Trump’s saying predictably horrifying things about women and basically bragging about his previous sexual assaults. That he just “grabs them by the pussy,” he says, and kisses women whenever he wants, because “when you’re a star” you can get away with it. He is aided and abetted on that tape by all the men who were with him on a studio lot’s bus, and in particular by the known bro, television host Billy Bush.
Why now? Trump’s attitudes about women were long known (a case of marital rape, calling women “slobs” and “dogs,” saying breastfeeding is “disgusting” and a whole slew of nose-cringing comments). So were his other attitudes, that actor Josh Gad laid out succinctly:
“We screamed until we were hoarse that calling Mexicans rapists, banning people based on their religion, not disavowing Klan members, calling women fat and disgusting, dishonoring POWS and Purple Heart fallen soldiers, and making fun of the disabled was not only unpresidential but unbecoming of a human being. And most importantly, for eight years we have sat astonished that a political ascension could be gamed out of questioning the birthplace of our first black President.”
All of this has been clear about Donald Trump. Why abandon him now? It seems one answer is, because these GOP leaders have people in their personal lives that are affected by the hatefulness of his speech and the sexual assault he’s advocated. One thing we are hearing a lot from Republican lawmakers and officials now is the “I have daughters” line, or “I have a wife.”
This need for proximity to a person affected by an injustice in order to believe in it is really eating at me this weekend. Our elected representatives are not chosen to just represent their families or their personal experiences. And if they’re only going to take stands based on that, there are entire groups of people and experiences that would never benefit from justice: What if you don’t know a poor person? Or disabled person? Or someone without health insurance? Or a Muslim? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee? Do the injustices affecting them not matter?
“The existence of your neighbors pain is not dependent on your belief in it,” actor and activitst Jesse Williams said. And it comes up again and again in a time of serious racial strife and division in America.
I was reminded of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on same sex marriage a few years ago. He changed his position at the lobbying of his son, who is gay. While it’s good for gay people that someone in power changed his position to their side, the reason why he did it is worth interrogating. Matt Yglesias wrote on this topic back then:
“But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”
When I went on a slew of tweets about this subject last night, one person responded by saying, we’re only human. And that’s true. It’s easier to have compassion and empathy for those we consider our neighbors and our friends. But that then drives another point and theme I’ve been turning over and over again in my head this election year: The critical need to be nearer to those, have more conversations with, collisions with, friendships among those who aren’t like us. We’re in a period of resegregation in America, by many quantifiable measures. And that is only making it harder for people to have empathy for those who look different, talk different, have different backgrounds.
It was a bit of serendipity then, that I found this quote in my old notes from philosopher John Stuart Mill from back in 1848. It’s truer now than it was back then, I think.
“It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
I hope we all do some soul searching when this election is over in a month. But the work of trying to better understand each other and care for each other is a long, something difficult slog. I don’t know that humanity has any other choice but to do the work.
As audiences — and, let’s face it — the entire United States of America — become increasingly non-white, new numbers are out on newsroom diversity. They’re “meh”:
“People of color make up about 17 percent of staffs at daily newspapers and 23 percent at digital operations. At print publications, about 38 percent of staffers are women; digital operations clock in at 50 percent women.”
The figures represent an increase in top line numbers, but as I pointed out when quoted for this piece, diversity isn’t just a numbers game. It is helpful to have metrics to see where you’re starting and whether you’re improving, but any diversity efforts have to be interrogated further: What does diversity mean to whoever is championing it? Does it mean just having a mix of people, or does it mean empowering non-white people in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that they’re not scared to share opinions that are out of sync, or might challenge norms and improve the organization?
My personal experiences as a person of color in newsrooms include annoyances like getting confused for another Asian reporter (so often that this is how me and Ailsa Chang became friends), and struggling with feeling like a token or “the only one” in the room. I even used Family Guy‘s token “Asian Reporter Trisha Takanawa” as my Facebook avatar for awhile. To drive home the point of subtle racism toward minority journalists, Family Guy makes it overt: “Tricia’s cultural background prevents her from entering certain buildings. In the series, she cannot go into the Park-Barrington Hotel because ‘they don’t allow Asians inside.'”
The burden of being “the only one” is a tax that we minorities pay over time, and could explain why so many people of color drop out of the field before realizing their full leadership potential. Why do I have to be the only one in a room who speaks up for inclusion? And don’t look at me for what Asians writ large think about things, as I can’t speak for the billions of us. As activist Jesse Williams says, racism is not a black person’s problem or a brown person’s problem. It should be the concern of everyone, so expecting that only people color carry that water is ridiculous:
“[Racism] is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem. People should be outraged that a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well. It should be an outrage for everybody.”
I don’t speak for my employer. For as long as I’ve been part of it, the organization has been talking about being a more demographically inclusive place. I believe my managers when they say they’re committed to diversity. But we have a ways to go on two fronts: retention of people of color and a lack of people of color in leadership positions. Over the past few years, we’ve lost women of color in top positions, so when I look at the very highest ranks of my company, I don’t see anyone who might have a shared experience with mine. The effects are between the lines. Without underrepresented groups in charge, not only are there likely editorial or hiring decisions that perpetuate a certain lack of diversity but what’s more concerning is that there are blind spots; gaps in experience or perspectives that seem “normal” that aren’t that way to everyone, but go unnoticed because the people at the head tables are racially homogenous.
This can’t just be a long rambling rant, right?
Besides a more thorough thinking through and interrogation of what diversity means to a newsroom, the other thing to think about is having people in power acknowledge unconscious biases transparently and use their power to make a more level playing field. This is important, because the homogeneity in leadership ranks can make newsrooms uncomfortable for people who feel different, and younger staffers may feel pressure to fit in by assimilating to existing culture rather than disrupting and diversifying it. That then undermines the whole point of having a diverse newsroom in the first place. The assimilation in small and big ways is where I feel I’ve compromised myself the most in my journalism career. I feel sad about it and it constantly weighs on me, especially during this presidential election cycle.
As a recruiting tool, it helps to make your women and people of color visible. It’s invaluable. I came to NPR because of the sheer visibility and change making of another person of color, Matt Thompson (now at The Atlantic). He is my forever work spouse and had no small part in recruiting me. He was a champion for recruiting people of color and even mandating that people of color be in finalist pools when we hired.
Beyond the straight transaction of recruitment, I think it helps me and other minorities to see other women and people of color speak up for themselves and own their value at organizations. It sets a great example and makes for places I want to work.