Nikole Hannah-Jones won, but at what cost asks our guest essayist? Why does winning often feel like losing? Especially when after working so hard to achieve status in a society that says it requires credentials, pedigree, and waiting your turn, to then be asked to enter through a separate entrance before gaining access to the rest of the building, if that unfettered access is even granted.
I say this just as people are celebrating the 9 to 4 decision wherein the Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, granted tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones – but not without controversy and outrage.
I could spend the bulk of this article rattling off Ms. Hannah-Jones’ accomplishments, accolades and awards. But naming them aloud would not change how or why she was treated differently, and publicly, from most people afforded the same opportunity as she was. Oh, there was one noticeable exception to her candidacy; she, to date, had been the only Black woman given consideration. And what fueled the questioning of her acceptance to UNC even more has been her long-form journalism work on The 1619 Project, and what has become the subsequent riling on critical race theory across the United States.
We all know that 2020, became a year of accelerated “wokeness” when suddenly, America was roused to its race and racism problem. What followed after the murder of George Floyd were statements, commitments, and promises of diversity, equality and inclusion. (Not that much around equity, though.) And yet, here we are, a full year later after those events, when students attempting to participate in a process, that was said to be UNC’s public meeting on Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure approval, became private and ended with the forceful removal of those students.
For many of us, we wake up each day keenly aware of the skin we live in. I live in a predominantly white community and in almost every given space, I am the sole person of color. And in this industry of media, journalism and communications – even more so.
A few weeks ago, while attending an elite journalism conference, held virtually due to the ongoing pandemic, the opening session of the panel did not include one person of color. The feedback on the lack of diversity was immediate. I, along with others, posted our comments in the chat box, stunned by the omission in a post-2020 world. A day later came that well-worn trope: it’s a teachable moment, offered up as sop with an apology and a promissory note to do better.
I wish I could say that my experience at that journalism conference was isolated. But, in the days that followed, and in an almost constant drum beat, I’m reminded how across industries, from academia to journalism, what they say they want is diversity, but then when that diversity is invited into the room, it’s met with the very force that drives it away, a lack of respect and accountable inclusion.
And I know in saying this that it sounds like I’m playing a version of DEI bingo, but the real-world implications are degrading and harmful.
Right here in my hometown, there’s been an exodus of talented journalists from our newspaper. And the vast majority of those departures have been women of color. Most have left without even lining up their next job, and as of this writing, my local newspaper no longer has any Black women on its reporting staff. If we want to consider the future of local media and journalism as sustainable, a lack of inclusion will be its death knell. Pour as much technology, funding, and First Amendment kindling onto the fire; a lack of DEI will be the cold bath and undoing of this industry. But why?
Those in power continue to ignore irrefutable data about our future and our audiences. The next billion digital users on this planet will be women and people of color. But let’s be clear, treating this group as tainted goods will not move them to become consumers of brands, identities and services that don’t reflect them. In fact, I would argue that despite the opportunity to create good, even more damage is being produced by moments like Nicole Hannah-Jones’s tenure debacle.
In the months after last summer’s protests and demonstrations, it’s been championed that the Black community and especially Black women are the backbone of America’s democracy. But being a backbone shouldn’t be back-breaking. So many Black and brown people have grown up with the admonition that we need to be twice as good as our white counterparts to simply maintain, far less, get ahead. I doubt that will ever change.
What became clear in the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure farce wasn’t that she wasn’t good enough to be treated like any other candidate for her position; but to be considered she would have to experience what was best said in a tweet by Lamar Richards, Student Body President of UNC: “I am mentally and physically exhausted. This is the part of ‘doing the right thing’ that they don’t tell you about.”
Hope the block is still standing. We’re still standing.
Andrew Ramsammy is Chief Content & Collaboration Officer at the Local Media Association; Board Trustee at the Vermont College of Fine Arts; and this fall will be Associate Faculty at ASU’s Cronkite School, teaching journalism ethics and diversity.