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Good for the Washington City Paper for calling out the Washingtonian for its lily-white editorial staff. Nothing gets an alternative weekly going like hypocrisy, and I’m glad we’ve decided to be this week’s champion of diversity. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re the right paper to do that. A look at our masthead reveals a decided lack of diversity at Champlain Street. Editor in chief: white guy (and a gentrifier, too). Arts editor: white guy. Senior editor: white guy. Senior writer: white guy. Copy editor: white woman.
So it’s up to me to write our full disclosure. My editor suggested that I begin with something like “As the lone Asian-American writer on the City Paper staff,” but I doubt I’ve called myself Asian-American, or even Chinese-American, more than a half-dozen times in my life. Frankly, such geographically nebulous terms, which ignore the innumerable ways that people parse their nationalities, and by extension their identities, don’t belong to the people they attempt to describe. Don’t get me wrong—it doesn’t bother me when people call me Asian-American, and I greatly prefer it to the alternatives. But lumping all Asians together ignores the long history of yellow-on-yellow atrocities (the Rape of Nanking, anyone?) and the unspoken hierarchy of Asian cultures, and presupposes that just because I’m Chinese I automatically feel some kinship with all Asians. This oversimplification is a major reason why I haven’t pursued any affiliation with the Asian American Journalists Association, which, incidentally, also includes Pacific Islanders. Well, that and the annual membership of $55, which I prefer to spend on magazine subscriptions.
But here’s my full disclosure: I grew up in Utah, where I spent most of my childhood aping the mannerisms of Mormons, not Chinese people, who obviously weren’t in large supply. I’ve successfully become such a Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside—that the other day, an intern in need of a translator approached me and asked, with evident skepticism, “Do you even speak Chinese?” Not unless she wanted me to order food or get directions, I responded. This was at once gratifying—Yes! I passed for white!—and monumentally disappointing.
For better or worse, my upbringing has allowed me to mostly avoid that hypersensitive, everything-is-racist phase that I’ve watched other Asians go through. Still, I suppose my standing as the only Asian-American—I mean, Chinese—writer at the City Paper gives me some credibility to talk. After all, race, as with class, is an advantage conferred at birth.
One of my first editorial meetings here began with a protracted discussion about reaching readers east of the Anacostia—that is, black readers. My gut reaction was embarrassment, since it was clear that no one in the room actually lived east of the river and that most rarely spent time there if not working on a story. I would have laughed, if people hadn’t been taking themselves so seriously.
A colleague once complained about all the minority writers who seem to get unfairly fast-tracked by newspapers more interested in skin color than ability. On some level, I was flattered that someone would feel comfortable enough talking with me about such a topic—yes! I passed for white again!—but excuse me if I don’t feel bad for those passed-over writers. I’m not so naive to think that everyone gets ahead based on merit, but to hear my colleague tell it, white people are the only ones getting screwed.
Today, we have more Utahans (two) than black people (one) on the editorial staff. It wasn’t always this way. Former Editor in Chief David Carr, who ruled from 1995 to 1999, established a minority fellowship, and it wasn’t just window dressing. Some of the fellows who pinwheeled through the paper went on to prominent positions in journalism. The high-water mark came in 2001, during Howard Witt’s tenure, when there were three black female editorial staffers and two black female interns. According to staffers who were around then, the paper seemed to be much more committed to editorial diversity. But our last minority fellow departed in 2001, and current Editor in Chief Erik Wemple doesn’t know why there hasn’t been one since. “It’s clearly my fault that we don’t have more minority representation on staff,” says Wemple. “There’s nothing that falls more squarely within the confines of my job description.”
Unfortunately, there is no Title IX for newspapers, no legislation demanding that the ethnic makeup of an editorial staff reflect a paper’s readership (though you could argue that the City Paper’s readership is as homogenous as its staff—not a good thing). Though writers obviously needn’t be the same race as their subjects to do them justice, there’s a richness to a story that can only be added by a writer who really, really understands his subject, and for some stories, race does become an important credential. Take a 1996 cover story, “Why B.E.T. Sucks,” by Holly Bass. Sure, a white person could have written it, but who cares what a white person thinks of B.E.T.?
But the City Paper doesn’t seem all that interested in taking advantage of what little color it does have on staff. In my almost two years writing for the paper, only one editor, a gentrifying white woman who once complained that her neighborhood grocery store didn’t carry risotto, approached me with a story idea about Chinese people. I wasn’t insulted. In fact, it felt good to have her acknowledge that my ethnicity could help the paper. But that editor left, and now when China or Chinese people, customs, or food come up in conversation, I can almost see the thought bubbles above people’s heads: Whatever you do, don’t ask Huan. He might think you’re a racist. And I want to scream, “I’m Chinese! It’s OK!”
Then again, the problem with race is that there’s so little wiggle room that if you think long enough about it, you’ll invariably find something to get pissed off about. If my colleagues aren’t careful, they risk becoming what all enlightened white people fear the most: racist. And if I’m not sensitive enough about race, I’m a self-loather. But if I’m too flip about it—like when my editor told me he thought he saw me playing tennis over the weekend and I cracked that no, it wasn’t me, but we all do look the same—I’m a race baiter. Drinking the meritocracy Kool-Aid assumes a well-intentioned denial of the importance of race: that it shouldn’t matter. But assuring diversity, which is obviously a good thing, requires an almost neurotic level of race-consciousness. Is the inherent racial profiling of seeking out minority reporters OK because it means well? Isn’t it stereotyping to assume that color alone begets a certain racial sensitivity? At the heart of the issue of diversity in the newsroom lies the fundamental question of race in America: How can we transcend it without forgetting it?
I was covering a tennis tournament once, watching former University of Virginia star Hyon Yoo, when a white woman struck up a conversation with Yoo’s relatives. “Where’s he from?” she asked.
“He’s Korean, but he was born here,” a man replied, parsing his answer in a way that should be familiar to most Asian immigrants and their children.
“Oh, so he’s American,” she said, delighted.
“No,” the man said, as if she might be having trouble with her eyes. “He’s Korean.”
“Asian-American,” the woman corrected herself.
“I see,” the woman said, nodding pleasantly. “Korean-American.” The man stared at her for a moment, then shrugged and turned away.
At the City Paper, we love poking fun at people such as that well-meaning but oblivious woman, a Washingtonian reader if ever there was one. Sadly, it seems that by taking the Washingtonian to task, we’re showing ourselves to be just as oblivious. It’s not all that surprising that the Washingtonian is a really white magazine. It would seem a much bigger problem for the City Paper, which purports to write about a predominately black city, yet is produced by a bunch of young white folks who live in Northwest D.C. Our urban cred is just as contrived as the Washingtonian’s class.
Does this mean we can’t point out its failures? I guess not. But I would feel a whole lot better if we could put our money where our mouth is.CP