Black and white thinking

“Diversity is not an end in itself”

Many voices are still not to be found in the mainstream media. Journalist Karen Attiah discusses how debates around cancel culture are accelerating our debates around diversity. A conversation

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Talk of cancel culture is widespread in journalism and academia. Is it shaking up existing power structures?

The idea of canceling originally came from black cultures. It was a way for us to hold people accountable, of showing we don't subscribe to a certain narrative anymore. Over the last few years it has entered the mainstream lexicon. But now the phrase “cancel culture” is becoming meaningless. It is increasingly seen as a threat by the powerful classes, which, here in the United States, are generally dominated by white men. It’s being used as a shield by powerful classes to evade difficult conversations, or worse, safeguard their ability to say and do what they want without consequence.

So cancel culture started out as a tool for activism and now it's being instrumentalised by its opponents?

Exactly – and the word “woke” had the same trajectory. Both terms are being used to dismiss new challenges to established doctrines. “Woke” emerged from the black community decades ago. It was an intra-group exhortation to remain vigilant, critical and aware. Now “woke mob” is often used to silence critique from black voices as well as historically marginalised groups including LGBTQ groups, Latinos and the rest. In the end, the media's negative framing of these terms distracts from what we should be talking about: power, harm, restitution, justice.

But surely movements like MeToo sparked a rethink.

I see MeToo, and in many ways for the racial justice movement, as a fundamental challenge to the societal order. The MeToo movement had an outsized focus on whether certain famous men lose their job or get suspended. But that was just one angle. It also removed the stigma around speaking out and holding people to account. Unfortunately, though, these power systems are still in place. Women still face the reality of nondisclosure agreements or threats of retribution if they speak out. Yes, MeToo shook things up - but then we saw the backlash.

Are pushbacks inevitable when the status quo is being challenged?

The stakes are high. These conversations are fundamentally about people's rights to live and exist, whether it's speaking out against violence and sexual harassment against women or other ways of challenging the social order. These issues go beyond whether or not somebody loses out on a multimillion-dollar film deal or gets denied a platform at a prestigious university. There is a lot of generational anger and trauma from those who have been marginalised.

Hence the highly emotional nature of debates?

Of course, emotions are everywhere – and intrinsic to politics as a whole. Politicians appeal anxieties or hopes, dreams, aspirations. Certain states, such as Texas and Florida, are passing new laws about critical race theory and politicians explicitly use the word “comfort” and talk about making children uncomfortable. They don't specify “white” but we know because of experience that is what's happening. We are seeing clear examples of prioritising white feelings over everyone else's feelings. White feelings are being codified into law and this speaks to the power of white supremacy in this country.

But how do you quantify emotions?

A lot of these debates, including cancel culture, are not rational. You often hear that powerful white men have been banned from society or cancelled. I'm not saying that this hasn't happened – but is it provable on such a mass scale that it constitutes a national crisis? I would say no. But the fact that you and I are discussing this topic reveals anxiety about how existing orders are being challenged.

As a journalist do you find yourself side-stepping contentious topics?

I don't think I do. It's not comfortable for me to speak out but it’s even less comfortable to keep quiet. The most vicious attempts to silence me are when I speak out against white supremacy. At the moment I think we should hold space for people to process thoughts in public. No one knows everything. I personally have said things out of ignorance. And it was uncomfortable when I was confronted and corrected. But the reality is we are all figuring this out together.

And what about the media as a whole? How is it changing?

Obviously the media is different from 50 years ago. We have social media alongside the legacy publications, and also far right wing news outlets that aim to push a particular world view. We're seeing an atomisation of our media landscape. These days people really can choose their own adventure - we don't have centralised sources of information anymore. Meanwhile, there’s the worrying demise of local media, which is where most people find their place in the world and which long served as a warning bell for bigger trends across the country. But at the same time, I am happy there is a greater plurality of voices. For example, Capital B, which is launched in Atlanta, or even 19th News, which is a newsroom focusing specifically on stories formed by women.

Do you think traditional newsrooms are becoming more diverse?

For me diversity is not an end in itself. It’s a means moving towards a more robust and complete picture of how our world is. Our industry is still grappling with who gets to shape stories. Much needs to be done to make sure that a range of voices are heard and seen. This goes beyond putting people’s pictures on our glossy brochures. It means giving minorities actual decision-making power. From my perspective as an opinion journalist, I think the issues of power are wrapped up in broader discussions about objectivity which for so long was a journalistic dogma. The idea of being neutral implied having the privilege of being above the fray of social issues. Meanwhile the rest of us who are women or black people or otherwise sidelined were not seen as objective or neutral.

Roxanne Gay has suggested replacing “cancel culture” with “consequence culture”. Would that help those who have been left on the sidelines?

I like the term. For such a long time in this country we had zero consequences for killing, beating, raping, black people, indigenous people. Nothing happened to men who beat or killed their wives. America’s short history has been a history of impunity, particularly for white men. That has been part and parcel of “freedom” in America. This needs to change and impunity needs to be a thing of the past.