Sometimes we mean well, but don’t always do well, especially when it comes to talking about media and diversity. That’s exactly what happened with writer Ester Bloom today when she penned a piece about comedian Jessica Williams’ decision not to pursue the host gig to replace her current boss, Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
The 25-year-old Williams tweeted earlier this week that she didn’t believe she was ready for the job; to which Bloom took to thebillfold.com calling Williams a “high profile victim of impostor syndrome.” Bloom also wrote that she feels Williams is expressing some kind of “fake humility,” and then weirdly urged The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates to lead an intervention “lean-in” style.
Williams, rightfully, took offense.
No offense, but Lean the Fuck away from me for the next couple of days. I need a minute.
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) February 17, 2015
I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours. — Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) February 17, 2015
To be sure, Williams is still building her career and has every right to make her own decisions about life and career, after all, they are hers to decide. Such honesty should be applauded, not dismissed, not even by well-meaning white folks who insist she take on diversity’s cause for diversity’s sake. Besides, I thought the whole “Lean-In” movement, especially as it relates to women of color, had already been discredited anyway. Just like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Ms. Bloom failed to take into consideration women of color and our unique challenges when it comes to the workplace. One of those challenges involves having our voices heard. Williams used her voice, and Bloom immediately, though perhaps unintentionally, shut it down. This is a constant fight for women of color. Being silenced — even by well-meaning white folks — is crippling. As Williams explained when she told Bloom how hurtful her Billfold’s article is.
And then Tessa Berenson of Time Magazine piled on for good measure:
No, I didn’t. “@tcberenson: Jessica Williams fires back at fans who want her to replace Jon Stewart – “I am not yours” via TIME
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) February 18, 2015
Of course, Black Twitter rallied to Williams’ defense. Bloom says she ‘heard’ Williams (I’m not so sure she did) and didn’t intend to be insulting (I’m sure she didn’t), but how can something like this be avoided in the future? Bloom’s bio says she’s a writer of fiction and the editor of thebillfold.com, not a journalist, but if she’s going to write about issues regarding race and gender, it might be helpful for her to remember a few rules that journalists follow:
- ASK don’t assume a subject’s motivations for the actions they take. Question. Seek truth. Bloom obviously got Williams’ attention on Twitter, that was the perfect time to ask the questions she didn’t ask beforehand. She could have used Williams’ answers to flesh out a much better story.
- ACKNOWLEDGE your own possible biases and ensure that the people you’re writing about have a voice in your coverage, especially those who don’t normally have a voice. And if you don’t know what your biases are, test yourself. Ask whether you’re characterizing an individual unfairly. Challenge your assumptions about people. In this case, a woman of color. Most important, think before you hit send.
- Explain your choices and admit when you got it wrong. In this case Bloom apologized for being “insensitive,” but she didn’t really explain where she went wrong in the addendum to her piece. I’m also not sure she knows. Bloom gives comedian (and Williams’ colleague) Wyatt Cenac props for helpfully pointing out the hypocrisy in her own words, but does she truly understand how she attempted to silence and invalidate Williams the same way so many others have done to women of color. As my friend Tiff J. says, there’s encouragement and then there’s the kind of privileged, condescending “lean-in” bull that many people of color abhor.
— Wyatt Cenac (@wyattcenac) February 17, 2015
Tracie Powell is founder of AllDigitocracy.org.