In light of the protests against police brutality directed toward Black civilians, several student organizations at Emory University have released statements of solidarity with Black students, often accompanied by fundraisers promoting racial justice. The Emory Wheel was no exception to this; Madison Bober (20C), the current editor-in-chief (EIC), recently published a letter from the editor to “address the Wheel’s complicity” in discrimination toward Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), highlighting that the “paper has dealt with problems of inclusivity since its inception.” However, I have yet to see a realized effort toward serious and major reform to bolster diversity. I brought these diversity issues to light in January 2020 when advocating for structural reform in the annual EIC election, and was ultimately not met with the support needed for genuine, long-lasting change. While I am grateful for my three years at the Wheel, I made the tough decision to step down from its leadership this spring in response to, what I felt was, insufficient effort to change the structures, attitudes and behaviors needed to better support BIPOC.
I must admit that the Wheel did examine these issues through a somewhat introspective lens, whereas several Emory student organizations have chosen to gloss over their own behaviors. However, I fear that this minimal introspection is performative at best if not accompanied by institutional reform, especially considering that these issues were already called out on a public platform four months earlier and discussed internally even before that. While a late change is certainly better than none, the fact that the Wheel’s leadership only addressed diversity issues when impelled to do so by a massive social movement suggests that its BIPOC allyship may be little more than optical. I say this in full recognition of the great work of which the Wheel is capable and in the hope that my letter will inspire cultural and structural improvements for BIPOC inclusion.
In 2008, Black students protested against the Wheel for failing to cover former President Barack Obama’s election during the week in which it occurred, but not a single Black student was involved in the decision. Then-University President James Wagner’s task force commented that they did “not think there [had] been any growth in African-American presence on THE WHEEL” by 2012. This remains painfully true even today, since there is not a single Black editor currently at the Wheel. This trend has also been true during most years in the interim for writers, as Boris Niyonzima (22C) shared in a 2017 op-ed his experience of often being the only Black writer, and often the only BIPOC in several Opinion section meetings at the Wheel. To little surprise, the Wheel has rarely if ever elected a Black EIC in the last two decades. All of these patterns outline a clear history of racialized transgressions against BIPOC, but we must ask: what type of environment and values have caused this egregious lack of representation at the newspaper?
After Niyonzima published his op-ed, he won an award and was asked by several members of the Wheel’s leadership how to better address the issue of diversity, although few changes were effected in the newsroom. He states that “there’s an assumption that every Black person on campus knows each other, and that I could leverage my own networks to find people.” While he volunteered his help, Niyonzima felt discouraged that recruitment efforts fell solely onto him, as he should be. Recruitment isn’t his role as a writer; it should be the role of the Board of Editors and, more importantly, the EIC.
At one time, Niyonzima and I found ourselves the two BIPOC on the Editorial Board, the section that wrote and edited the Wheel’s official stance on political and community issues (not to be confused with the Board of Editors). And when he took a gap year, I was the only actively contributing POC on the Editorial Board. Though I am a non-Black POC, I have felt and seen the real effects of discrimination and BIPOC erasure at the Wheel, which must be addressed if the newspaper wishes to genuinely improve its BIPOC retention. An effective framework for “improving diversity in the newsroom” may come from Columbia Journal Review’s (CJR) guide on ethical journalism and diversity. The initial step in this guide is to recognize that a problem exists, and while the current EIC eventually did so, the rest of the organization’s leadership, the Board of Editors, must publicly agree that there exists a lack of diversity. What comes next?
Firstly, CJR’s framework suggests improving accessibility to journalism for BIPOC by removing barriers to accessibility. To be on the Board of Editors, a student must commit 30-40 hours a week to the Emory Wheel. That’s as much time as a full time job, all while being enrolled as a student. Membership in the Editorial Board, the opinion writing-body, involves between eight and 10 hours of work per week, and reporters face similar time commitments. Students are expected to be at the Wheel’s office on Tuesday nights for the production of the physical newspaper and layout, which can take anywhere between five to nine consecutive hours. A greater proportion of BIPOC students are on federal work study compared to white students, making it more difficult to have long stretches of time available for these positions. To ensure that BIPOC students are more involved with the Wheel, revise these impractical obligations. Spreading out production time over several days to reduce stress, distributing work among more editors and empathizing with the additional time constraints that BIPOC may face are the first steps that the Wheel should take.
In addition, I have noticed that the Wheel’s leaders often overlook the socioeconomic barriers that BIPOC face. Once, a white editor suggested that I should prioritize “talented” writers over “mentoring” newer, but passionate writers. Clearly, he did not recognize that “talent” is often a product of how much mentorship and training a student has been fortunate to have in their academic career, especially due to white privilege. Schools with more white students are likely to receive more funding than schools with more BIPOC, which often means better-funded school activities such as journalism. Due to these constraints, many students have not worked on a newspaper before joining the Wheel. Editors should be more cognizant of the disparities that result in their staff’s prior experience and prioritize mentorship for writers.
Second, the Wheel must put an end to the inhospitable working environment that contributes to racial microaggressions, or actions that signal “derogatory or negative racial messages … to the receiver.” Several former reporters and editors have called the environment “toxic” at times, citing the excessive work commitment, the expectation that students be available well past midnight to edit and produce the paper and especially the type of language used toward BIPOC. This culture contributes to the paper’s high turnover rate, where editors and reporters quit after burning out.
As noted, I have been in several meetings at the Wheel, such as with the Editorial Board, where as one of the only POC in the space, I could barely get in a word. Though that had somewhat improved, I was still often interrupted. I’m not even a quiet person. I can’t tell you the number of times that bad-tempered language was used or directed toward me or the number of times I was cursed at and told by white writers that it was “all in good humor.” I’m not laughing. The tone the writers and editors also used toward me was distressing. I recall one instance in which a white editor called a sentence that I wrote in an article “completely idiotic,” cursed at me and then deleted it from the article without my consent. This was an act of erasure. Similar overriding and derision of the Wheel’s few BIPOC voices have led to “whitewashed” stances on issues concerning diversity and race, such as in pieces about Heather Mac Donald’s visit to campus, professors using derogatory racial language, Greek Life, electoral endorsements and many more.
I’m not the only one who has faced these comments. Adesola Thomas (20C) was one of only two Black editors during the last three academic years, as the head of the Arts and Entertainment section. Thomas recalls how a white editor often made disrespectful comments and microaggressions toward her, and how both her white and non-Black POC peers, as well as non-Black POC EICs, did not directly comment or address the remarks. Instead, everyone watched the situation unfold.There needs to be a more conscious effort to directly address the language and consequently harmful work environment of the Wheel. The Wheel’s staff must condemn these behaviors when seen and must critically consider the impacts of their language toward BIPOC. I recommend regular check-ins with the Wheel community, conducted through general body meetings and one-on-ones to address grievances related to the Wheel’s culture.
Third, the Wheel must commit to publishing content that BIPOC would like to see, from BIPOC voices. When serving as the managing editor for both the Opinion and Arts and Entertainment sections, I often edited articles written by white students that covered cultural events or events about diversity. It often seemed like these articles were not well researched or didn’t use the apt language needed for accurate reporting. I’ve seen conflations between ethnic and religious groups in articles, reporters citing unreliable sources of information to warp diversity or ethnographic statistics in opinion articles, takes that lacked cultural relativism and embittered communication when these errors were pointed out. Writers must do their part in research to ensure that their pieces on cultural, ethnic and racial groups are accurate, and must not impart discriminatory judgment. Writers must critically consider their voice when taking on these assignments, and remain open to feedback about how their language reads.
As Thomas recalls, she asked a writer to explore the race-related themes in the poetry of a Black poet, and the white reporter felt uncomfortable and refused to do so. When Thomas brought this issue up to the Wheel’s leadership, she was told to ask the writer to center the piece more on her white guilt, which deviated attention from the Black poet’s talent. Thomas felt that “centering whiteness felt aggressive” and that she should not have to explain that to her leaders. The Wheel’s leaders must be conscientious of how they frame race-related pieces and the role they ask their BIPOC to take on when doing so. They should not expect that BIPOC editors and writers will “catch” their missteps, rather that they will be informed about the ramifications of such a suggestion in the first place. Thomas hopes that changes such as these are addressed in the upcoming year and supports the Wheel’s funding efforts for the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) as a first step.
The Wheel’s editors and writers must also ensure they are holding themselves accountable to ethical standards of journalism, and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics calls for reporters to “boldly tell the story of diversity.” For instance, when I tried to write long-form exposés on the lack of diversity and inclusion in Greek Life, I was shut down on more than one occasion by editors who said that “they didn’t want to deal with the backlash,” citing the Code’s recommendation to weigh the “possible harms” that could be done to the paper. Former Assistant News Editor Namrata Verghese (19C) was met with similar limitations. She wrote an article covering campus responses to chalkings endorsing President Donald Trump, which was published with no trouble. Verghese later proposed a second article in which she wanted to specifically hone in on BIPOC responses to the chalkings, but was told by the Wheel’s leadership that she was unable to be “objective” as a POC reporting on the issue, and that she failed to cover “both sides of the matter.” No such standards were applied to white reporters covering white communities. When she spoke to other editors about the situation, she was not provided with constructive feedback on how to address or reframe the piece and felt pressured to quit. Several stories that BIPOC wanted to tell about diversity in all parts of campus life, from Greek Life to some of Emory’s highest structures, were shut down and silenced. The Wheel’s leadership must not apply these types of double standards to BIPOC reporters by wrongly using the SPJ Code of Ethics as ammo. Rather, the leadership should fulfill their responsibility to amplify BIPOC voices in line with the true intentions of the Code.
One way to empower BIPOC to write about content they want to read is to provide them with the resources to do so. BIPOC students shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for transportation fees or entry to events when they make the effort to report on issues that they feel are important. While the Wheel has an internal funding pool for a few opportunities, it is very limited for each section of the paper and many writers have not been aware of its existence. In fact, I didn’t even know that such a fund existed for a long time, and I was part of the Wheel’s leadership. This fund should at the very least be publicized, and expanded to help support BIPOC in pursuit of their journalistic interests. This would ensure that journalistic opportunities are accessible and affordable. Such support is necessary if we want to encourage long-term commitment and retention of BIPOC to the Wheel.
Lastly, I’ve seen several BIPOC passed over for editor opportunities or membership to the Editorial Board when they were more qualified or just as qualified as a white reporter with the same experience. Though I have tried to point this out to higher-level management when I saw it, I was met with apathetic responses that seemed to attribute no clear reasoning for promoting one candidate over the other within the Wheel’s hierarchy. Editors must check their implicit biases. It is important to ensure that BIPOC are well-represented in the Wheel’s leadership positions in the Board of Editors, so that issues that BIPOC want to hear about make it from the pitch list to published articles.
I worked for three years to address these issues in diversity, but was ultimately met with limited success because change could not have happened without the full backing of editorial leadership. I would like to reiterate that none of these ideas are new and were brought up on more than one occasion. The Wheel’s Board of Editors has not formally committed to a single one of these much needed reforms. Silence is complicity, and I call upon the other members of the Wheel to demand accountability and redress where they see these microaggressions continue. I believe in the power of journalism, which is why I joined the Wheel in the first place. But more importantly, I believe in the power of responsible journalism that supports and raises BIPOC voices. I believe the Wheel can only start to do that internally if, and only if, it fulfills these demands to support BIPOC.
Fundraising to support BIPOC journalists is important and necessary, and I commend the Wheel’s commitment to do so by donating to the NABJ. However, I urge greater introspection and effort in pursuit of the structural reforms that I’ve advocated to prevent performative allyship. Make space for BIPOC journalists and editors. Make them feel welcome. Listen to them, and implement their demands. That is how you enact sustainable reform.
Shreya Pabbaraju (21C) is from Duluth, Georgia. She served as the former managing editor for Opinion and Arts and Entertainment, and served as a member of the Editorial Board.
Correction (6/10/20 at 4:31 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Adesola Thomas (20C) was the only Black member of the Board of Editors during the last three academic years. In fact, she was one of two Black editors during that period.