Like you, I am entangled in institutions that perpetuate oppression. While there may be a spectrum in terms of the amount of harm caused by different institutions, there is no less responsibility for reform.
Since 2011 my writing has been periodically published in the Mountain Xpress, an independent weekly paper in Asheville. You can click here for links to articles I’ve written for them as a freelancer. The majority of my articles have featured the art and work of people of color, almost always written in response to a request from someone I know. My intention has been to challenge the dominant white narratives that shape our experiences and understandings of western North Carolina (and beyond). I have seen my role as a bridge for people of color to get their stories to a large audience (Xpress has around 75,000 readers).
All along I’ve known the Mountain Xpress is problematic. David Forbes, a journalist I deeply respect and admire, launched the Asheville Blade in 2014 after dealing with Xpress censorship of a housing story and resistance to justified union organizing (you can find a short summary of these issues here). After posting the censored information on what is now the Blade, David was fired. There are other former staff who have told me about a negative work environment. I hold this information in tension with my goal of impacting the collective narrative.
Looking at equity and inclusion, Xpress has had an 99.9% white staff (and freelancers) for most of their existence. I do not know about sexuality, class background, gender identity, ability/disability, ethnicity, etc, but I sense there has been a lack of diversity in many areas. The layers of issues come from a having media outlet with such homogenous staff are more than I can unpack here. (And, yes, Xpress is certainly not the only homogeneous media outlet in Asheville.) I’ll share a couple of examples related to race that point to ways these issues manifest.
In April 2018 Thomas Calder covered the 1885 creation of Riverside Cemetery as a part of his “Asheville Archives” series. The piece discussed the founding city’s first “public cemetery” without any investigation of whether the cemetery was truly for all of the public, including Black or Jewish residents. Also relevant to what cemetery was “first” are Native American burial sites, such as the one that exists on the Biltmore Estate property, and the South Asheville Cemetery were people who were enslaved are buried. This kind of centering of whiteness, using it as the default norm without naming that that is what is being done, is wrong and dangerous. I wrote Thomas about these concerns and he was responsive to my feedback, though my observation is that the series still mostly features white (and often male) history.
While I affirm that Xpress has made some improvements around diversity in their coverage, particularly in the Arts & Entertainment section, the white lens is still strong. The narrative will always be compromised when reporters cover stories distant from their lived experience. The potential for perpetuating ongoing harm is real.
A second, more recent and upsetting example, is an editorial cartoon by Randy Molton which included “a visual characterization [of City of Asheville Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons] that evokes racist depictions of African Americans such as blackface and minstrel shows.” That quote is from a “Statement from Mountain Xpress” in their May 8 – 14, 2019 issue (I cannot find that statement online). Because I do not want to reinforce the damage, I’m not going to share the cartoon. The statement goes on to say, “the responsibility for scrutinizing all material rests with Xpress…we will redouble our efforts to ensure that unacceptable stereotypes do not appear in the pages of Xpress.”
An apology is not enough. I am asking Mountain Xpress to share the specific ways they are redoubling their efforts. Not only that unacceptable stereotypes do not appear, but that their team is truly representative and accountable. I will ask about what outside support are they going to invest in to make this happen, and what benchmarks will be used to measure progress. Because transformational change takes more than good intentions.
A recent Xpress cover story critiqued the Asheville City Schools for not having clear, measurable steps towards addressing disparities and equity. That same critique applies here. The Xpress track record does not give me much hope for real change, but that does not lessen my duty to call for it.
This post is in part a call for redress of the Mountain Xpress, but it is also owning my entanglement with them. Even with these issues, the next time I am asked by a person of color to help amplify their work by writing a story about it for Xpress, I may say yes. (If this post does not end my freelance relationship with them.) However, I’d much rather see that Xpress has done the work to find diverse writers and editors, and to take myself out of the role of a bridge.
As I navigate where I exhibit complicity and resistance, I will continue to support local community media that centers historically marginalized voices, such as JMPRO TV (go to their site to subscribe), WRES 100.7 FM, the Urban News, and the Asheville Blade.
I will also continue to invest my time, talent, and treasure in initiatives like the Center for Participatory Change (CPC) – which just posted an inspiring 2018 annual report – that are modeling what collective liberation can look like.
Many of my readers are doing good work within problematic institutions. May we continue to name the problems, advocate for radical reform, and move towards new outcomes and justice.
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