When ‘Doing Better’ Isn’t Enough: Diversity, Press Power, and the BDH

Image by Kristine Mar.
Image by Kristine Mar.

On March 21st, the Brown Daily Herald’s 127th Editorial Board published a response to the decision of multiple Brown University Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) candidates to not seek the publication’s endorsement. Candidates running for the presidency, vice presidency, and chair of the finance board expressed their concerns with the Brown Daily Herald (BDH)’s problematic history with people of color and other marginalized groups within the Brown community. The candidates repudiated the publication for giving platforms to racist messaging under the guise of “freedom of expression,” disregarding Native communities at Brown, and misrepresenting student narratives (see the first comment on this op-ed, published in 2013). Candidates stated that the BDH misused the trust of marginalized communities and that an endorsement by the publication would not align with the candidates’ goals to support people of color at Brown.

In their op-ed, the editorial board writes, “We understand that we do not truly fulfill our mission if our staff does not reflect the diversity of the student body. We acknowledge this internal problem and wish to also shed light on some of the efforts we have made in the past three semesters to make The Herald more diverse and inclusive.” The op-ed goes on to list these efforts, including hiring more students of color, editing op-ed articles in-person within the physical space of the BDH offices, creating a “diversity and inclusion advocate” position, and holding mandatory workshops for staff members.

To be clear, the steps that the BDH has taken to address its failings are necessary, and taken in response to critiques and guidance from students, particularly students of color. However, not only is the March 21st editorial one of the BDH’s first public explanations of these efforts, but their diagnosis of concerns raised by the UCS candidates also misses the point. Framing the publication’s oppressive history as “an internal problem” echoes the BDH’s weak excuse (“an internal error”) for the racist op-eds published in Fall 2015. Moreover, it ignores the fact that there is a larger conflict between the institutions of both the press and the university, and groups that have struggled to make themselves heard by both, only finding their concerns taken seriously when it is profitable or “progressive” to do so. If the BDH does not understand this point, it’s questionable whether the changes it has made are truly sustainable.

We also question what “diversity” means in this – and any – context. The term “diversity” is popular because it is palatable, and has no root in any concrete social justice-oriented concepts. Are people diverse because of their skin color, fashion choices…opinions on pineapple on pizza? Is a publication “diverse” and “inclusive” just because it gives a platform to both students of color suffering from racism and students who tacitly support eugenics?

The BDH claims that the candidates’ stance “erase[s] the work of… our staff members who are themselves students of color and low-income students — who make these narratives visible in our paper every day.” As we’ve explained, it’s important that these reforms were implemented, and also that the students of color who pushed for them are recognized and, hopefully, paid.

However, even if the BDH were perfectly representative of the student body, there would still be too many staff members that rely on oppressive frameworks to understand the world. When we consider that Brown, along with many other elite institutions, built its endowment and knowledges on the forcible removal, murder, and enslavement of Black and Native people, it becomes evident that we are not separate from these legacies, no matter how representationally “diverse” our publications are. These histories continue to inform how we understand and move through the world, and how we edit and write and manage a staff, too. It’s tokenizing to assume that some students of color would be able to address of the concerns of multiple marginalized communities, or that these efforts would negate any future criticism.

In the March 23rd edition of the BDH, a staff columnist writes, “For better or for worse, The Herald essentially has a monopoly in the market of daily student newspapers at Brown.” Though the BDH aims to position itself as a liberatory platform for free speech, its role as an established campus newspaper comes with power – reputational, financial, and political – that it cannot ignore.

Ultimately, publications are not entitled to the opinions or support of marginalized communities, especially when they have a history of using their institutional power to extend oppressive ideologies and ignore the narratives of marginalized people. The BDH’s request to be held accountable rings false when it does not work to fully understand or accept the challenges levied against it.

 

To be fully transparent with our readers, bluestockings has endorsed UCS presidential candidate Chelse Steele. Our endorsement was made in our capacity as a group of students from Brown University. We are not affiliated with Chelse’s campaign in any other way.

Kristine, Daniella and Annie wish for a world where they will be paid for their work as diversity consultants. Jessica Jiang also contributed to the writing of this piece.

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