Disunity: NABJ and UNITY Find Life Without Each Other.

Holy cow, there’s a lot of Black folks here!

There are two sorts of conventions I’ve attend: The yearly National Association of Black Journalists conventions which I enjoy and the UNITY Journalists of Color conventions held every four years and those I flat out love.   Last week, Vice-President Joe Biden was the featured guest at the NABJ gathering in New Orleans, a convention that under normal conditions shouldn’t have occurred the same year UNITY gathers.

But a not-so funny thing happened to UNITY ’12 in Las Vegas.  After an acrimonious fight last year between NABJ and UNITY Inc. over issues of money, power and respect that remain murky, the Black journalists organization left to hold their own convention in New Orleans.  The three remaining original partners in UNITY, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian-American Journalists Association and the Native Americans Journalism Association chose to replace NABJ with the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association (NLGJA), to go forth with their shared convention in Las Vegas this August.

Many NABJ members only learned about the split when they attended the convention in Philadelphia last year. The leadership did not do a good job of informing the membership of what the issues were that led to the decision and they were unhappy and confused by it. But I don’t think UNITY has done much better in explaining their side of the story either.

I passed on New Orleans for the NABJ convention and I won’t be at UNITY in Las Vegas either. In part because I simply can’t afford it this year, but more because I’m disgusted with BOTH parties and their inability to work out their differences.

Writing on his blog, Rafael Olmeda said, “NABJ is in a difficult position now: it must decide whether to rejoin a coalition that responded to its departure by making drastic changes that call attention to the very points of contention that led to the split. If NABJ comes back, it will be to a very different coalition. If NABJ stays away, it does permanent damage to a powerful message it helped craft [that when we join forces, we do not dilute our voices; we magnify them].

A UNITY founding father has disowned his child.

But at NABJ’s convention this year the popular sentiment was UNITY should go their own way.  A commission that was appointed to explore reconciliation advised NABJ should stay out of the coalition “at this time.”   Even members who were bullish on a return cooled on the idea after NLGJA accepted the invitation to join UNITY.

The longer NABJ stays out the less likely there will be any urgency to return to UNITY and that sentiment received a huge boost from Juan Gonzalez, of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and one of the founders of UNITY when he agreed the coalition had strayed from its original purpose.

“The great moral authority of UNITY was its role as the key organization advocating better coverage of race and equal opportunity for journalists of color. Its power came from being organized and led solely by journalists of color. So when UNITY rushed to incorporate NLGJA before properly addressing the departure of NABJ — the largest and most influential group within the alliance — it sent a clear signal, whether intended or not, that racial and ethnic equality was no longer its main mission,”  Gonzalez said

It will fall to those within the five organizations who really want UNITY to be something more than a happy memory to make negotiation and reconciliation a priority, not a hope.

This task was complicated when NLGJA came in and “journalists of color” went out. I understand the reasoning that UNITY was no longer exclusively an organization for journalists of color, but the perception is NLGJA threw their weight around and they were accommodated by abandoning a vital element for UNITY’s very existence.

That suspicion was confirmed when it was revealed NLGJA said they would not attend the Las Vegas convention if “journalists of color” remained as part of UNITY’s name.

That’s a bit like your new next door neighbor telling you to paint your house their favorite color because if you don’t it’s going to be hard for them to get along with you. NLGJA were the new kids on the block and already they were setting conditions before they would play. It only reinforced the hard-liners in NABJ who either never wanted to be part of UNITY or didn’t want to return to it.

The membership of the respective organizations who believe in the idea of UNITY should be willing to fight for it and if that means raising so much hell until the leadership of the five organizations lock themselves into a room and don’t come out until they’ve reconciled their differences, then that’s what should happen.

“Hey, nice logo.”

And reinstate the “journalists of color” tag to UNITY. If NLGJA has a problem with that, they can grab their hat and step off. Journalists of Color isn’t just a motto. It’s a relevant fact and if NLGJA has a problem with that, maybe they need to figure out WHY it’s such a problem for them. When Leroy Aarons, the former president of NLGJA, was running around UNITY ’94 trying to get a seat at the table for NLGJA, I don’t remember him saying, “Okay, now that we’re in, that ‘journalists of color’ thing is out.”

It is insensitive and insulting for journalists of color to watch a predominantly White organization join an existing entity and immediately demand accommodations be made to make them feel comfortable.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to NLGJA that the name of the umbrella organization was UNITY: Journalists of Color. When he was at the first convention in 1994, I don’t recall Leroy Aarons demanding UNITY change their name as a precondition to admitting the gay journalists group. He just wanted them to have a place at the table. Now that they have that place NLGJA seems to be saying it doesn’t like the seating arrangements and wants to be at the head of the table.

It smacks of White entitlement at its worst. Why does NLGJA want to be part of a group of minority journalists if it wants to assert majority rules?  Why do the journalists of color that make up NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA want to be ditch their individual uniqueness to blend into a bland stew dedicated to “diversity.”

It’s NLGJA who seemed to have a problem feeling they were being excluded because apparently they don’t see being a predominantly White organization as having any racial connotations. NLGJA wanted to be part of UNITY originally because when Aarons was running it he recognized gay and lesbian journalists had commonality with NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, and NAJA based upon shared oppression and lack of power.

NLGJA was left out of UNITY for two reasons: One, was homophobia. Simple and plain. But two was a lot of Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American members disagreed that gays and lesbians are discriminated in journalism the same way they are. A closeted lesbian and gay journalist can “pass” in a way journalists whose racial identity is apparent cannot.  The power move by NLGJA to drop “journalists of color” may make White gays and lesbians feel more comfortable, but as a Black journalist, I don’t.

What it comes down to is UNITY was left with a huge hole in the coalition with NABJ’s exit.  The largest of the four partners was out and someone had to step in.  There were hotel rooms in Vegas that needed to be filled and NLGJA was a logical choice.  Only thing was, NLGJA  had some conditions of their own they needed to have met.

The true value of UNITY was it was the only event I am aware of where professionals of color came together under such circumstances. If lawyers of color or doctors of color or auto mechanics of color do something similar I’ve never heard about it.

Maybe UNITY will be better with swapping out NLGJA for NABJ and maybe it will be worse, but it will never be what it was. It may never even be what it might have been.

It’s always the kids who suffer when mommy and daddy fight.

Goodbye to all that.

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6 thoughts on “Disunity: NABJ and UNITY Find Life Without Each Other.

  1. Jeff – This is the smartest and most honest column I’ve read on the NABJ and UNITY: Journalists of Color split and the name change. You have it right and more importantly you aren’t afraid to hold everyone accountable even if it makes them uncomfortable. But anyone who knows you should not be surprised. Your voice and presence will be missed at the UNITY convention.

    • Thanks, Peter. I really appreciate your approval. I’m crushed that I won’t be in Las Vegas for UNITY. Though I’m sure there may be others whom will be relieved I’ll be sweltering in Ohio than the dry heat of the desert. Trust me, I’ve been a major pain in the tush to NABJ leadership for their reluctance to speak out forcefully for diversity and fear of standing up for Black journalists like Joe Williams whom is being hung out to dry by POLITICO. I think it’s incumbent upon everyone who loves what UNITY is supposed to be to speak out to save it from the fumbling “leadership” who seem to be focused upon bluster, hand-wringing and bumbling ineffectiveness.

      Please keep me informed on how UNITY-post NABJ works out. I know a few NABJers that will be there and hope they will keep me in the loop. Peace.

  2. Jeff, really great analysis of the situation, thank you. One point of contention: “A closeted lesbian and gay journalist can “pass” in a way journalists whose racial identity is apparent cannot.” While in general this is true, many gays and lesbians display characteristics that immediately identify them–or at least draw suspiscion to them–as gay. I’ve even known journalists who “acted” gay and were assumed to be gay but were really straight. LIkewise, many journalists of color display no immediate “clues” to their identity–they may be light-skinned, mixed race, speak only English, etc. And I think in general, we need to get away from this idea of “passing”, which has long caused a rift in the black and hispanic communities, with resentment from those darker skinned and a sense of shame from those lighter skinned.

    • I agree with much of what you say, Denise. But take the case of Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper at CNN whom both recently came out. It was a surprise to some, but many already knew (or strongly suspected) both gentlemen were gay. However, as long as Cooper never confirmed or denied his sexuality, he could have his cake and eat it too. He would always been suspected as a closeted gay man, but as long as he didn’t out himself, who could say with complete certainty?

      There was never any ambiguity as to whether Lemon was Black or not. That he couldn’t hide from others. Nobody “comes out” as Black. Someone may reveal they have Black ancestry, but that isn’t the same thing as coming out.

      I think we have to acknowledge it is still possible to “pass” with sexual identity in ways not possible to conceal one’s racial identity.

  3. Jeff, I agree with you that for *most* journalists of color, it’s not possible to pass and for *many* gays and lesbians it may be possible to pass. But let’s replace Don Lemon with Soledad O’Brien and Anderson Cooper with Perez Hilton (I’m in no way saying Hilton is a journalist by any stretch of the imagination but could not think of an effeminate on-air newsman–which proves my point but I’ll get to that). At first glance for many, it’s not clear that O’Brien–with her freckles, Irish last name and lack of Spanish-speaking abilities–is Hispanic. I’m sure early in her career, before she got so famous and actually began speaking about her mixed ethnicity in public, she did pass and many assumed she was Irish or Italian. Now take someone like Hilton–flamboyant, effeminate. There’s no way he could pass as straight in a newsroom and precisely because of those characteristics, he would probably be passed over for promotions. Gay men–even if it’s not clear if they are in fact gay–are accepted by mainstream society as long as they retain the stereotypical characteristics of “manly” men. If, like Cooper, they appear rugged, taking punches out in the field while wearing jeans and boots and keeping their voice low, then no one really cares if they’re gay. But even butch Cooper lets the giggles and sassiness slip out every now and then and those traits, among some others, are what led to viewers to suspect he was gay. So yes, he could pass, because he was able to carefully hide aspects of himself from appearing as part of his on-air persona. But men like Hilton can’t pass like that even if they tried–being effeminate is who they are and covering it up entirely just isn’t possible. And they really shouldn’t have to try, just as an African American woman who wants to wear her hair in a ‘fro and big colorful earrings shouldn’t have to be less “ethnic” to make the white people around her feel more comfortable. Bottom line, as I said before, we just need to get past this idea of “passing” and realize that while discrimination occurs on different levels with gays and people of color, it’s still discrimination.

  4. Pingback: My experience at the UNITY Journalists Convention | Camille Rogers

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