Opinion: Calling Puerto Ricans ‘they’ reveals a lot
More than a decade ago, when I was a reporter at The Plain Dealer, management invited a number of us in the newsroom to a special training session on how to report about race. I don’t remember the exact year we did this — it was long before I left the paper in 2011 — but I will never forget my most uncomfortable moment.
The moderator for the discussion was Keith Woods, who at the time was dean of faculty for The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is now vice president of newsroom training and diversity at NPR.
Woods is that rare leader who can be fierce and kind at the same time, which made it easy for us to invest in the mission of his work without feeling like idiots for not seeing the need before he showed up. We were a room full of journalists with uninformed good intentions.
At one point, Woods talked about the importance of mentioning a source’s race only when it is relevant. I could feel the heat climbing up my neck and setting my cheeks on fire. I regularly identified expert sources as black or Latino.
Woods nodded as soon as I mentioned it. He was already familiar with that particular habit of mine, and asked why I so regularly did that. I explained that I was trying to inform our mostly white readers that people of color are smart, too.
With Woods’ guidance, offered through a series of questions, it didn’t take long for me to see how I was doing it wrong. I was so eager to include minority voices in all kinds of stories, but identifying them as such wrongly suggested that what was most noteworthy about them was their race, rather than their expertise. They are experts, period.
That session with Woods was a turning point for me as a journalist, and later as a columnist. I’ve been thinking about it this week after The Associated Press announced changes in its style manual, which is the language bible for most newsrooms in the country.
As Merrill Perlman explained in Columbia Journalism Review:
“Writing about race and ethnicity always requires care, and the stylebook has consolidated many of its entries under a new section, ‘race-related coverage.’
Among its revised advice is to avoid accusatory expressions like ‘racially charged,’ ‘racially motivated,’ and ‘racially tinged’: or ‘similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.'”
That definition, she adds, “is often open to interpretation.” Still, this is good news. We lose readers’ trust when we pretend not to see what is unfolding before their eyes.
The new AP Style cautions against “using racist or any other label as a noun for a person; it’s far harder to match the complexity of a person to a definition or label than it is a statement or action.”
This sounds too much like those editors who insist we can’t call someone a racist — or a liar — because we can’t know what a person is thinking. By this logic, we could never call Ku Klux Klan members racists because, in their minds, they may just be demonstrating a preference for white sheets.
Again, we must avoid pretending we can’t see what’s unfolding right in front of us.
Donald Trump is dumping again on Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and remains in dire need of help that has never come. “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” Trump said last week. “They’ve got to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money.”
Do you see what he’s doing there?
A reminder for the president of the United States: Puerto Ricans are fellow Americans.
Trump tweeted this week that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in federal aid, and misused all of it. As multiple news organizations have reported, this is a lie. Not all of them are calling it a lie, because we can’t know if maybe Trump just can’t add and subtract, I guess. Just as we can’t know for sure that Trump’s repeated false attacks on an entire island of minorities has anything do with his racism.
So far, Puerto Rico has received only $11.2 billion of the $41 billion allocated. That hasn’t stopped Trump from, in that same tweet, denouncing Puerto Rico’s public officials as “grossly incompetent, and who “only take from the USA….”
From the USA.
Again, a reminder for the president of the United States: Puerto Ricans are fellow Americans, of the USA.
We know why he is denying this without the slightest glimpse into his mind.
— Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Creators Syndicate.