Bone-tired, I made the mistake of peeking at Facebook before going to bed. And while physically exhausted, I became jolted into outraged #BLEWISH wokeness.
In one of the Black-Jewish Facebook groups I’m in, Robin Washington, a veteran Black-Jewish activist and acclaimed journalist, posted an Atlanta Jewish Times column with the headline below:
While I wanted nothing more than to log off and get some sleep, I had to express my displeasure–especially since I live in Atlanta. So I spoke up in the column’s comments section and on Twitter:
As I was fighting off slumber, Washington was fully #woke in all senses of the word, leveraging his considerable experience and expertise to reach out to both the publisher and editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.
After an appropriate Passover greeting, Washington rolled out a few of his receipts, which include his considerable credentials as the co-founder and first chairman of the Alliance of Black Jews and likely the most published commentator about Black Jews anywhere. He’s been editor, columnist and an editorial board member of major newspapers, and a contributor to The Marshall Project, WGBH Boston, NPR, BET and the JTA/myjewish learning, among many others. Washington is also a research fellow of the Institute of Jewish and Community Research.
Having provided both credibility and context to Jacobs, Washington went in:
I’m saying this not to impress you but to tell you that I know more than a little bit about journalism–and by no standard whatsoever is the headline on the article by Patrice Worthy acceptable. The only possible reason it would be remotely so is if she had referred to the phrase herself in her article. I’ve read it thrice, keyword searched, and it’s nowhere to be found. And even if she did suggest the title to you herself, without that being made 100 percent clear, it is not acceptable.
And then Washington invited a dialogue:
I’m on deadline tomorrow, it’s Pesach and Shabbat. Nonetheless, I implore you to call me immediately to explain yourselves and begin your apology. B’shalom…
Jacobs: I am not attempting to be patronizing. Nor do I need a lecture on my job as an editor … Patrice chose that headline for her column about herself. Its context and meaning were clear to me, based on the personal experiences she was sharing. Yes, it has shock value, but that’s an accurate reflection of the powerful content of the column.
Washington: Michael, anyone who writes a hed with the most hateful word in human history does need a lecture on journalism … It is an editor’s job to save the writer from her/himself … Further, the headline is the paper speaking, not just the writer. And with the phrase missing from the body [of the column], you are, in effect, calling her the Nigga Jew … Please don’t patronize me to suggest that after 60 years of living this duality and 40 years writing about it that I am somehow mistaken. I don’t think you understand the severity of this or the outrage that is already happening in Black Jewish circles.
Eventually, Jacobs emailed back sharing a note of apology he said he’d prepared for the next issue of the Atlanta Jewish Times, in which he explained that Worthy suggested the headline herself, then expressed second thoughts, and nonetheless he persisted:
And I thought, despite or because of the shock value, it was appropriate for the content of the column and the upsetting experiences that have arisen from her dual identity. But before we went to press, Patrice had concerns that the headline might be too much, and I should have listened to her … The decision to use that headline was mine and mine and mine alone, and I regret it. I apologize to our readers.
Soon after, the headline was changed to:
Washington and I spoke with a decidedly more contrite and reflective Jacobs by phone the next day.
Jacobs explained that the story had been posted Thursday afternoon, so by the time Washington and I saw it, it had been up for several hours. Jacobs said he was “glad to get the feedback and appreciate[d] that you’re willing to listen to what happened and that it wasn’t something that was done in an effort to label Patrice or offend people. It was Patrice’s effort to portray how she feels she’s perceived in communities and we wanted to share that. There was nuance lost and it was a bad idea to do it in a headline like that.”
When Washington asked about Jacobs’ plan to publish an apology, he responded, “I will apologize that it was a poor decision and I’m certainly sorry that it was offensive to people, and that it detracted from the content of the column.”
Jacobs and Washington also discussed Worthy’s status at the Atlanta Jewish Times. Jacobs said that she’s a frequent, paid contributor on a contract basis. “We don’t have an open [full-time] position right now, but we’re using Patrice as much as we can. She’s a valuable contributor and has been for some time.” Washington and I encouraged Jacobs to consider more coverage about Jews of Color working not only with Worthy, but other Black Jewish journalists.
Kudos to Jacobs for corresponding with Washington and talking with both of us. After his initial reluctance, he stepped up to the plate and did the right thing in response to having run a slur so damaging and distracting that it all but obliterated Worthy’s otherwise high-quality column and the messages therein, in which she stated:
“My identity garners resentment from those who are comfortable with the status quo because being a black Jew disrupts stereotypes in both communities. People who have never met a Jew tell me about being Jewish or tell me I’m trying to whitewash my identity,” she stated. “I never felt that being black and being Jewish were mutually exclusive.”
When I reached out to Worthy to connect in #BLEWISH solidarity, she politely declined at this time. It’s understandable; she might have lost even more sleep than I did over this debacle, and might be fielding some tough questions and outraged attitudes herself.
One of the bigger and continually problematic issues, of course, is the lack of Persons of Color at the editorial and oversight levels in most of our nation’s media, including Jewish media. As Washington shared with Jacobs, all of us who have been published have had our content and certainly our more provocative headlines changed before publication by a higher-up operating with the big picture and best interests of the media outlet in mind, as well as probable responses from the audiences.
Both Washington and I viewed this through the lens of both nuance and lived experience. We were both part of the movement to diversify our nation’s mainstream media spaces beginning in the late 1960s. Our longtime bonds with the National Association of Black Journalists and Unity Journalists of Color provide a long-term, big-picture view of this kind of “best judgment” issue at editorial levels. When there is nobody with the perspective, expertise and authority to nip a problematic word choice in the bud, these things are much more likely to happen.
Bottom line: we must all be eternally vigilant and prepared to call out problematic words and actions whenever and wherever we encounter them. It’s tough, exhausting, often thankless work, but somebody’s got to do it. I’m grateful for Robin Washington’s leadership and diligence in this case, and pleased that his eloquence seemed to move Jacobs to a higher level of awareness. However, in the Jewish, Passover AND Black spirits of #NeverForget, we certainly can’t rest or relax, even if it interrupts our sleep.