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SOC Panel Discusses How To Make Writing About Race, Culture, and Ethnicity Tactful and Not Taboo

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Leonard Pitts, Jr., Sasha-Ann Simons, Malaka Gharib.

If you’re wondering how to meaningfully write about race, decide whether or not you should broach the subject at all, or even how it might influence how a piece should be written—you’re not alone. Conversely, if race and culture are prominent features of your life, and you’re wondering how to showcase them through your writing—you’re still not alone. Race can be an important factor in writing, and authors often struggle with a multitude of decisions when covering stories including race.

A panel tackling the subject, “How to Write About Race,” was held in November in the Doyle-Forman Theater. The event featured Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and SOC adjunct professor, Leonard Pitts, Jr.; WAMU 88.5 Race and Identity Reporter, Sasha-Ann Simons; and NPR Global Health and Development Writer and Editor, Malaka Gharib

Each of the panelists had unique perspectives on culture, race, ethnicity and how their experiences wove their way into their work. But they note that demonstrating care in covering a topic is key to writing about it well—and responsibly.

Pitts, an opinion writer and novelist whose work often focuses on race, told the audience that for black people, talking about race is like falling out of bed. “For us, it’s second nature because we often deal with [race],” he said. “For white writers it tends to be a bit more scary. [In order to write well], there’s a need to know and appreciate what you know, and what you don’t know. Thinking you know is sin No. 1.”

Pitts likened the experience to how the #MeToo movement changed his awareness about harassment and assault. “I was aware that women had these experiences, but now I understood the depth and the prevalence.” 

He implored the audience to spend time studying, getting context, talking to people and getting their stories. That way “you position yourself to be a much better writer and reporter on these subjects.”

Simons highlighted how nationality and ethnicity should inform a good writer’s coverage on race and that it is better to be specific, when appropriate. “Use language that is necessary for the context of the story,” she said. “I’m not going to mention the firefighter was black unless it’s important. Say he’s Dominican, not Hispanic. Korean, not Asian. It helps people connect with the story.” 

She noted that how different people refer to themselves is important to understand while writing about those communities. With regard to herself, she mentioned “I’m not African-American. I’m Caribbean, Canadian, and Afro-Caribbean,” and making the distinction is both important to covering a story accurately and ensuring that it is received as intended.

Gharib said how her own experiences writing about race informed how she should approach it in the future. The author’s parents are from the Philippines and Egypt. Working for NPR, she knew that her news organization desired and valued diverse stories on the airwaves. But she still wasn’t sure how eager others would be to listen to what she felt could be repetitive pieces. 

“I felt conscious of only pitching Filipino and Egyptian Stories,” she explained. “I was at a conference, and asked what do I say if I’m told ‘stop pitching these stories?’ They told me, ‘don’t stop until I’m told to, and then keep going.’” 

The sense of duality and the cross-cultural nature of her life has greatly influenced her subject matter. “I write about how #MeToo happened at Mecca,” she said. “Women around the world are coming to pray, and getting touched by men. They are usually separated, but in the holiest place in the world, men and women pray together. As a Muslim woman, I was more sensitive to that. I don't want to portray these men as a stereotype. And that’s part of the reason of why I like to write about Muslim issues. I take an effort to make sure we don’t run into Muslim stereotypes.”

The conversation doesn’t stop there. Regardless of whether you’re new covering race, or adept at weaving such topics through your work, it is important to recognize its importance in storytelling. A good writer takes care to grow close to a subject, and report it with truth and nuance. These writers continue to cover race and how it influences everyday life, through their work. A handout featuring information and further reading from each author can be found here. And check out Pitts and Gharib’s most recent books.

This event was sponsored by the Journalism Division of the School of Communication.