The Perils of a Psychological Approach to Anti-racism

A controversy within a professional organization illustrates how well-intentioned people can undermine their own goals.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Update: After publication, I was contacted by Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, who attended the JAWS conference as a 2018 Betsy Wade Legacy Fund fellow. She alerted me to two letters published by JAWS fellows: an initial letter of complaint and a response to the JAWS apology letter. Both documents give an account of the JAWS conference and the ensuing controversy from their perspective.

The latter document states, in part, “our carefully sourced allegations found false equivocation in vague, unattributed claims. We named names to the board, and expected those who apologized would name themselves publicly. Instead, the response from the JAWS board appears to speak for a vague and apparently elite class of JAWS membership that secretly felt aggrieved but is staying off record.” Their response makes clear their belief that the JAWS apology letter is an unreliable account of what happened at the conference. The quotes in my article thus repeat JAWS claims that JAWS fellows themselves contest. Among other things, the fellows assert that they never received some of the apologies that the letter claimed were offered.

In a recent essay, my colleague John McWhorter argued that the current social-justice paradigm is a dead end—fighting racism and sexism are still necessary, he wrote, but the left went astray when it stopped focusing on the sociological project of changing laws and social structures.

Today’s left is too focused on psychology, McWhorter argued, as if injustice and inequity are best opposed by calling out problematic language or getting white people to acknowledge their privilege. As he sees it, those modes do little to help people while tending toward “defeatism, hypersensitivity, oversimplification, and even a degree of performance.”

He grants that bias remains in American life and acknowledges the good intentions of those trying to vanquish it. But the culture of shaming that activists have created has morphed “from a pragmatic mission to change minds,” he writes, into “a witch hunt driven by the personal benefits of virtue signaling, obsessed with unconscious and subconscious bias.” He urges activists to continue their fight, but with less quasi-religious fervor and a renewed focus on sociology rather than psychology.

The essay struck me as powerfully argued. Still, I thought that Jamelle Bouie, then of Slate and now at The New York Times, issued a fair challenge: The essay “confidently asserts that the contemporary left sees the battle against racism in psychological terms,” he wrote on Twitter, “while never quoting or engaging with anyone identified with the contemporary left.”

If the phenomenon McWhorter described is real, we should be able to find leftists who intend to fight bias by calling out psychological harms, only to fall into “hypersensitivity, oversimplification, and even a degree of performance” as participants signal virtue in ways that help no one.

The apology letter was posted to the website of the Journalism and Women Symposium, or JAWS, an organization that “supports the professional empowerment and personal growth of women in journalism and works toward a more accurate portrayal of the whole society.”

The document, written by the group’s president, the journalism professor Yumi Wilson, and signed by its entire board of directors, captures a professional organization as it struggles with multiple conflicts around identity.

“This is a long statement,” Wilson apologetically noted, “but I fiercely believe that we must include as much information as possible here to help those who were not at CAMP,” the annual conference that the group sponsors, “understand what happened and why they have seen certain comments on our listserv in the days following … It also took time to interview as many people as possible who were involved.”

The approach yielded an unusually rich account of the conflicts roiling an organization of journalists and the unanimous response of its leaders, a group of well-intentioned people working toward noble ends.

Wilson opened by explaining that she has long valued the organization because it “provided me a safe space to vent about being a woman of color in mostly all-white and all-male workplaces.” But this year’s gathering “was not a safe space for many of us,” she wrote. “Several attendees made unacceptable and harmful comments toward women of color during CAMP, while some older members said they felt disrespected and irrelevant because of their age.”

She reasoned that “it is imperative that we as an organization and as individuals acknowledge these wrongs in order to begin to heal and ensure our community is welcoming, inclusive and supportive of all women,” promising that “one of our first steps will be hiring a professional to guide us in this work. But first we want to publicly apologize.”

What follows is a detailed look at a dozen specific “comments” and “attitudes” drawn from the annual conference that the group’s president and its board members officially deemed to be “unacceptable.”

For starters:

At our Sunday dinner, outgoing board member Marina Villeneuve, head of our Diversity Committee, announced results of our survey to collect demographics of our membership and gauge the inclusiveness of JAWS … She said one in four respondents feel our organization is not diverse and inclusive. This is vital information and we must take it seriously — especially because of how it played out in real time at CAMP.

Instead, Marina — along with several other women at dinner — recalls hearing and seeing some in the room snicker, laugh and roll their eyes during her report. Our fellows, a group of 15 women from diverse backgrounds, all signed a statement on Oct. 29, stating that they also heard people “smirking, laughing, talking, grumbling or rolling their eyes.”

There is no account of why people were smirking, laughing, and rolling their eyes—all we know for sure is that there was some implicit conflict of viewpoint. Still, the next passage hints at the source of conflict:

As Marina finished her report, a longtime member walked over to her and took the microphone. She then said the following: “We were the first diversity issue.”

The apology note condemns that comment:

I am certain that this member had no intention of discounting anyone … but this fact does not negate the reality that this comment came across as dismissive and insensitive … The reason this was a grievous statement is that it did not “recognize the context that prevented certain racial minorities and women from lower-income backgrounds from having the same privileges,” as stated by all 15 fellows.

The apology letter goes on to declare that “troubling comments were reported from numerous tables at dinner.” At least 10 examples are described.

The first example concerns collaboration with other associations of journalists:

At the table where Marina Villeneuve sat [Sunday] night, she listened to a conversation where one person expressed frustration that organizations such as [the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists] did not want to collaborate more, but what disturbed her was to hear someone else at her table say: “Well, we don’t want to work with them anyway.”

The second concerns a moment that the JAWS fellows— some just getting their start in the profession, and some transitioning to the next phase in their careers —reported as uncomfortable.*

Perhaps the most disturbing comments that were reported to me came from a table where two white members joined a group of fellows, all women of color, for the Table Talks portion of the night. At this table, several fellows reported that one of the white members sat down at their table and “instantly put the women of color there on the defense by saying in an accusatory tone: ‘The tone at this table totally changed when I sat down. Do you have a problem with us [her and one other woman] being here?’”

The woman in question characterized the interaction differently:

This member said, “If this was me, I walked up to that table BECAUSE it was all young women of color and there were two open seats, and we were going to be discussing diversity. I never felt threatened or excluded. I chose to sit there … I said, ‘In the spirit of tonight’s discussion, may I sit here? I’m interested in how my sitting here changes the dynamics of this group.’ In the diversity training I have had, joining a relatively homogenous group as ‘the other’ to discuss the change in dynamics has been encouraged as an ice-breaker. Obviously, it broke more than ice here, which was not my intent.”

The letter declares, “I appreciate the fact that this member never intended to make others feel uncomfortable, but she did. And this is unacceptable.”

Here is the third example:

At the same table, the fellows reported that, when this same member excused herself to the bathroom, another member said: “Make sure you go to the colored bathroom.”

This other member said she did make that joke and acknowledged it was in poor taste. For that, she apologized at the table and has apologized again. She said she made the joke in reference to a memory from high school when she and her friend discovered on a field trip to Jamestown, Va. that bathrooms were separated for “white” and “colored” people.  

That struck me as the most inappropriate comment, even noting that the remark was thankfully directed at a white attendee to call back the theme of putting oneself in the position of the other, not a black attendee.

The fellows at this table also said that someone said, “It’s not like you have to please Massa.” No one has taken responsibility for this statement, but the idea that someone said this is deplorable.

Both women have since apologized for the exchange that happened at their table. One wrote: “For any of my actions that hurt someone, I sincerely and deeply apologize. No hurt was intended. I hope only that we can all grow and come together to lift JAWS higher.”

The fourth example concerns indigenous people:

Navajo Times reporter and Emerging Journalist Fellow Pauly Denetclaw told attendees at Sunday night’s dinner that she was called “Indian” several times — a term the Associated Press has not used in its Stylebook for decades. She also noted another CAMP attendee referred to the colonization of North America as “homesteading,” which our fellows described as a term that “erases the history of stolen Native lands and genocide.”

I personally want to thank the woman who has come forward on the listserv to apologize for using the term “homesteading.”

The fifth concerns socioeconomic status:

At Sunday morning’s membership meeting when I shared a snapshot of the 2018 budget, several members grabbed the microphones and began a spontaneous call for donations. While I love the fact that people want to give more to this organization, I want to acknowledge that it was off-putting to some people in the room.

As one observer noted: “To some, this was considered a good thing, but to others, it was an example of privilege being thrown in their face and reinforced the negative experiences they already were having at CAMP.”

Fara Warner, who has returned to the JAWS board, said she was among those pledging $100 toward our fundraising efforts, and she apologizes if her actions made anyone feel uncomfortable. “I can see that my actions, while not intentionally, were classist. I am more than happy for the membership to know that it was me and that I apologize for my actions.”

For the sixth example, we turn to the grievances of some white attendees:

It should also be noted that women of color were not the only ones who experienced offensive acts.

Another woman, who is white, and a self-described Gen-Xer, shared a situation in the hotel restaurant, where one longtime JAWs member cut in front of people standing in line: “I was treated rudely by [this person] during lunch,” this woman told me. “She didn’t even see me. Talked over me and got in front of me. She goes straight up to the waitress … and cuts in line. I understand that this happens, but there is so little self-awareness … Civility is lost on a certain subset of people at JAWS.  The tone they use is disrespectful.”

The seventh example continues that theme:

I also want to note several of our white members, some who are older, have a disability, or do not fit into a binary category, felt disrespected and “invisible” at CAMP.

“It is deeply offensive when all white people are lumped together and treated as collectively responsible for the racist or race-blind blunders of some white individuals, or held accountable collectively for structural racism, without investigating what we may have done to challenge that,” one member said to me. “We cannot move forward together if we are attacked collectively or if our different ways of thinking and seeing are dismissed.”

The eighth example focuses on older white women:

Several other white members said they felt irrelevant and as if they had nothing to offer because of their age.

“As part of this year’s diversity initiative, cards were available throughout the weekend on a table in the foyer for people to write suggestions on what JAWS could do,” one attendee reported. “The cards were placed face up. One card referred negatively to seeing so many old white women at JAWS. Those cards helped fuel the remarks by some older white women Sunday evening during Marina’s presentation of our diversity report and planned roundtable discussions.”

In the ninth example, those accused of offending older white women were offended in turn:

In their statement to the board, the fellows acknowledged an “anonymous comment written on the diversity board (“I’ve never been to a conference with so many old white women”) set an uneasy starting point as some members’ defenses were up coming into the discussion.” But the fellows said none among them wrote the statement. “We were further misled in thinking that we were sharing candid thoughts in a safe space, only to have anonymous comments weaponized against us.”

Summing up all the examples of “troubling comments,” the letter opines, “On Sunday night, we witnessed how the best of intentions can harm. We witnessed how failing to openly and fully acknowledge privilege can harm.”

In “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” a 2014 article in Comparative Sociology, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning described a shift in the way that many people are dealing with conflict. Individuals were long commended for having “thick skin,” told to shrug off slights, urged to exhibit restraint and toleration, and expected to work out minor interpersonal conflicts among themselves. But a rising approach was challenging that ethos. Its attributes included high sensitivity to unintentional slights, praise for the aggrieved, urging people to broadcast experiences of offensive conduct, and reliance on authority figures to intervene in such conflicts.

When I first wrote about their work in 2015, it seemed most relevant to college campuses, where the concept of “microaggressions” was being debated. Today those ideas are ascendant in some professional circles. By the letter’s end, the JAWS leadership endorsed hypersensitivity to slight, the notion that safety is implicated in nonthreatening verbal exchanges, calling out minor conflicts to third parties, and relying on authority figures to settle fleeting interpersonal disputes.

It is unclear if they are leading or following their membership.

Wilson and the JAWS board also propose a way forward. The organization declared that it would hire a professional diversity and inclusion consultant—a pledge it made good on in December—and offered:

I want to publicly apologize to Marina and all young women of color for being subjected to offensive statements and not being taken seriously. I also apologize to white women who were made to feel irrelevant or invisible. No woman — no woman — should be made to feel disrespected, unseen, defensive, dismissed or harmed in the way many did that Sunday night and in the days following CAMP through our listserv. We should have created a safe space for every single person, and we failed to do that.

Almost the entire focus was psychological. Additional mea culpas were solicited:

I ask those involved in wittingly or unwittingly making offensive statements or creating a hostile environment for women of color to offer a public apology.

And hopes were expressed:

It is my hope that this consultant will help us turn this challenge into an opportunity to make our organization — and our industry — more welcoming and collaborative, so that everyone feels they can contribute and nobody has to be feel defensive.

We are also going to revamp our listserv to create a safe space for our members there as well. From all these examples and more, it’s clear we need to work together to find new ways to communicate effectively with each other.

Forbearance is not considered as an option.

I hope that JAWS succeeds. I value its mission. I admire its leader’s motives and earnestness. I appreciate its desire to be a welcoming, collaborative, diverse organization, and the difficulty it faces in achieving that. So I hope I am wrong about its approach.

But like McWhorter, I suspect that any organization that adopts this approach is doomed to fail, while conveying a message to its members that disempowers some and disrespects others. I think it is doomed to fail in part because of a statement that I’ve yet to quote: “The answer is not to tiptoe around each other or to be afraid to have these conversations,” JAWS declares. “We need to find kind, empathetic and fearless approaches to have these important conversations so we can help each other succeed. And we need all of your help, participation and acceptance to make JAWS the organization we want it to be.”

I agree that fearful tiptoeing is deadly, and that fearless conversation is constructive.

But to review, JAWS’s position is that common words spoken without malign intent can do significant harm, make colleagues unsafe, create a hostile environment for professional journalists, and even “erase” genocides; that minor transgressions should trigger callouts and public apologies; that what’s forbidden cannot be defined, because it depends on the subjective feelings of “radically different” others; and that the threshold is that it’s unacceptable to ever make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Also, “no woman” should be made “to feel defensive.” And don’t tiptoe—success requires all women to be fearless in having difficult conversations.

Those are comically incompatible positions. An organization can encourage hypersensitivity and extreme care to avoid ever hurting any feelings; or it can encourage fearless exchanges on fraught subjects among a diverse group that values forbearance and a presumption of good intentions. It cannot expect to have both things at once. Doing so sets up everyone for failure.

A fearless conversation about the conflicts described at JAWS’s annual gathering would confront the disagreements among the journalists present and discuss the reasons for them rather than prescribing correct opinions. If members are openly snickering, laughing, and rolling their eyes as a report is being delivered, they might be acting rudely, and their mockery might be grounded in an overly harsh or substantively incorrect judgment of the material on offer.

Still, they are conveying dissent. Isn’t it important to understand why? In their day jobs, most journalists are called upon to probe positions and behavior far more odious than anything recorded at the JAWS conference. In fact, a case can be made that the JAWS statement itself is offensive, insofar as it perpetuates the canard that female journalists—once forbidden from being field reporters by paternalistic bosses—are so fragile that they’re incapable of hearing unintentional slights without feeling unsafe.

Now consider how one might respond to the events described in this document if the commitment to a welcoming, diverse, collaborative organization was just as strong, but different norms around conflict were championed. Wilson might have written, “Eye-rolling is rude. Doing it amid what many of us considered to be a rigorous presentation on a vital issue exposed deep rifts among group members that we’d do well to air respectfully.” Instead, the offending members were simply told they’re wrong. Perhaps they are! But who changes their mind on that basis?

The focus on psychology is prioritized above adjudicating the merits of a subject, like the diversity presentation, in a way that might alter views.

Or take the proposition “We were the first diversity issue,” described in the apology letter as a “grievous” statement. What would 1,000 female journalists say if surveyed as to whether that statement is true, false, or grievously offensive? Answers might vary widely. Obviously, they varied among the female journalists who were present at the event. Stigmatizing a particular view might silence its adherents, but if the view is wrong, it isn’t clear how that would change their minds.

JAWS is an organization that touts a commitment to diversity but is deeply uncomfortable with substantive differences as they manifest among its members. Its letter relies heavily on marshaling stigma to convey and enforce group dogma on matters where there is, apparently, no actual consensus within the group.

That is most tenable in instances like the woman who joked about segregated bathrooms, a comment that would’ve raised eyebrows and caused discomfort in a wide range of settings and American subcultures. There might not be absolute consensus that the joke in question was very likely to make reasonable people feel needlessly uncomfortable, but as with jokes on abortion, the Holocaust, or the September 11 attacks, there are subjects most adults understand to refrain from joking about to groups of strangers at a professional conference. The problem here isn’t an expectation of normal social awareness.

What’s untenable is stigmatizing behavior, like a member of a nonprofit pledging $100, when it violates no widely understood norm. What better illustration of psychological concerns undercutting collective ends than stigmatizing donations to the cause these women have gathered to support in order to spare the feelings of some among them? Results like that are inevitable when the governing ethos is that good intentions don’t matter and the threshold of unacceptability is crossed if even one woman has any negative feelings.

That is a similarly untenable trigger for airing grievances to an entire organization. Go that route and here’s how scarce time and resources are spent: A tenured professor of journalism mass-emails working professionals in the American press to relay that one woman cut in front of another woman in a lunch line because she didn’t even see her. One can value diversity and inclusion very highly while insisting that slights of that sort are not worthy of a group’s time or attention!

If adults are expected to show a degree of forbearance when harboring tiny grievances, few will fixate on them to a debilitating degree. But when even the tiniest slights suffered by peers are aired in this manner, many will begin to feel slighted if their own grievances are not equitably cataloged. Someone cut in front of you? Well, I saw a piece of paper that anonymously commented that lots of older white women are here. You saw that piece of paper? Well, I belong to a generational group suspected of writing that, and it’s being weaponized against us. The merits of any individual contention are beside the point: By inculcating a culture that magnifies these matters in the name of inclusion, the organization arguably makes everyone feel more aggrieved.

Use of the word homesteading is said to be problematic because it “erases the history of stolen Native lands and genocide,” an obscure and highly contestable position that one certainly can’t expect every individual at a professional conference to intuitively know or to apologize for not knowing. And “Indian” is described as “a term the Associated Press has not used in its Stylebook for decades,” even though the Native American Journalists Association Style Guide says “American Indian” and “Native American” are “generally acceptable and can be used interchangeably, although individuals may have a preference,” with surveys confirming that many individuals prefer Indian.

Perhaps I am wrong in some of these judgments. Suffice it to say that they are not nearly so clear-cut as the organization’s apology letter suggests. They are the sorts of things about which reasonable people in diverse groups disagree. A group can achieve perfect consensus, or it can represent the full spectrum of female journalists; it cannot do both, least of all if the rule is that no one must ever feel even unintentionally slighted.

These aren’t bad people. They are good people who adopted a flawed approach to social justice with the best of intentions. As McWhorter might predict, the result is an intensive focus on psychological bias, characterized at its best by “hypersensitivity, oversimplification, and even a degree of performance,” and descending at its worst into the excesses of “a witch hunt driven by the personal benefits of virtue signaling.”

Of course, neither the left nor the profession of journalism are monoliths. Lots of leftists share McWhorter’s concerns, lots of leftists take a more sociological approach to change, and one hopes that this organization’s approach is still an outlier. Still, it is a respected organization in an influential profession, led by respected journalists and academics on a board of directors that unanimously endorsed all that I quoted.

This phenomenon is real. Perhaps that needn’t concern you if you don’t much care about the primary missions of the organizations where it manifests. But if you value “the professional empowerment and personal growth of women in journalism,” or whatever your favorite organization is trying to achieve, it is highly rational to prefer that it focus on advancing its mission rather than striving for internal psychological purity. That is a dead end.

* This story originally quoted a passage from the JAWS letter which stated, in part, that a fellow “had been referred to as ‘Jazmin No. 2,’ while a fellow by that name shared the table with them.” It also included analysis based on the erroneous assumption that both women in question were named Jazmin. In fact, they had different first names. We regret the error.

* This article originally described the JAWS fellows as “younger attendees just getting their start in the profession.” In fact, the group included journalists of varied ages, some of whom had substantial professional experience. We regret the error.