We Already Know Racism Is Wrong: My Speech for the 2020 PRPD/PMJA Conference

Public radio has been in the headlines a lot lately and for the most part, it’s not for positive reasons. It’s because staff members are speaking up about racism, abuse of power, unequal treatment.

Let’s be perfectly honest with each other because I want to have a productive conversation. Just about anyone in public radio can get a job elsewhere making more money. I find it fascinating that most managers, when surveyed, wrongly say that the main reason their employees work there is their paycheck. Across dozens of industries, and thousands of employees, we know that’s not true.

The factors that contribute to job satisfaction are achievement, growth, advancement and the work itself. This is the double-edged sword of the work we do. We love it and we’re passionate about the mission and that makes us more vulnerable to mistreatment. We tolerate more because we feel the work is worth it.

Public radio staff members aren’t speaking up right now because they hate this industry, but because they love it. They aren’t going on social media and revealing secrets because they want to destroy this industry, but because they want to save it.

Public radio is in trouble, and we all knew this was coming. How? Because for at least 20 years, we’ve heard warnings that we have to address issues of race, or we’ll lose our audience. We’ve warned each other that we had to address issues of sexism and elitism, and mismanagement that leads to high turnover and the loss of incredible talent to TV, to print, and to other industries.

But… it was possible to skate by, to shake our heads and say, this isn’t right, and yet continue doing things just as they’d always been done, so we could remain comfortable. We made incremental changes that never touched the true problems, so we could preserve as much as possible of what we know and trust.

Now, the grace period has run out. Too late is almost here. Comfortable has to end. We don’t generally like change, but it has to happen.

Maybe it feels like you can’t keep up with all the news about abuse, racism, harassment, and misbehavior at public radio stations. Maybe it feels like all of this can’t possibly be true. How could it be this bad, and yet we’ve haven’t heard about it before now? It can be true, it probably is, and we haven’t heard about it because we have spent our energy on containing these issues instead of interrogating our methods and asking ourselves tough questions about how we got here.

It’s certainly not happening only in public radio. We’re seeing stories of abuse coming out of newspapers and cable news, classical music, theatre… all the industries where there are few objective measures of performance.

Journalism is particularly vulnerable to racism, sexism, ableism –all of the isms — because so much of what we do is based on gut instinct and your instinct, of all parts of your thinking, is the most susceptible to bias.

We try hard not to be racist. That’s been our strategy for decades and it’s not working. If we plan to save our industry, we must be anti-racist.

Let me break this down. There’s an easy explanation as to why anti-bias training doesn’t work. If people were choosing to make racist decisions and choosing to favor white males over women and non-whites, then telling people not to do that would work. But racism, sexism, ableism, it’s rarely a conscious choice.

According to the best estimates we have, 98% of thought is unconscious. Walk through this with me — everyone in the world is racist to some degree. We all make assumptions about other people based on their appearance, their background. Every human being in the world is subject to unconscious bias. That bias is influencing our decisions on an unconscious level. We don’t often know that it’s happening.

So, when we are accused of making decisions that are racist — like protecting the career of a white male while we allow women and non-whites to leave the organization, or like telling a black reporter they’re journalism is biased because our measure of objectivity is based on the experience of white males, or like paying white males more, promoting them over the heads of more qualified and accomplished women — when we do these things, we might be accused of racism and discrimination. But we can honestly say we weren’t considering race at all.

We can honestly say we didn’t intend to favor white males over others, we simply made the decision we thought was the best, the most logical. It felt like a smart decision, I’m sure.

We are usually unaware of how often our instinct, the most biased part of our thinking, influences our actions. So, telling people not to be racist doesn’t work because of course, they’ll say, “They’re talking about someone else who is racist. Not me, who doesn’t have a racist bone in my body.”

And in a business where so many of our decisions are based on gut instinct, that’s a recipe for disaster. What’s more powerful than the idea of good news instinct? That’s how we decide what stories get on the air — instinct. That’s how we choose who is a good reporter and who isn’t. When I ask newsrooms, what are the specific factors that determine whether a story is good or not, no one has been able to articulate those factors. We know a story is good because we know. We know a good story when we hear one. We know a good host when we hear one. We know a leader when we see one. We know this person is not ready to be a manager and this person is.

But that knowledge, that knowing, isn’t magic. It’s not the inexplicable deep understanding of a veteran, it’s just gut instinct. And gut instinct is just another way of saying System 1 thinking — that’s the fast, automatic thinking we do thousands of times a day. We’re supposed use System 1 thinking for simple, fairly inconsequential decisions, like how to put on our shoes, whether to reach out and pet the dog or not, whether to pick up that glass of water.

Complicated decisions, like who to hire, who to promote, what stories to cover, require careful thought and consideration. Not instinct, not hunches, not strong feelings, but anti-racist processes and systems that prevent us from making biased choices. Processes that are measurable, quantifiable. Processes that can be tracked and explained. So that when we don’t follow those processes, when we decide to make decisions based on gut instead, we can be held accountable.

Racism is not a knowledge problem. We know it’s wrong. We’ve known that it’s wrong for hundreds of years, but we’re making racist decisions anyway. Racism is a behavior problem.

We’re not a mostly white and male industry because we consciously think white males are better, but because we live in a racist, sexist society and so we have been raised to believe that’s what is logical and smart and correct. Racism and sexism are the norm.

The way we do things, the way it’s always been done, that’s what’s not working. The systems we’re comfortable with are sustaining the discriminatory system that favors white males. Comfort is the enemy at this point. The work that faces us is painful and frustrating and profoundly uncomfortable.

I’m leading a large group of public radio staff members right now, all of us volunteering our time to create a new plan for our industry, a way forward that is equitable, fair, transparent, and establishes new procedures and practices that are measurable and trackable. We invite you to join us and be part of a new future.

Some of you aren’t up to this. Some of you aren’t ready to be uncomfortable, and to question the very processes and norms that feel right. But for the rest of you who are capable of interrogating your decisions and are willing to do whatever is necessary to make our industry an anti-racist industry, then it’s time to let go of your gut. Anti-racist procedures and policies, radical transparency, equity and not equality, and no more decisions based on instinct. It’s time for a new kind of journalism, anti-racist journalism. Let’s tear down public radio in order to build it back up.

Writer, journalist, anchor, reporter. All views are my own. celesteheadlee.com, https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062669001/we-need-to-talk/

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