Why Arab American journalists are boycotting unity
Unity: Journalists of Color was first formed among Asian American, black, Latino and Native American groups to fight discrimination in an industry dominated by whites.
But now, the leader of one minority journalism organization feels Unity is as exclusionary as the industry itself. And he may be right.
Ray Hanania, the head of the National Arab American Journalists, sees little unity in Unity. His complaints could be enough to mar what semblance of a diversity lovefest exists at the Unity convention on July 23 to 27 in Chicago.
“It’s like (Unity organizers) are saying, ‘We don’t like you. Don’t come to the house; don’t date our daughters,’” said Hanania, an award-winning journalist as well as a stand-up comic.
This all started rather innocently when Hanania requested that his national Arab American group be given equal status to the black, Latino, Asian American, Native American and gay/ lesbian groups at the quadrennial convention. The question turned out to be as touchy as partitioning Iraq.
Arabs Are Asian?
In the Unity equation, where do you stick Arab Americans? You mean people of the same origin as former California Gov. George Deukmejian and Marlo Thomas consider themselves minorities? They’re white, aren’t they? Or, since 9/11, all Arabs are perceived as terrorists first, right? Try again.
Of all the minority journalism groups involved with Unity, only the Asian American journalists have embraced their Arab American colleagues, finding common ground in ancestral homelands in the Islamic regions of Central and South Asia. It’s the broadest possible definition of Asian, but it’s enough to enable inclusion.
AAJA has long published guides to help the media and others understand Arabs and Muslims. Unity’s sop to Arab American journalists is to let AAJA present a panel on the issue at the convention.
But Hanania, who represents more than 250 Arab American journalists nationwide, isn’t satisfied with Arab American 101. He’s not stopping at anything less than full inclusion.
“We want to be represented and recognized,” Hanania told me by phone. “We’d like Unity to say, ‘We recognize that Arab Americans have the same problems as blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans in the journalism industry, and we want to help you.’”
Hanania has been banging on Unity’s door for more than a year now. But the response has been tepid at best. “They say, ‘What more do you want? There’s already panel on understanding Arabs,’” Hanania said. “They won’t even talk to me anymore.”
They apparently won’t talk to me either. Unity representatives didn’t return requests for comment by deadline.
Now Hanania has asked the members of his group to boycott the convention.
“I tell fellow members, ‘If they don’t respect you, why attend?’” Hanania said. “I expect respect in my disrespect.”
What really bothers Hanania most, however, is the audacity of a group called Unity that doesn’t strictly practice unity.
“Don’t say you’re ‘Unity: Journalists of Color’ when you don’t represent all journalists of color,” Hanania said. “They should call themselves what they are — ‘Unity: Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American and Gay/Lesbian Journalists.’ Don’t say ‘journalists of color’ if you have a hard time letting in other colors into the rainbow. To me, it’s hypocrisy.”
The new politics of media inclusion
Hanania is right, but his complaints couldn’t come at a worse time. Not only is he caught in the intricate politics of minority journalism organizations that spend all their time fighting for crumbs, but this is a time when the media industry is suffering from life-threatening technological and economic challenges.
That makes it harder for some to get worked up about Arab American journalists when the entire industry is losing money, and workers — regardless of race — are being fired, laid off or bought off at a frightening pace. Unfortunately, last hired, first fired still applies.
This brings us to a unique juncture in the history of minority journalism in America. When the numbers of minority journalists erode, the group most interested in the survival of the minority journalism organizations aren’t the diminishing minority journalists. It’s the news organizations that use groups like Unity, AAJA and the others as PR showcases to display how truly committed they are to diversity. Yeah, right.
When minority journalism groups are so beholden to the big bosses for support, their true purpose changes. It becomes less about changing the dominant white media to reflect the true nature of society, and more about placating the dominant white media for survival.
It’s the reason why there’s no urgency to include Arab Americans at the Unity convention. There’s no boat rocking when you exist primarily as a tool for the establishment.
“Journalists of color are at a small table given them by the mainstream media, with only a few chairs, and they don’t want to add another minority to the little table,” Hanania said. “The mainstream media is the problem, not Arab American journalists wanting to be at the table.”