Racism and “New Journalism”: The Politics of the Entryway

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Alicia brought to our attention the controversy brewing around a project called The Entryway.   At the LA Times Comment Blog, Gerrick D. Kennedy frames the debate through the lens of race, saying:

Can journalists only report about the issues of their own race?

That’s the question being debated about two white journalists who decided to embed themselves in a home in the MacArthur Park neighborhood with at least seven undocumented Mexicans to “learn Spanish so that we can better report our native city.” [...]

In their posts they muse extensively about the discomfort of two American girls, “maybe the whitest people we know,” they admit. One post mentions confronting an infestation of cockroaches, a police raid on suspected gang members one night that led to their walking out of the house with their hands up (the host family, out of fear of deportation, stayed inside) and of course the customs of the bathroom: Toilet paper goes into a trash can next to the toilet, as opposed to down the drain.

While they say the blog is a personal narrative and not journalism, the criticisms remain heavy.

However, Kennedy is asking the wrong question.  This isn’t about the race of the actual reporters in question (see my response to Jeff Jacoby’s misguided op-ed for a broader explanation) but rather the perpetuation of the racist, othering gaze in reporting, one that purports to be journalism, but instead reveals its own bias.  Luckily, friend of the blog Daniel Hernandez is on the case.

Hernandez explains:

The Entryway is an online project created by two aspiring journalists — “maybe the whitest people we know” — who move into a crowded immigrant household in Los Angeles to learn Spanish, so that they can, eventually, better report on their city. It’s getting wonderfully fawning feedback so far, and hopes to raise $3,240 to keep going. [...]

The Entryway is not about the immigrants living there but about how two “white people” intrepidly enter an unknown space — what I’d call the home of any regular working real-life Angeleno, nothing more, nothing less — and manage to ‘survive’ there. It’s evident in the authors’ self-satisfied gloating up front.

“Of course, we could have learned Spanish in Mexico or Chile or Ecuador, could have gone to a coffee farm in Costa Rica, or the Mountain School in Guatemala …” the first entry says, evidently regarding those options as inferior to their choice. (‘Going to Guatemala to learn Spanish is soo Stuff White People Like.‘)

With eight diary entries so far, The Entryway has established no connections between the lives of the people in the house and the issues facing the immigrant community at large. They’re busy mentioning how they have to “put the toilet paper in the trash can next to the toilet.” There is little evidence of any meaningful engagement with L.A.’s well-organized immigrant advocate community (see here), the local community police officers (see here), or legal and housing aid workers (see here). All the voices that a real journalist, as opposed to a safari trooper, would go to pains to incorporate in such a project.

Indeed, Hernandez’s explanation is spot-on – I read through all ten entries, cringing not only at Devin Browne and Kara Mears’ self-conscious proclamations of whiteness, but their uncritical engagement of how their race and mindset impacts their perception.  (No, stating your race upfront is not the same as critical engagement.)  The entries include gems like these:

Our families have been here forever, nine generations in a single town, white protestants in such an original way that when I asked my mom “what do you think makes us the WASPiest?” She told me we are hard working, we don’t take handouts.

When I tell people that Maria and family are so frugal that they do not buy toiler paper communally, on the off chance that someone might use more than others, and disrupt the pay to use ratio, they assume the worst. In some ways, this is true. [...] But it is not so bad that they go without television.  (3 televisions* two bedrooms) *At the time of this posting, there are actually four televisions in the apartment.

Most white people with whom I talk about Maria + Juan + Latino people in America (and it is sometimes that fast that we go from Maria + Juan —-> Latino people in America) seem to agree that if we lived in Mexico for a number of years (Maria and Juan have been in the United States for three, Maria and Hilario for eight) and we did not learn Spanish, we would be very rude. [...] So enduring is this framework that it is still real work to interpret anything outside of it.  And: in the absence of this work/perspective is only the part of me that, like a seven year old, still somehow takes it personally that the Marias and Juans of this country do not care to learn English, like: how can you not want to talk to me? [...] [Maria and Juan] do not want to stay in the United States, they do want to buy a house in Cuernavaca, they do not make it a point to know their neighbors, and neither, really, does anyone else.

I also suggest reading entry 6, the whole thing: it documents a police raid in the neighborhood, and different reactions of all the people in the house for increased perspective.

At any rate, Daniel Hernandez is not pleased:

In the future of journalism, where every new-school-trained journalist is first and foremost “a voice” before a fact-gatherer, day-to-day reporters who live off nothing but their bylines don’t seem to count. I’m thinking of many young journalists of color, too, who spend years working courts, cops, records (and yes, homes) in poor communities for little glory or recognition.

A day ago, I sent The Entryway to a bunch of young SoCal contacts, among them white, black, Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Argentine, Puerto Rican, and Venezuelan professionals, all of them journalists, academics, or lawyers. The uniform response was “Ugh.”

The root problem is one that so many journalists in L.A. are still unable to shake, and which I’ve discussed here, here, and in the LA Weekly, here. Journalist Eileen Truax, who reports for La Opinion, sums up the “Ugh“:

    Latinos are half of the population of L.A. but they still see us as an uncomfortable appendage, as if we were a tumor that grows on and invades half the body; it is occupying the space but it is not the body itself.

In response to the criticism, entry nine on the site is a section on Frequently Asked Questions, clarifying some of the issues raised in discussions. They stress that the entryway is a personal narrative by the two of them – “not proper journalism.” However, they do refer to other, reported pieces they hope to publish, including this one called “Looking for Jesus at Home Depot: Or, How a Day Laborer Named Tino Ended Up in a Miller Duvall Music Video.” However, their responses seem to reinforce the idea that the only way to learn (and report on) other experiences and people is to participate in cultural voyeurism. Devin writes she could have “remained in the suburbs” but finds that “limiting.” They frame the debate carefully, paying lip service to the idea that marginalized/underrepresented groups need space to tell their own stories, while carefully defending their right to enter that space and tell their own stories.

Speaking as someone active in the discussion of the new media environment and the “new journalism” Hernandez refers to (I’m actually heading back in a couple of weeks to the continuation of this initiative), one of the things that frustrates me about these types of conversations is how divorced they are from structural inequalities that create barriers to entry – even in this supposedly democratic new media space. Devin Browne and Kara Mears assert in their FAQ that “anyone is more than welcome to move here and create their own website about MacArthur Park.” But is that really true? How many of us can afford to uproot our lives and embed for a few months? And if we are able to do this, would anyone pay attention to or fund that project? Think carefully about the answers.

We see this dynamic repeated time and time again in the blogosphere, where certain voices are valued over others, and fast tracked with mainstream acceptance and exposure. As a person who gets to play on that fast-track, one of the nastiest things about this acceptance is seeing the “you have to work twice as hard to go half as far” rule still in play. And even if all things were equal, there’s still logistical drama. I’m not sure what Browne and Mears were doing before they started this project, how they make money, and what support systems they have in place. But there’s a reason why news outlets cut back on actual reporting – it’s expensive. For months now, I’ve wanted to do a story on South Philadelphia High School. Last week, I got an outlet interested. But that still leaves more questions than answers about how I am going to do this: can I afford to take time off my other paying work to go and source this story? Where will I stay in Philly and how much will that cost? How long do I need to stay? A week? A month? The outlet said they are interested in the story, but will the amount pay enough to cover expenses? Will I be able to reach all the sources I am looking for? How am I going to keep this site running while I’m gone?

And again, I’m coming from a position where I’ve successfully sold work to media outlets, have friends in Philly, have established some contact with sources, and live about two hours away. It’s do-able. It is not easy.

So it is important to note that while Mears and Browne talk about “anyone”, the truth is that mileage does vary, and being young and white confers some intangible benefits that others of us will never receive, particularly when discussing how articles and projects like this one are promoted and received by the mainstream media and by funding sources.

Daniel sees The Entryway as an outgrowth of the new journalism – but from where I sit, it’s a convergence of the same old systems.