By Daryl Hannah
The New York Times either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. Just weeks after publishing a poorly balanced profile of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old fatally shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in July, the paper is again facing a national outcry from readers who are furious over the paper’s use of racial epithets to describe African-American women.
A Sunday profile of television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes by Times Culture Critic Alessandra Stanley opened with “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman'” and ended with an angry-black-woman joke linking Rhimes and First Lady Michelle Obama. In between was a mix of compliments and slights about Rhimes’ ability to navigate the overwhelmingly white and patriarchal media industry.
“Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable,” Stanley wrote in her article. “She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.
Rhimes earlier responded to Stanley’s characterization of her as “angry” with the candor most who follow her on social media have come to expect:
Wait. I’m” angry” AND a ROMANCE WRITER!! I’m going to need to put down the internet and go dance this one out. Because ish is getting real.
shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 19, 2014
The story quickly spread across social media and prompted responses from some of Rhimes’ star actors who were together celebrating the kick-off of Rhimes’ new show. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter how they would describe Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Chandra Wilson used the adjectives brilliant, compassionate, courageous, innovative, shy and visionary.
It also didn’t take long for online petitions to pop up demanding the Times apologize for the offensive article. Civil-rights organization ColorofChange.org launched a national petition calling on the paper to retract the article but provided no information on how many people had signed the petition.
“Characterizing their supreme confidence and competence as ‘anger’and describing actress Viola Davis as sexy ‘in a slightly menacing way’ and ‘darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’only plays into destructive stereotypes that impact the lives of Black women every day,” an email blast to ColorofChange.org’s 900,000 members read. “Alessandra Stanley and The New York Times need to know that the dissemination and perpetuation of the ‘angry Black women’ archetype is no laughing matter. With so few Black women both onscreen or behind the scenes in Hollywood, high-profile, dehumanizing misinterpretations of their work cannot be tolerated.”
On Monday, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan used her Public Editor’s Journal to address the growing disdain for the article and questioned its deftness.
“The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story,” Sullivan wrote. “Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that wasat bestastonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”
The paper’s Culture Editor Danielle Mattoon also apologized for Stanley’s article, saying: “There was never any intent to offend anyone and I deeply regret that it did. Alessandra used a rhetorical device to begin her essay, and because the piece was so largely positive, we as editors weren’t sensitive enough to the language being used. This is a signal to me that we have to constantly remind ourselves as editors of our blind spots, what we don’t know, and of how readers may react.”
It’s obvious that “blind spot” is the lack of diversity in the paper’s Culture department.
“I still plan to talk to [Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s Executive Editor] about the article, its editing, and about diversity in the newsroom, particularly among culture critics,” Sullivan wrote. “The Times has significant diversity among its high-ranking editors and prominent writers, but it’s troubling that with 20 critics, not one is Black and only two are persons of color.”
“Of approximately 1,100 full time journalists at The New York Times (includes reporters, editors, producers, copy editors, etc), 19.5 percent are minorities and 41.7 percent are women,” a Times spokeswoman told DiversityInc when pressed for the numbers of Blacks and Black women on the paper’s editorial staff. “We do not break out our stats beyond those demographics.”
The Times does not participate in the DiversityInc Top 50 survey and declined to provide additional comment on the column about Rhimes.
New York City’s population is approximately two-thirds Black, Latino or Asian.