What’s White and White and Read all Over?
The voice of the students; a catalyst for change; Packer’s unifying force. Such are the ambitions of the Prism, each noble in intent and strived for in sincerity. But as 83% of reporters are white, is it possible for the paper, try as it might, to fulfill those trumpeted goals?
Packer is composed of 33% students of color, begging the question of why the racial diversity of the journalism class, despite its status as an ostensible haven of healthy discourse, does not mirror that of the community, and has not in past years. Last year, of the fifteen applicants to Journalism, zero were people of color. Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity, attributes that number both to the questions students of color often have to ask themselves when choosing classes (will they be tasked with the impossible job of speaking on behalf of an entire demographic?) and a uniquely acute consideration of whether one’s voice will be valued given the public nature of the Prism.
“Am I worthy of writing for the Prism? That’s part of this conversation,” Ms. Smith-Williams said. In recent years, Packer as an institution has attempted to communicate that the journalism class can and should be an inclusive space, a place where all students feel entitled to the power of their voice, yet those actions have failed in near totality.
“There’s been clear intention to make this class more diverse, like hiring me, and it’s changed nothing” said Dean of the Class of 2021 and Upper School English/Journalism Teacher Larissa Dzegar. Speaking to such lack of progress, Ms. Smith-Williams emphasized how journalism demands that one make themselves and their opinions vulnerable, which likely exacerbates the challenges of being a minority in a predominantly white space.
“Being in an almost all-white class as a person of color is always a difficult and often frustrating experience, but journalism class is almost ten times harder since we are constantly dealing with issues concerning diversity,” said Sports Editor Sylvan Wold (‘21). “In all of those conversations it feels like there isn’t really anyone who actually understands the issues, and many of the pieces we put out concerning race feel incomplete because of that.” Such heightened discomfort contributes to the cyclical nature of the class’ lack of diversity. If students of color know they’ll be in the overwhelming minority, they likely won’t join the class, thus meaning that future potential applicants won’t see themselves reflected in Journalism’s demographics and therefore will feel less inclined to apply.
The question of whether Packer should consider the diversity of classes when making schedules is one on which people are divided.
“[Racial diversity] is essential in having meaningful, thought-provoking discussions,” said Web Editor Daniel Biro (‘21). “I think diversity should trump people getting their first choice.”
“Packer should obviously want to diversify its classes, but if that means putting people in classes they don’t really want to be in, then I think that it would be counterintuitive,” offered Layout Editor Yusuf Haque (‘20), explaining the other side of the debate. “The best classes will always occur when students actually want to be present and learn about that topic.”
Whether or not to factor racial diversity into scheduling, however, does not affect the journalism class due to the applicants it attracts, suggesting that the paper, in an unintentional yet very fundamental way, presents as racially exclusive. It is that very exclusivity that, according to some reporters, prevents the Prism from wholly achieving its goals.
“It can be easy to become not the voice of the student body, but instead accidentally become the voice of the white one,” said Editor-in-Chief Lila Dominus (‘20). Many reporters expressed a similar sentiment, saying that because the newspaper does not mimic the already predominantly white student body, it cannot always successfully present all opinions or consider all topics of importance.
A few reporters, however, believe that so long as the Prism remains aware of its demographic limitations, it can accurately represent all viewpoints.
“I think the Prism can fulfill the goal [of covering all issues], despite its limited diversity, as long as we are aware of this limitation and go out of our way to ensure that we are including issues relevant to everyone,” said Copy Editor Violet Chernoff (‘21).
Across the board, however, reporters seem to agree that the Prism would greatly benefit from more diversity. Some white writers expressed that, when covering stories that are explicitly connected to race, they are less courageous, as they are unsure of how to address the topic and in what terms.
“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable writing about certain topics because I feel like I don’t have the authority to do so,” explained Violet.
News and Features Editor Zak Rizvi (‘20), who identifies as a person of color, articulated the inverse opinion, saying, “I feel I’m more willing to lean into the uncomfortable stories surrounding diversity at Packer.” It is impossible for a white reporter to fully comprehend the gravity of existing as a person of color at Packer, which contributes to the trepidation some feel when writing particularly sensitive articles. That anxiety, however, does not justify placing the onus of discussing race only on people of color; the Prism must equip all of its reporters with the necessary tools to embrace troubling topics.
“I don’t want this [lack of diversity] to seem like an excuse for why we aren’t covering diverse issues,” said Arts and Entertainment Editor Lily Crowell (‘21). “Reporters should be able, and honestly forced, to write about issues that don’t directly affect them.”
The experience of writing for the Prism is one laden with responsibility. With a significant annual budget and an immortal existence within Packer’s archives, the school newspaper is meant to be a reflection of where Packer students are and hope to go, of the issues that occupy their brains and the passions that ignite their hearts. As it exists right now, the Prism is no such reflection, at least not entirely. The demographics of the class must change, and the class’ members must be the ones to change them.
“I would encourage us as a community to name where we are in certain domains and where we want to go,” advised Ms. Smith-Williams. “And then be patient with ourselves and with others as we get there.”