When I was in the Seattle Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program last year, fellow apprentice Tim Kim interviewed musician and poet Hollis Wong-Wear for the Globalist series “Seattle’s Smartest Global Women.” During a group brainstorming session, I suggested that Tim use this opportunity to explore who Wong-Wear is as a solo artist, and not just a shadow to a Seattle white male rapper.
So it was infuriating when last month The Seattle Times described her as Macklemore’s “sidekick” in the headline of a feature story on her and her band The Flavr Blue. The term “sidekick” is not only a loaded term for artists of color, but it’s inaccurate to describe a musician with a solo career as second to anyone.
Then, an editor followed up with Wong-Wear in an email, justifying his use of the term and dismissing her anger.
Wong-Wear wrote a response to this on her Facebook page and another titled “Sidekicked and Then Some: A Call for Journalistic Accountability” on Medium.
The unidentified Seattle Times editor wrote to Wong-Wear via email:
“One of the copy editors on your story was an Asian American woman and the layout person for our Friday magazine is also an Asian-American woman. I did an informal poll around the paper this morning and no one — including those Asian American women — had heard of the #notyourasiansidekick movement. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have, but that perhaps your perception that this was a high-profile moment isn’t altogether accurate.”
First of all, not everybody who is in the same identity group is aware of every Twitter hashtag or social movement. Second of all, whether people in The Seattle Times newsroom have heard of a movement should not be the measure of how popular or important it is. #NotYourAsianSidekick was popular enough to be covered by Al Jazeera and The Washington Post and it brought thousands of Asians who shared experiences of being dismissed or belittled at various aspects and stages of their lives.
And the concept of being relegated to “sidekick” has been problematic for Asian artists for decades — Bruce Lee went to Hong Kong to take center stage because Hollywood only allowed him to be a sidekick to white male heroes.
As an Asian woman who is also building a career of her own, I feel it’s important to assert my own competence and greatness in a society that assumes I can’t. As an Asian woman, I’m a minority in journalism — a traditionally white-male dominated space. It’s difficult to enter this profession in Seattle and to feel like I belong here and deserve to be here.
How can I feel like a newsroom is a place for me when, according to the Asian American Journalists Association, Asians only comprise 3.1 percent of newsroom employees? How can I feel I belong in journalism when writers at The Seattle Times try to justify labeling an Asian American woman as a “sidekick” as part of its goal to “serve readers?”
If journalism does not care about its readers who have different backgrounds — if journalism does not care about me — why do I care about journalism?
Wong-Wear is right. #JournalismSoWhite. So it’s all the more important to me that I’m the editor-in-chief of the University of Washington Bothell student newspaper Husky Herald. But having people of color in leadership positions or your team is not enough, and it’s definitely not a tool to defend ignorance.
In all of my rage and frustration with tone-deaf and white-majority journalism, I asked myself, “What can we journalists do better?” Because that’s what it should come down to, right?
The Seattle Times in their sorry-not-sorry email to Wong-Wear blamed her for being offended. According to Wong-Wear, the headline writer concluded with a classic respectability politics move: “My hope is that knowing this will help sideline your apparent outrage into something more positive.”
The move reminds me of my role as a peer facilitator in a fall quarter introduction to journalism class at UW Bothell. The instructor showed videos of Katie Couric and Piers Morgan asking invasive questions about trans activist Janet Mock’s body parts—focusing the story not on her activism but on her transition.
An obviously frustrated student said, “So what can we say to transgender people so they are not offended?” This question put the blame and fault on marginalized people. No, it is not marginalized people’s fault that we are angry with the world that continues to belittle us time and again.
The emphasis should not be at people getting offended, but how journalism can be inclusive and conscious about what it puts into the world — because telling stories, especially of other people, comes with a huge responsibility. It’s true that #JournalismSoWhite.
An organization like The Seattle Times absolutely needs to work on itself if it still wants to do acceptable work that resonates with the increasingly diverse population of Seattle.