The Promise Of The Other

The very serious function of racism…is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being…None of that is necessary. 

– Toni Morrison

Diversity initiatives veil the structural whiteness and persistent Eurocentricity of US media. The more media institutions announce their commitment to diversity, the more things remain the same. They may hire people of colour, women, etc., but class, ideological, and political obligations remain unchanged.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and shill for war and neoliberal excess, discovered an American utopia of diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism in a US military base in Afghanistan. True to his reputation as the court lackey, fawning over and pawing at the robes of power, Friedman accompanied President Joe Biden to Afghanistan in 2021 [Thomas L. Friedman, “What Joe Biden and I Saw After the US Invaded Afghanistan,” New York Times, April 18, 2021]. Landing in a US geography of death, he haughtily proclaimed the Afghans incapable of building a nation because they lacked something that he believed the US possessed. “I look around the room at the Special Forces A-teams,” he waxed, ignoring the fact that these A-teams are complicit in war crimes, massacres, and criminality, “and see America’s strength hiding in plain sight.” [For some coverage of US war crimes in Afghanistan, see  “ICC authorises investigation into alleged Afghanistan war crimes,” Al Jazeera, March 5, 2020; Meghann Myers, “Spec ops in trouble: Mired in scandal and under Pentagon review, what will it take to clean house?” Military Times, March 13, 2019; Dave Philipps, “Pentagon Begins Independent Inquiry Into Special Ops and War Crimes,” New York Times, February 28, 2021; Matthieu Aikens, “The A-Team Killings,” Rolling Stone Magazine, November 6, 2013; Stavros Atlamazoglou, “The Pentagon is investigating whether special operators have committed war crimes, and if their commanders have even been checking,” Business Insider, March 26, 2021].

And what was this strength that he saw? “It was the fact that these Special Forces were made up of…Black, Asian, Hispanic, and white Americans.” It was diversity at work, coming together “into one hard fist.” The Afghans, according to Friedman, are “weak, divided, and prey to outsiders” because they are not like “us.” For Friedman, America’s strength lay in its ability to be one nation, united under the flag, committed to US imperial dominance–war, invasions, torture, renditions, assassinations, death squads, pillage, theft, rape he and murder–but with “diversity.” 

A nation built on the genocide of the Native Americans, the hundreds of years of chattel slavery and the plantation economy, and the ongoing racial inequalities, discriminations, and violence was whitewashed by Friedman behind a lullaby of “togetherness” and “diversity.” It was the perfect reminder of how diversity initiatives veil structural inequalities and ensure the entrenchment of the status quo while celebrating “change” and “inclusion.” 

The persistent whiteness of US media, something that the industry has long claimed it has been addressing, remains because of the persistence of structural and ideological priorities that will warrant no challenge and tolerate no dissent. Diversity initiatives are more often than not merely a public relations exercise, one meant to deflect from criticism and maintain the power and ideologies hierarchies while seeming to be doing something to change. Every media institution claims a commitment to diversity. Still, few have questioned what this commitment is and what concept of “diversity” is being deployed to deflect from the persistent whiteness of US media and its priorities.

Sometime in early 2017, a rather strange message appeared in my email. The subject header read “Photographers of Color–US database to diversify the industry,” and it was sent to me by an acquaintance at Magnum Photos. In the email, there was a link to a website titled Photographers of Color and a brief explanation that said that Magnum “believes strongly in bringing diverse perspectives into the field of documentary photography” and wanted to “share an important initiative that is looking to diversify the field by connecting photographers of colour with photo editors.” When I went to the website, I arrived at a page with just text that explained the initiative further. A Senior Photo Editor at ESPN’s The Undefeated–described on its website as a “premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture”–had decided to launch a database of photographers of colour. He explained that a conversation on Facebook had led to a discussion about “why couldn’t outlets find the amazing photographers who were also of some racial background that wasn’t white.” He believed the problem was “time and not knowing where to look.” The concern rose when the editors searched for an ethnic photographer to assign to cover an AFROPUNK event. They were looking for a photographer to send to a people-of-colour event. And so, the idea of a database was born to help “make it easier for photo editors to hire outside their regular list of go-to photographers.” 

Following this relatively brief explanation was a questionnaire that US-based photographers of colour could complete—name, location, experience, and, of course, the essential detail: your ethnic identification. As I read the description and scanned the questionnaire, I could not help but be confused by the many contradictions. Here was an editor at a major corporate television and publishing organisation, sending out forms to photographers of colour asking them to self-identify themselves as photographers of colour and voluntarily fix themselves into ethnic categories so that in the future, he and his colleagues could assign them to stories that were about people of colour! Ostensibly, they asked photographers to ghettoise themselves into an ethnic or racial compartment for future assignments that matched them based on such reductive compartmentalisation. Everything became about ethnicity and race, and the individual became an object evaluated first and foremost through her colour. How did typecasting photographers along ethnic and colour lines to work on ethnic and colour-specific stories or geographies appear to be a solution to whiteness’s institutional and structural problem at a mainstream media organisation? 

Instead of asking themselves why their institution was so cut off from knowing, working with, and surrounding itself with a diverse range of photographic talent, they found it convenient to deploy reductive and essentialist cultural and ethnic categories and have people stereotype themselves for the publication’s convenience. For the editor at this influential publication, the problem wasn’t his institution’s culture and structural barriers but that photographers of colour needed to announce themselves loud enough for him to hear and see them. They had to promote themselves through difference and otherness to be considered appropriate for an assignment about the different and the other. It started to place people into neat little racial and ethnic categories for utilisation on assignments for communities, events, and situations that could equally easily be put into neat little ethnic and racial categories. That is events that could be labelled as exotically “non-white,” to which a “non-white” photographer would have unique, intimate, and privileged access. The world was neatly flattened into spreadsheet columns, and all it took to resolve the issue of the whiteness of the publications was a little spreadsheet.

We could move on. 

Howard W. French, a long-time reporter and writer for The New York Times, has spoken out about the issue of typecasting, which he called “a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as ‘black‘ and the rest as ‘white.’” He spoke about how black journalists who worked in the business were primarily assigned to stereotypical stories–sport, entertainment, and “urban affairs,” often meaning stories about black people. According to French, few were assigned to cover issues such as politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment), or science and technology [ Howard W. French, “The enduring whiteness of the American media,” The Guardian, May 25, 2016].

This trend continues today; take a look at photographers assigned to cover African-American communities in the USA, and you will find neat segregation along ethnic and colour lines.

In 2008, after only four years in the industry, I faced this issue head-on while working on a project about Evangelical Christians and their growing influence on US politics and society. It was George Bush, The Lesser’s America, where many considered the attack on the Twin Towers as a sign of the Rapture and the US war in Iraq as a crusade against “infidels.” It was an America where Lt. General William G. “Jerry” Boykin could say things like “George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States…|but]…appointed by God,” and still be considered sane [ John Sutherland, “Virtue is its own drawback,” The Guardian, October 20, 2003].

Evangelical Christians were asserting their political power and increasingly prepared to appear in public, political, military, and educational spaces, espousing their ideology and ideals. With the West obsessing about the “rise of political Islam,” I was intrigued by a parallel rise of Evangelical Christians and their growing influence on American political and public life [ Some works that discuss the emergence of Evangelical political power in America include Adrian Woolridge and John Micklethwait, The Right Nation: Why America is Different, Penguin Books, 2005; Stephan Bates, God’s Own Country: Power and Religion in the USA: Religion and Politics in the USA, Hodder & Stoughton General, 2008; Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Simon & Schuster, 2018; Andrew Whitehead, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Oxford University Press, 2020; Sarah Posner, Unholy: The Christian Right at the Altar of Donald Trump: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, Random House, 2020; ].

On my way to Atlanta, Georgia, I stopped by the magazine offices in New York. During a brief meeting with the magazine’s then-international editor, I asked if she had any assignments in the US and if she should call me since I was in the country for the next few months. Paid assignments were a crucial source of funding for my projects. Upon hearing my request, she gave me a very puzzled look. “Why would I use you in America?” She responded immediately, looking at me with surprise. For a moment, I was confused and thought I had misheard her. Seeing the confusion on my face, she added, “You have no competitive advantage here.” No, I had heard her right. “What is my competitive advantage in Pakistan?” I finally asked. “Well, you are from there and speak the language,” she responded confidently. “I would never use you in the US.” Her answer left me even more confused. “But I am also from the US,” I responded. “I am an American citizen, and I speak American,” I blurted out in dismay. “I have lived longer in the USA than in Pakistan!” I don’t think she heard me. Standing in her office, I faced some stark and troubling facts. 

To this American editor sitting behind her desk and quizzically looking at me, I was a “Pakistani photographer” who worked in Pakistan. Nothing is wrong with that–I have continued to produce a lot of work from my home country, but I was concerned that it was all I could do. I wanted to photograph the world, travel to different places, and work on stories from diverse communities. I enjoyed the challenge of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and the intellectual, emotional, moral, ethical, and disciplinary responsibility this implied. I wanted to be just like other photojournalists who travelled far and wide, worked in communities diverse and complex, and did so without having to justify their right to do so. I wanted the universalism that I now realise was reserved only for some. 

But here I was, faced with an insistence on my ethnic and cultural “authenticity” that was not only imposed on me but one that fundamentally caricatured the complexity, multiplicity, and diversity of the country she assumed I was qualified to report from in the first place. All Pakistanis were just Pakistanis, the same, with no sense of the vast differences in class, ethnicity, religion, geography, history, politics, education, and race that defined the people of the geography. She had placed me into a bounded geographic, ethnic, and cultural space, supposedly untouched by the very forces that touch the Westerner. I was fixed on geography, culture, and people and only asked to represent them when required. 

As I left her office, a deputy editor who had overheard our conversation signalled me to enter his office. “The magazine will never use you outside of Pakistan,” he said. “If you want to be the photographer you want to be, buy a ticket to the furthest place you want to go, and just go and produce the stories you need to produce.” It was the best advice I could have received at that moment. After nearly eighteen years in the US, which had been my home and where I had had the privilege of never thinking about the limits of race, ethnicity, and identity, I had finally hit a wall.

[ Aside: I am well aware that this was a result of my privilege as an educated, upper-middle-class immigrant who entered the country with the kinds of possibilities most immigrants do not have. As a Pakistani who came to the USA to attend an elite university, I was already among a very small and carefully selected set of people “allowed” to enter the USA and contribute/participate/benefit from life there.]

Calls for greater diversity in US media and journalism have been made for decades, yet the more the protests, the fewer the changes. The last decade has seen several public statements by media professionals about the lack of diversity in mainstream journalism and photojournalism, with many calling for greater diversity and gender equality. For example, in photojournalism, there have been initiatives to create a database of women photographers to address the lack of women in the industry [ Daniella Zalcman, “Yes, We Can Reach Gender Parity in Photojournalism,” Neiman Reports, Fall 2019]. A recent report by World Press Photo revealed that photojournalism remains predominantly White and male [World Press Photo, The State of News Photography 2018(last accessed April 7, 2024) ].

Previous studies have shown a similar pattern, suggesting that this question is not only at the forefront of people’s minds but also seems difficult to resolve. The solutions are often little more than public proclamations for more outstanding “diversity” driven recruitment and the announcement of such initiatives. However, institutional cultures, recruitment practices, and ideological commitments are rarely examined. Through a combination of feigned innocence and willed ignorance, US media avoids acknowledging how it has benefitted and formed by the history of US racial and gender discrimination. The whiteness of US media is also a defence of privilege. To understand why the media industry remains so predominantly white, we have to look past the obvious.