Barnum: The white queerness of The Daily Northwestern

Lucia Barnum, Columnist

Last week, The Daily Northwestern published its 2021-22 diversity report. Its results — and reactions to it — were mixed, revealing stark differences in how staffers of varying identities experience our newsroom.

The metrics for racial diversity within the newsroom were alarming and disgraceful. The Spring 2022 staff was only 5.5% Black and 12.3% Latine, compared to 12% and 16.8% respectively in the class of 2025. The editorial board — the students who establish content and newsroom culture at The Daily — was only 3.4% Black and 10.3% Latine. There was only one Indigenous staffer in a leadership role.

On the other hand, some may consider the diversity report a success because of the LGBTQ+ metrics. Last year, 43.8% of staffers and 62.5% of edit board did not identify as heterosexual. Comparatively, only 15.9% of Generation Z identifies as LGBTQ+ according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The queerness of The Daily has been established by past diversity reports and is often joked about by those familiar with the paper — I remember hearing this at my first informational meeting as a selling point as to why I should join The Daily.

As a queer person, I’m glad The Daily provides a safe space to so many other queer people, especially for those who may not have had a space to express themselves elsewhere. I’m no stranger to the difficulties of finding queer-affirming spaces on campus, nor to the overwhelming relief that comes when you finally do.

But after serving on Spring 2022 edit board — one of the 10.3% of Latine members — I can attest to the fact that the lack of Black, Latine and Indigenous staffers is more than just a statistic. It contributes to a pervasive culture of whiteness in the newsroom and an institutional failure to effectively cover marginalized communities that extends beyond just the last quarter or year.

While The Daily may be a welcoming environment for white queer staffers, the same cannot be said for BIPOC staffers, queer or not. This sense of safety for white queer staffers, especially members of edit board, can lead to an oblivion of their white privilege and perpetuate a harmful newsroom environment for other marginalized staffers.

White queer people’s blindness to their privilege due to their separate marginalized identity is not exclusive to The Daily. In a 2021 study published in the Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, Nicholas Havey, Ph.D. found that white college students identifying “with one marginalized or disadvantaged group may obscure or suppress the very real privilege and immunity afforded by whiteness.” While the study focuses on gay men, the results have applications to many other queer people. Participants in his study “leveraged queerness as a defense of whiteness,” downplaying their systemic racial privilege because they face oppression as part of LGBTQ+ communities.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Lesbian Studies found the normative archetype of a queer woman is white, which renders queer women of color “invisible in both queer and racialized communities.” The prevailing culture of whiteness within queer communities marginalizes BIPOC women beyond the oppression experienced by their white peers.

In other words, white participants in these studies thought their queerness was more important than their race. This belief led them to hold their queerness on a pedestal instead of acknowledging their white privilege — which further marginalizes the people of color around them. This pattern is evident in both The Daily’s coverage and newsroom culture.

An example of this behavior lies in the history of the Diversity and Inclusion Chair at The Daily. In a 2019 “From the Newsroom,” former Editor-in-chief Marissa Martinez, the originator of the role, wrote she was driven to help create the D&I position in part because of her experiences as a Black and Latine woman in the newsroom. Martinez and other marginalized students saw a need for a role that would force The Daily to engage in larger conversations about their “prejudices, biases and shortcomings.”

In five out of the past six quarters, there has been at least one white, queer D&I Chair. At a newspaper with an edit board that is over 60% queer, it is much more pertinent that D&I roles be filled by people of color. It would be frowned upon for a white straight person to hold that position, but white queer people serve in the role as if their queerness overrides their whiteness and the privilege that comes with it.

The dominant culture of white queerness also ostracizes queer people of color from their own community. Every quarter, The Daily hosts both BIPOC and queer affinity spaces outside of the newsroom — they are meant to help marginalized students to find community and a sense of belonging at the paper. But in my experience, the queer affinity spaces are overwhelmingly white.

It is absurd to consider The Daily a welcoming work environment when queer people of color feel uncomfortable attending queer affinity spaces. Without a space that holds room for queer BIPOC identities, they are forced to do that kind of care work on their own — leading to accelerated burnout.

The Daily prides itself on being a learning newspaper, selling itself as a supplement to the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications curriculum. And yet, this toxic environment of whiteness perpetuated by members of the edit board contributes to a staggering, undue burden on the people of color who make The Daily function. This paper is actively discouraging young journalists of color from working in the industry.

While I am Latine, I’m also white; I have access to these white queer spaces. I wholeheartedly acknowledge my contributions to this destructive culture, but also realize that the toxicity of white queer spaces is universal and manifests in workplaces other than The Daily.

This diversity report should be a wakeup call for all of us. This harmful culture is not just about individual staffers, but rather the fact that the newsroom operates as a white queer space. It requires a complete reformation of how The Daily functions, and particularly, a rethinking of who is selected for leadership positions.

White queer staffers must think critically about the space they take up in the newsroom, why they feel entitled to it and how their white privilege contributes to that. Most importantly, they must think about how they can genuinely support the staffers of color who power this newspaper.

Lucia Barnum is a Medill Sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.