The Furthest Thing From a Racist is Not Any White Woman Alive

(Please be sure to read Part Two.)

As I understand it, this is how events unfolded

  1. Whirl Magazine co-founder Christine McMahon Tumpson announced a networking event scheduled for April 4, 2017 at Three Rivers Casino. The event was titled “POW WOW” and was branded like this.
  2. Local indigenous and native women objected. Whirl issued a statement explaining that the acronym was not intentionally referencing native cultures. Comments questioning the veracity of that claim where removed from the Facebook event page. Other comments asking about the erased comments have remained on the event.
  3. People defending the event, Whirl and McMahon Tumpson have stated repeatedly that she is not a racist person.
  4. Native women and other WOC and white allies have called for Whirl to take more steps to address the concerns.

I don’t know what the event organizers intended when they used this branding, but it does seem that if there was no one involved who caught on to the problem – they must be woefully uninformed about current events. Never before in my life (I’m 46) have I been presented with such intense scrutiny and coverage of Indigenous American culture as these past months due to Standing Rock. The story was front and center for months, even still garnering headlines last week as the camp was dismantled.

Before attending law school, Ms. McMahon Tumpson was an assignment editor at KDKA TV. I don’t know what sort of assignments she managed, but it is fair to assume that she’s familiar with the big stories of the day. And KDKA has covered this story pretty thoroughly as has every local major media outlet. I mention KDKA in particular because of her work history there and the close ties between the station and Whirl magazine.

So if take Whirl at face value and believe that they didn’t see the problems with the event, that’s a pretty troubling reflection on their current events literacy. But given that they now understand the concerns, it seems fair to expect them to work overtime to acknowledge and undo the damage.  In other words, to expect them to say “We screwed this up and we should have known better” rather than “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

This is the part where Pittsburgh women seem to be stuck in a rinse & repeat cycle. We screw something up, women of color help us understand how that happened, and we reject their feedback. We are masters of the non-apology with heaping side dishes of denial, avoidance and silencing tactics.

Whirl apologized, but did not take ownership of the mistake. They did change the name of the event. What’s yet to be addressed is undoing the damage caused.

Some native women have suggested the magazine or event organizers make a financial donation to an indigenous program. That’s a generous and reasonable request. It hasn’t seemed to sink in yet, so I’m going to flex some ally muscles here and give the folks at Whirl a list of other suggestions on how they can salvage this scenario to everyone’s benefit.

  • Hire a FT creative staff member who is part of the native community. Bring their vision to the table of the publication.
  • Create a paid internship/externship for local native young women who are interested in media and communications careers. Work with an existing group to get that in place.
  • Devote a full feature to local native American cultures. Talk with artists, entrepreneurs, professionals, community groups, Conflict Kitchen and more. Not just the History Center, but the denizens of contemporary culture.
  • Bring a local person who is part of the native American community onto the Whirl board of directors.
  • Explore white feminism. I know that would be a huge risk, especially among conservative women and advertisers, but the right person could find a solid angle and do some good work. Look at what Teen Vogue is doing!  If not white feminism, then white privilege.

But we also have to make a commitment to stop this cycle. We are causing pain to women of color, including black women here in our hometown and beyond. We are consuming their energy that could be better invested in their already existing community work. We are making the same mistakes over and over again.

I am not going to say Christine McMahon Tumpson is a racist and only in some part because she’s a lawyer. I don’t know her heart and I have no idea what happened during the planning of this event. I can only make conclusions based on her actions and her public statements. But this is the message I wrote to her over the weekend on a discussion thread that has since been deleted

Christine, I’m unsure how any white cis woman can claim to be the furthest thing from a racist. As white women, we have absolutely benefitted from and supported racism. There’s no white person alive who is the furthest from racism. You might be a great person, but it’s important to acknowledge how racism and white privilege manifests in our lives, especially systemically. You made a serious error and have a responsibility to own up, fix it and offset the damage. I don’t think that’s happened. There’s a lot WHIRL can do to be proactive, but I strongly urge you to avoid Wendy Bell’s mistakes and take a better path. Schedule anti-racism workshops in-house, write about the work of indigenous women in this region, etc. You can do better than she did.

Why the Wendy Bell reference? Because earlier in the week, it came to light that Point Park University has asked her to keynote a social media conference, a decision met with backlash by students and alumni. Bell has since stepped down and replaced with a panel led by Tony Norman.

See what I mean about rinse and repeat? Pittsburgh is awash in nice affluent white lady media figures, but sorely lacking in Elsie Hillmans.

I could make a list of examples of getting it wrong of late.

  1. Point Park University invites Wendy Bell to keynote a social media conference a year after she lost her job for racialized elements in her social media content.
  2. White Democrat men rally behind white Democrat man to replace Natalia Rudiak on City Council, reducing women’s voice at the table by 25% and still say they think more women should run for office. Oh, and his opponent is a more qualified white woman.
  3. Women’s March on Washington exposing the lack of intersectionality among local feminists
  4. Planned Parenthood Counterprotest spearheaded by cis het men.
  5. Indivisible Pittsburgh organizing meeting bringing further exposure to the rift between two Pittsburghs

The Whirl situation is not an isolated event. I suspect white women in Pittsburgh are not paying attention and keep stepping into the same mistakes because our organizing foundation is not solid.

I predict this will continue for the foreseeable future. Everyone feels they are at least partially right in these situations and there’s that phrase ‘good intentions’ bandied about to the point that it deserves mention in the Pittsburghese dictionary. The disparity in resources, the influence of socially conservative faith communities and fiscally conservative corporateers, the dearth of independent media and the simple fact that most Pittsburgh residents couldn’t tell you a single fact about the indigenous residents of this region gives me a less than hopeful point of view.

So I reached out to Lenora Dingus, a local Seneca woman for her thoughts. She graciously sent them to me and I opted to publish them under separate cover so they are not lost in my own framing of the situation.  Please read her feedback. I think you might find some hope there.

I do hope Whirl proves all of us wrong and takes solid, dramatic action to repair the damage that they’ve perpetuated. It is within their power to do so. They just have to be willing to ask and listen.

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