The PEN Pod: Examining Our Crises of Democracy with Karen Attiah
Today on The PEN Pod, we’re joined by Karen Attiah, who’s The Washington Post’s global opinions editor. She’s penned numerous essays about race, American society, international affairs, and free expression, and is a George Polk Award winner. We spoke about her latest column for The Post, in which she imagines how Western media outlets would have covered the events in Minneapolis if they had happened in another country, intersections between the public health crisis and our current moment, and what the climate is like right now for journalists and writers both here and around the world.
I feel like the question we all have to ask each other right now is, how are you doing?
I’m okay, strangely. I feel like I’m running on a bit of adrenaline, and maybe that’s because I’m spending a little bit too much time on Twitter and TV. But it feels strange. We went from being in a holding pattern, or literally grounded at home, because of the coronavirus, and then within the span of a week, we went from—a lot of us, at least—being inside to many people being out on the streets. So I’m okay, but I can’t lie. This has been a difficult national moment for a lot of us who are Black and who do care about these issues. It’s been dismaying in a lot of ways to see that we still have to ask for Black people to not be killed by police. But here we are.
Do you see intersections between the public health crisis and the current crisis visited upon us by agents of the state, telling us when we can and can’t exercise our rights?
I look at them both as democracy crises. A public health disaster—an epidemic—is also a political crisis. Anything that is dealing with managing state resources to either help keep people safe or to help contain the spread of a threat means that it is, by nature, a bit of a political crisis.
In the same way with what’s happening over social justice, racial injustice, and these conversations that we’re having about having to manage state violence, the police, and impunity, I see both things as two different viruses that are plaguing our society. Police brutality is not just a Black issue. And now, you see the protests are quite more diverse, and I’m seeing a lot more non-Black and white allies. People jolted. Things are changing. But, I think to keep in mind that when people are pushing—whether it’s for a better healthcare system and responses, or better policing approaches—this is something that helps all Americans, helps all of us to be more safe, more healthy. So, I see both of these—the coronavirus and the protests over policing and race—as very much fighting for the soul of a healthy, or what we want to be for, a healthier America.
“A public health disaster—an epidemic—is also a political crisis. Anything that is dealing with managing state resources to either help keep people safe or to help contain the spread of a threat means that it is, by nature, a bit of a political crisis. In the same way with what’s happening over social justice, racial injustice, and these conversations that we’re having about having to manage state violence, the police, and impunity, I see both things as two different viruses that are plaguing our society.”
You write about international affairs, and we often talk about things like state violence and impunity, especially the U.S. or western European press, when you’re talking about states. Here at PEN America, we are constantly talking about the violence visited on people uprising in Egypt, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia, and you wrote this satirical column on how Western media would cover Minneapolis if it had happened in another country. Is it directed more at the American public, or the press? Where do you feel like that critique is most salient?
That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of layers too, to that piece. Partially because my parents are from West Africa—my father’s from Ghana, and my mother was born in Nigeria—and so, coming from a background where people from our countries are so used to being reduced to cliches and stereotypes about poverty, violence, and mismanagement, and so often, you don’t see those lenses applied to the U.S. Why? Because of our GDP? Because of our military might?
At the end of the day, I look at things and I’m like, “Ghana has a national healthcare system.” We don’t. We have a healthcare industry, and those things are very different. For that piece, I had a few correspondents who were a little irritated and felt like I was mocking them, but it wasn’t intended necessarily to say that, “All foreign correspondents are bad.” I have friends and colleagues who do fantastic and illuminating work about countries and cultures outside of them. But I think in this moment, seeing just how absurd it felt—I write this from kind of an emotional place, in the sense that sometimes, writing the news straight out doesn’t even do it justice anymore. There are other ways to get the truth across, and sometimes that’s through fiction and facts. I think the critique is just to say we’re not special. We’re not exceptional. I think we have a lot of weaknesses, but it’s not a bad thing to at least be able to try to see the weaknesses so that we can fix it.
And on the flip side, to be able to perhaps have a lot more empathy for those who are in other countries, who are dealing with some of these issues on a daily basis, that we’re seeing here in this particular moment. So I guess for me, it was also a way to imagine a world where the tables are turned, and Africans are the ones who are quoted as experts instead of talked about as if they don’t exist, or just to be able to expose a bit of the hypocrisy in a Brit sitting in London thinking that race is only an American issue; meanwhile, thousands of Black and Middle Eastern people and healthcare workers have been dying disproportionately to coronavirus.
There was a correspondent who took issue with the piece and said, “She doesn’t have experience in the field.” And I’m like, “First of all, that’s not true. Second of all, the whole point is that America is the field. Colleagues are being tear gassed right now.” “But we’ve reported in dangerous places, you don’t understand.” And I’m like, “Well, you have people who are being blinded in one eye by rubber bullets, and clearly we see that being Black, walking in Central Park could possibly get you having the cops called on you and your life ended.” So for me, this place perhaps seems a little more dangerous these days.
“I write this from kind of an emotional place, in the sense that sometimes, writing the news straight out doesn’t even do it justice anymore. There are other ways to get the truth across, and sometimes that’s through fiction and facts. I think the critique is just to say we’re not special. We’re not exceptional. I think we have a lot of weaknesses, but it’s not a bad thing to at least be able to try to see the weaknesses so that we can fix it.”
I’ve been struck by some of the incredible writing by Black journalists who have been covering what’s been happening right now, like LZ Granderson, Yamiche Alcindor. How do you view the work of Black journalists right now—particularly Black women journalists—while feeling the gravity of this moment, perhaps more than others?
I’m really proud of so many of my Black colleagues, who are really rising to this moment right now. And not just right now—I think there’s a feeling among a lot of us going back to 2016. With the Trump election, we saw the racist rhetoric, like “Mexicans are rapists,” and “Muslims should be prevented from coming.” We saw that rhetoric, and we were alarmed. I think a lot of us felt that, when we voiced that alarm and concern, we were told, “You’re exaggerating.” Or even, “Well, it doesn’t really matter who wins. It’s okay. Our institutions will save us.” Now, here we are. We have seen the rhetoric become policy. We’ve seen the Muslim ban, the travel ban from Muslim majority countries, not only become enacted, but upheld by the Supreme Court. We’ve seen our institutions and the so-called adults in the room fail to stop the trampling of so many norms by Trump, the administration, and the GOP. I think what a lot of us are feeling and saying—particularly Black women—it’s just the feeling of like, “We warned y’all. We told y’all.” It’s so great that I’m speaking to you right now, but it’s almost like now you guys are rushing to talk to us to get our opinions because our country’s on fire, right?
There are a lot of questions that need answers. Just structurally, even as members of the journalism industry, questions about diversity—and not just diversity, because I think diversity sometimes is a word without any seasoning or spice to it—but empowering the voices that make it into the newsrooms, to be able to be heard and listened to, and to make some of those calls on coverage and framing. Because again, like I said, I think a lot of what is happening was sort of treated as, “Well, police brutality? That’s a Black people issue.” Or, “Immigration, that’s a Latino issue.” And issues that affect white Americans—that’s not race, that’s just national news, that’s just politics. I feel like there’s some very big meta-conversations to be had about siloing how we go about thinking about our world and valuing voices. So I’m glad that Black voices are being centered right now, but it shouldn’t only happen when our cities are on fire.
“I think what a lot of us are feeling and saying—particularly Black women—it’s just the feeling of like, ‘We warned y’all. We told y’all.’ It’s so great that I’m speaking to you right now, but it’s almost like now you guys are rushing to talk to us to get our opinions because our country’s on fire, right?”
Speaking of journalists who face threats, you were the one who brought Jamal Khashoggi into the fold at The Washington Post, who was murdered at the behest of Saudi leaders in 2018. How is the climate right now for writers, both here in the U.S. and globally, amid the kinds of risks that they’re having to take right now?
I know that in 2018 and in 2019, we were already seeing an escalation in threats against journalists around the world. And we were already seeing that some of these past years have been the deadliest on record for journalists around the world. Obviously, for me, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder hit the closest to me, personally and professionally. And that’s not even counting jailed journalists, but also the trauma, honestly, of intimidation, surveillance. I think right now, in the case of Saudi Arabia, obviously its press freedom rankings are atrocious.
But again, here, to see these images of police just blatantly attacking journalists—and not just journalists. Right now, we have cell phones and cameras, and even the brutality in George Floyd’s murder was captured on camera, with people filming, and it didn’t stop the brutality. Police forces are doing this, knowing that everybody is watching. And why is that? It just means they know they won’t be held accountable. Maybe if you get a badge number and a facial ID, but I think that ultimately at the end of the day, it’s like who polices the police? Who polices Saudi Arabia? And in this case, who polices the United States when international norms on protecting freedom of expression and peaceful protests are clearly being violated in our own country? Who’s going to sanction us? Who’s going to send in peacekeepers? No one. So, it’s quite jarring to feel like we don’t have a protector, except for each other.
I think that’s definitely the feeling that so many people are feeling right now—it’s a matter of solidarity. It’s a matter of looking out for one another. Are you reading, watching, or listening to anything that is giving you hope, context, or even a distraction from all that’s going on?
I think in times like this, I always reach for Audre Lorde. Audre is the truth. Her collection of essays, Sister Outsider—I’ve had it for maybe three or four years, and it’s all marked up. It’s well-loved. I find her essays on the uses of anger in particular quite—I don’t know if calming is the right word, but helping, for me personally, to channel these feelings into action. She says that anger is an appropriate response to racism, but in a way it isn’t enough. You do have to be able to channel that into a positive way forward. But she writes particularly for women and particularly for Black women, who very often don’t have the luxuries of illusions about our world—particularly in America’s racial caste system, where we often find ourselves at the bottom. To that end, our responsibility, very often, is to speak with a moral clarity and force, because when our needs are taken care of, it rises up all boats. So right now, Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger,” is kind of my security blanket.
Other than that, for total distraction, I’ve been stress-spraying a lot of nice perfumes, just like comforting smells. I’ve been stress-gardening, just putting my hands in dirt and earth and planting things in my parents’ backyard. They’ve given me artistic freedom with a small plot in the backyard. So as I camp out here in Dallas for the time being, while the pandemic does whatever it’s going to do. So just being in nature, unplugging, and honestly reaching out to friends and making sure we’re all okay.
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