Black Civil Rights Lawyer in New Orleans Fights Back Against Exploitative Media Organization

In January, a news organization called The Conversation announced they were spearheading a much needed dialogue about race. But, ironically, they began this project by stealing the words and ideas…

In January, a news organization called The Conversation announced they were spearheading a much needed dialogue about race. But, ironically, they began this project by stealing the words and ideas of a Black organizer.

The Canadian bureau of The Conversation declared a new podcast called “Don’t Call Me Resilient” that would actively grapple with the difficulty of discussing racism. In their post, The Conversation noted that they had been inspired by the words of Tracie Washington, a civil rights lawyer based in New Orleans, and had named the podcast after a phrase she used in an interview with Al Jazeera. (Full disclosure: Washington is a friend and former coworker).

Washington’s words are indeed inspiring. “Stop calling me resilient. I’m not resilient. Because every time you say ‘Oh, they’re resilient’, that means you can do something else to me,” Washington said on Al JazeeraHer pointed phrasing cuts to the heart of the way that the strength of BIPOC people and communities has been weaponized against them. Washington deftly uncovers some of the foundational logic of white supremacy — that the bodies of BIPOC bodies and minds are somehow stronger and more able to handle the weight of oppression.

The problem is not that the folks at The Conversation found inspiration in Washington’s analysis. The problem is that they effectively stole it. The producers and editors at The Conversation, who said they have been working on the podcast for a year, never spoke to Washington or asked her permission to base the name of their podcast after her words.

The post from The Conversation does not attempt to hide that they based their podcast on Washington’s words. They quote Washington, and then quote Professor Maria Kaika responding to the quote from Washington, and then announce: “Today, we are launching Don’t Call Me Resilient, a new podcast about race and racism in which we discuss solutions in the way Washington and Kaika are suggesting.” They do not address the question of how they will “discuss solutions in the way” Washington is suggesting, without speaking to her.

The irony of taking a quote from a Black civil rights activist — a quote that comes from a criticism of extractive policies taken against poor and people of color communities — and extracting that quote without permission for a podcast on issues of racism, was apparently lost on the — mostly white — staff at The Conversation. They effectively reproduced the exact same power inequities that Washington’s analysis reveals. “I felt used and exploited,” said Washington. “I felt like I didn’t matter to them as a person. I was just another resource to exploit for their own profit.”

This follows a long tradition of the co-optation and outright theft of the work and analysis of Black communities, especially Black women. As Black Youth Project has written, “Everything Black women say or do is constant in danger of being just straight-up stolen, reappropriated, or misappropriated.” Just last week, Gimlet Media cancelled a series from their Reply All podcast because of similar hypocrisy. “The legacy of media exploitation of communities of color and in particular of Black people’s pain is long,” responded journalist and author Lewis Raven Wallace, the Education Program Director of Press On, when asked about the actions of The Conversation. “The only path forward for journalism today is to address and make amends for that legacy, and build organizations and outlets that reflect those values at every level.”

Who knows what may have happened if The Conversation had followed traditional journalistic protocol and actively sought comment from Washington? “Tell me,” Washington asked in an email to the editors at The Conversation, “What makes The Conversation any better than the political and corporate forces I am critiquing, when you are stealing my words and taking them out of context and therefore misusing them? How do you have the nerve to take a quote about exploitative and extractive processes, and then exploit and extract from the person that said the words to begin with?”

In response to the question of whether The Conversation had received permission from Washington, the producer and host of the podcast, Vinita Srivastava, wrote, “In one of our pitch meetings, one of our producers introduced Tracie Washington to us and her effective campaign in Louisiana. We saw her amazing posters and read a story about her response to the New Orleans environmental city plan. We contacted Washington to see if she would be willing to be a guest on our pod.” What this roundabout statement doesn’t actually say is: Srivastava did not have any contact with Washington.

Soon after, Srivastava responded directly to Washington’s email. In her email, she took no responsibility for stealing Washington’s words and analysis, writing instead, “I am very sorry if the impact of our work has added to your feelings of your ideas and experiences being exploited.” This is a classic non-apology Instead of acknowledging the harmful effect of her actions, Srivastava redirected to Washington’s feelings. The problem here is that Washington’s words and analysis were used without permission and, yes, she has feelings about it, but those feelings are not the problem. The problem is the harmful action that caused those feelings. “It was so demeaning,” says Washington “It felt like they think I’m stupid, like I don’t deserve any respect.”

Srivastava later claimed in a conversation with Washington that she had messaged her on LinkedIn. That was the extent of The Conversation seeking Washington’s permission before naming their podcast after her. Is this what passes for journalistic protocol now?

To confirm how easy it would have been to reach Washington, I googled “Tracie Washington New Orleans” and on the first page of the results I found a site with her phone number. When told this, Srivastava responded “That’s not what Google results showed in Canada.” I also searched on google.ca and again found Washington’s number immediately. This faux naive defense is disingenuous and insulting.

Washington would easily forgive this if Don’t Call Me Resilient was some scrappy DIY passion project with no funding, but that’s not what’s happening here. The Conversation website lists at least seventeen people and two organizations who worked on the podcast, along with funding by a grant from the Global Journalism Innovation Lab. Actually, there’s a long list of funders and partners.

Unfortunately, none of these seventeen plus staffers were tasked with making sure they spoke to the person whose words they were using for fundraising and publicity.

Washington asked for a thorough and public apology from The Conversation. Instead, they offered their half-baked refusal of responsibility. Absent an apology, Washington informed them that she does not give them consent to name their podcast after her words. She demanded The Conversation either change the name of their podcast or pay her for the right to use her words. “I want more than an apology, I want to hear how you are going to make this right,” says Washington.

Media organizations like The Conversation that claim to be progressive are responsible for ending these kinds of manipulative practices. “New Orleanians and Black communities everywhere are sick of this kind of extractive and exploitative journalism,” says Washington. The public branding of Don’t Call Me Resilient loudly states that exploitation is exactly what it’s trying to fight, but their private actions suggest otherwise, which makes this podcast feel more like the performance of antiracism than a real attempt to dismantle anything.


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