By Christie Chisholm
The Alibi has always prided itself in serving as a megaphone to those who don't usually have the opportunity to project their voices. The underrepresented. The misrepresented. The too often forgotten. It's an important function of alternative media, and although we don't always do it perfectly, we do always try. That's why the response to the feature article we printed last week came as such a shock to me.
"Good Medicine" [May 1-7] was a Q&A with Englishman and former Evening Standard Night News Editor Charles Langley. Langley says he left his London newspaper and the lifestyle that went with it in 2003 and spent the years since working as as assistant to Navajo medicine men. He's written a book on his experience that will come out later this month, Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman's Travels Among the Navajo.
The intention of the article was to allow Langley to tell us about the most recent years of his life—it was not for the article to serve as a comprehensive or even investigative look at Navajo culture.
Hindsight is 20/20. As soon as the article was printed, responses from the Native American community came flooding in (see "Pull No Punches"). The article, readers said, was inappropriate, ill-researched and deeply offensive. The artwork that accompanied it: flagrantly racist.
The primary qualms readers had with the article were that it portrayed Navajo culture through the eyes of a white man, and I didn’t contact any Native people for comment. They said the glaring problem with the artwork (the cover depicted a Native man in traditional garb, but he was not a medicine man) was that it caricatured and stereotyped Native people.
The artwork was a mistake and a result of a lack of communication. The photos came in hours before we had to send the paper to press. The photos were supposed to be only of Langley; the others were a surprise. We should have seen the offense they would cause and pulled them, and we apologize for any anger or sadness they incited.
Likewise, I apologize for any harm brought by the article—it was never my intention or the Alibi's. However, the response to all of this raises important issues. Under what context is the media allowed to discuss race or non-mainstream cultures? Is it ever OK for a member outside of a community to talk about their interactions with it? The answer seems to be yes, but context is everything.
In this instance, the Q&A with Langley is primarily offensive because of the context it comes in--it was circulated through a community that has a history of being poorly represented by white people. Especially when there is such an unfortunate lack of Native voices in the mainstream media, it's easy to see why it got the reaction it did. I didn’t contact any Native people for the article because of its nature—we wouldn’t contact outside sources for any other author interview. However, because of the subject matter, I now see that I should have.
If this situation has done one thing, it's raised attention to the fact that there aren't enough Native American voices in the media. We want to keep this discussion open, as well as invite members of the Native American community to offer their words. The Alibi is always looking for freelancers, interns and guest editorialists. If you have something to say, let us be a megaphone.
Contact the Alibi at firstname.lastname@example.org or Chisholm at email@example.com.
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