White Like Me, Part II

When I was in my mid-20s, I was working full-time and freelancing. My full-time job was at the University of Pittsburgh, and I was struggling to be a successful freelance writer and editor. I placed a small advertisement — in a paper newspaper, no less — for my copy editing services.

I received a call from the New Pittsburgh Courier. The New Pittsburgh Courier (and its predecessor, simply Pittsburgh Courier) is an African-American owned-and-operated newspaper, based in Pittsburgh. I think it’s the longest running African-American focused publication in the United States, if you go back to the original 1907 date. (More information here. It has a fascinating history.)

The New Pittsburgh Courier was looking for a copy editor who could come twice a week, in the evenings, to proofread the paper before it went to print. I interviewed with the man who is still the editor and publisher, Rod Doss. I got the job.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, I would take myself down to the Courier offices from about 6 p.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. I was mostly just looking for typos in the pages that were already laid out. My biggest task was to rewrite press releases for the Features department. I was usually there with then City Editor Sonya Toler (look her up; she works for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto now), Mr. Doss, and three women in the graphic design department.

The graphic designers were Terra, who was black; Deb, who was white; and a third woman, whose name I don’t recall now, who was also black.

I enjoyed the job very much. The copy in the news section was usually pretty clean, but I would catch one or two things. I had to get used to a couple of unique style notes the newspaper had — for example, when referring to people, Black was always capitalized.

The graphic designers gave me a hard time about re-writing press releases, but otherwise they would simply reproduce them as-is, with attendant CAPS LOCK and high praise for whatever film or book was coming out. Sometimes, the press releases would capitalize the names of the movie or actor through-out. “THE COLOR PURPLE starring OPRAH WINFREY will be in theaters this weekend. THE COLOR PURPLE tells the story of…. THE COLOR PURPLE is adapted from the novel of the same name by ALICE WALKER.”

You get the idea.

Now, because I don’t understand racism, I have to tell you I didn’t stand around in the NPC offices thinking, “I am working with black people.” Like, it literally didn’t occur to me to dwell on. And I don’t mean it in an “I was colorblind” way. I just didn’t feel one way or another about it. Not intimidated or worried about it.

Along with differences in our skin color, there were age, religion, marital status, parenthood, and educational differences. I think I was more aware that I was working with mothers than I was that I was working with black women. Does that make sense?

The newspaper covered issues and stories that impacted the black population more than, say, the Post-Gazette did. Almost all of the writers and editors were people of color. I thought they were providing a public service to the black population, not just of Pittsburgh, but of their national service area. I understood that news I read and followed wasn’t necessarily balanced to show the perspective of people of color. I understood the NPC fulfilled a need for a population that I wasn’t intimately familiar with. I didn’t feel threatened by the idea that black people had access to news and views that affected them. “White journalism” wasn’t endangered.

When I first started working there, Terra had long, braided hair. One evening, after I had been there a few months, I came in, and Terra’s hair was short.

“Oh, Terra!” I exclaimed. “You got your hair cut.”

Terra leveled a long look at me. Then, turning back to her computer she said, “Deb, tell Dawn how black hair works.”

This is when I learned about weaving.

I honestly did not have the first clue.

Deb explained the process, and that Terra hadn’t gotten her hair cut, she had simply had the braids removed. I was the object of some good-natured ribbing that evening, that’s for sure. I hope I took it in stride and with graceful good humor.

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The gulfs that separate black and white people are bigger than just not knowing about hair weaves. And they are fully on display in our country: the wounds of slavery and the Civil War; the impotent anger of the white supremacist movement now finding its footing; the inability of the men in power to denounce the evil that only exists ON ONE SIDE.

It’s not up to us to declare any kind of victory (because “we” elected a black man President, or because “we” enacted civil rights). And it’s not up to black people to educate us. It’s not up to them to fight the fight alone anymore. We white people have to step up to the front lines and join our voices to those who have been aware of what’s been going on for decades.

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