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‘#NotYourNarrative’: Journalist Rania Khalek on Lack of Arab or Muslim Voices in US Media

On Wednesday, journalists Rania Khalek and Roqayah Chamseddine, started a hashtag—”#NotYourNarrative”—to call attention to the absence of Arab or Muslim voices in US media, particularly in reports that have to do with Palestinian or Arab issues.

The hashtag was successful. A number of journalists from around the world used the hashtag to vent about the domination of white privileged voices in media.

The criticisms were not limited to corporate or establishment media but also included progressive media. And Khalek wrote an article titled, “Does The Nation have a problem with Palestinians?” It was published by Electronic Intifada.

An editor for The Nation, Richard Kim, responded to Khalek’s allegations, which renewed discussion.

This is the second part of our discussion. In the first part, Khalek discussed the catastrophic effects of the winter storm on Gaza and the American Studies Association boycott resolution, which recently passed. Khalek also addresses talk that has played out since Nelson Mandela’s death on why there is no “Palestinian Mandela” or “Arab Mandela.”

Here’s the video of our discussion (and a transcript is below):



Before getting into some examples, can you explain why you started to send the #NotYourNarrative tweets?

RANIA KHALEK, independent journalist:
It was actually me and my friend, Roqayah Chamseddine, who is on Twitter @irevolt—Me and her were kind of venting on the coverage of certain issues surrounding the Middle East and North Africa. Whether it’s ssues like drones, war, whether it’s with Syria or especially with Israel and Palestine, all the coverage at all the major papers and even progressive outlets is being written about by white people, by white journalists.

It’s going to sound so ridiculous to say, but it’s not even personally attacking people who are writing about the stuff. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I have a lot of white friend journalists, like you Kevin, and I totally support the work you do. And I totally don’t mean that like an, “I have a black friend” thing, but it’s just to point out that it’s not about that. It’s about the structure of the media really is constantly having white journalists speak for us, and by us I mean Middle Eastern Americans.

There’s plenty of people like me, who are Arab and who are journalists and who are perfectly capable of writing on these issues, but I don’t ever see voices like mine represented in any of these outlets. And a lot of these outlets I read and like so it’s really upsetting.

We were talking about it so much so we were like let’s start a hashtag about it because I bet other people are just as irritated by the lack of Arabs and Muslims who are in the media. So we did and that’s where #NotYourNarrative came from.

I think that really applies to a lot of issues. It’s not just the Middle East. A lot of issues that involve people of color tend to be—because our media is dominated by white voices—tend to be written about by white people or even just privileged people. And I think that takes away in a lot of cases, except for in rare cases where someone like you is writing—I think that really does take away from a lot of context is writing, of a lot of situations, whether it’s drone strikes or war or prisons, when you have people that are not in those communities or don’t related to those communities writing about it.

GOSZTOLA: There’s a distinction I would like to raise and ask for your comment, but let’s get some examples out for people so they can get a sense of what these tweets were that were being sent. One of the ones that you happened to send out—and it was very popular. As I look at it right now, it had 84 retweets so people liked it. You had put up, “From Palestine to Syria to Iraq, I see predominantly white dude bro journalists dominating the convo (conversation) but it’s #NotYourNarrative. It’s ours.” That one was one of the first ones you sent out.

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@Madi_Hatter (Madiha Tahir), who is this excellent journalist who has traveled to Pakistan to cover drone victims there in the country, she sent out this tweet, “Never mind the MSM (mainstream media). How much of the progressive media is actually non-white folks telling their stories?” And another one that I will pull in here was sent out by Remi Kanazi who was sending many tweets with this hashtag, “US journalists still promote the “Palestine is barren” myth. Reporting on Palestine yet no Palestinian voices featured.”

And then, this was not necessarily of the group of people who were sending many tweets with this hashtag but he happened to jump in here and send his own tweet. His name is Musa Okwonga. I think he’s a journalist.

I think he’s a journalist. I want to say either in Kenya or South Africa. He’s a journalist. I started following him a while back for a story happening in Kenya or South Africa.

GOSZTOLA: He’s a journalist. He works for the BBC. He said, “A week of televised Mandela tributes with hardly any mention of Cuba, Biko or apartheid-era government atrocities for context.” And that was very popular.

You can add a little bit more to issues there. We see some themes in those tweets. But I think maybe the key issue is that a lot of white journalists aren’t actually doing journalism as much as they are doing punditry.


GOSZTOLA: And they’re sharing their opinions without actually talking to the people at the source, which is how I would differentiate my reporting—Which is not to say that I am not getting jobs that people of lesser privilege are not getting but it is to say that I think the difference between a good white journalist reporting and a bad white journalist reporting would be if you actually talk to the people involved in the story you are writing.

Well, that’s a perfect point. That’s a great way to put it. It’s constantly this punditry. In the mainstream media, it’s this, like I said, white dude bro culture. I think that often is the case when it comes to national security issues, which I am sure you’re well aware

It’s this culture of not reporting but just giving opinions or, if it’s not necessarily opinions, then it’s quoting Senators John McCain and Lindey Graham. Or like quoting US officials without any challenge, and that’s upsetting. But even more upsetting to me is what we see in the progressive media, which is a lot of punditry by white journalists and nothing coming from anybody that might be closer to the issue. Or, just from those journalists who are writing about it, I don’t see anyone being quoted from the areas they are writing about, whether it’s drone strikes or—

It’s just really shocking to me to see that in 2013 in the “progressive media.” And one example I will use, which I wrote about recently—I wrote this for the Electronic Intifada, an article about The Nation’s coverage of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the recent Academic Studies Association cultural boycott of Israel.

They had five different pieces written about it, and, to be fair, three of those pieces were in favor of the boycott, but, at the same time, four of those pieces were written by white Jewish American writers. That’s not to say that they should be able to write about it. They absolutely should, but only one was written by a Palestinian and that’s a huge disparity.

Palestinians should be given a voice to advocate on behalf of their issues, but also it seems to be like their voices don’t count unless they have white people backing them. I don’t know if I am articulating that as well as I could. There seems to be this culture of a criticism of the status quo isn’t legitimate unless people from the privileged class are also criticized as well. So like criticism of drone strikes have far more appeal when it is coming from a white male journalist than if it were from me. And I think that is even an issue that we should talk about more and that should be addressed.

Even with these issues, because you don’t have these voices, you get these sanitized and distant analyses of what are going on because you are talking just about laws. You are talking just about policy and whether things are being followed, like rules or guidelines. That’s an easy way to get lost.

KHALEK: Or, it’s being framed like, is this good for the United States? Which is fine if you want to talk about it like that but when the conversation is so disconnected and sanitized that way—or I guess I would call it anti-septic really—is you end up—No one’s talking about the human impact. It’s almost as though you’re talking about tort reform. You might as well be talking about something as tort reform and as disconnected from human emotion as that because the problem is that war is not.

War, drone strikes, occupation, colonization—These are issues that are so brutal and so violent and, when you have people writing about it who are so disconnected from it and have no relation whatsoever to it, suddenly it becomes this privileged elite debate. It totally misses the context and has no nuance in it and it’s really upsetting, especially for someone like me who has family in the Middle East and who sympathizes with people in that area. Obviously, people in that area, I can relate. For someone like me, I see that and it’s disgusting.

It just feels like people who look like me, who live abroad, are not seen as fully human, and that really bothers me.

And one example I want to work in here before we wrap was just that anybody who tuned into “Democracy Now!” yesterday (December 18) on the ASA boycott, and it was between two older white men (academics), who were talking about an Asian American caucus that advanced a measure on behalf of a Palestinian cultural boycott measure that they wanted to adopt.

Then, to add here, going into 2014, any of these media organization, including new ones that might be launching, could actually go to this #NotYourNarrative hashtag and probably find a good number of journalists to consider hiring.

KHALEK: I totally agree. One of the common pushbacks I got was, ‘Oh, maybe there aren’t any journalists speaking on this stuff and that’s why.’ And I am like no there’s so many and they were all tweeting on this hashtag.

I’ll make a list. Any organizations who would like to hire ground journalists, I’m happy to make you a list of well-qualified articulate people, who would do a wonderful job covering these issues.

GOSZTOLA: Excellent. Thank you. Why don’t you give people the title of this article that can be found at Electronic Intifada? And while we have a few seconds, what are a couple of organizations people should be reading?

KHALEK: The title is, “Does The Nation Magazine have a problem with Palestinians?” and the other question about organizations…

GOSZTOLA: Where can people go to read some journalism from brown people?

Right, brown people journalism. On the issues we talked about, Electronic Intifada is awesome. There’s actual Palestinians, who get to write there, who aren’t even American. There just Palestinians.

Also, Mondoweiss is wonderful. That’s one place I also go to for information on the area. And Jadaliyya is a great resource. And Muftah is really great. They are expanding their staff writers. They just hired David Sheen, who is this really awesome journalist who lives inside Israel and reports on African migrants—the situation with African migrants there, which is horrific. So that would be where I would recommend.

GOSZTOLA: Ok, thanks for joining me.

KHALEK: Thanks for having me, Kevin.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."