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‘Shabbat is my time for figuring out the world’: a Q/A with Robin Washington, our new Editor-at-Large

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Robin Washington in the radio studio.

Robin Washington in the radio studio. Courtesy of Twitter

Something different this week: a conversation with Robin Washington, the acclaimed journalist and advocate for Jews of Color who, as we announced this week, is our new Editor-at-Large. Robin is a an incredible writer, editor, documentarian, thinker, talker, teacher and mentor, and I’m so thrilled he has joined us.

This Q and A gives a glimpse at his wisdom and experience, his humor and his heart; you can also read his first column, on ‘the half-truth’ of the Chauvin trial, and his 1997 essay on being Black and Jewish, ‘A guy can be both.’

Me: How’d did you first get into journalism (and why’d you stay?)

He: I started writing poetry at 14 after falling in love with a classmate and deciding to write a manuscript to her. It didn’t work, but it led to being published in my high school literary magazine. That led to prose and eventually journalism, with nobody explaining the differences to me. I initially applied my poetry quirks to journalism, like never starting a poem with the word “I.” That didn’t work, but it did import a rhythm to my writing. My columns today are really poems in disguise.

What’s the best job you ever had? (And what about the worst?)

Unquestionably, the best was at the Boston Herald, which in the ’90s and early 2000s was a scrappy tabloid with a sense of humor. It also had honesty and the good sense not to take ourselves too seriously, a fault afflicting our rivals at the much larger Boston Globe. They’d pretend that we didn’t exist, even as we beat them on breaking-news stories.

Most rewarding was writing the Herald’s transportation column, the “Roads Scholar.” I’d hear commuters’ complaints, check them out personally, and write them up, beating the hell out of officials. The best thrill I’ve ever had was sitting incognito on the subway, watching a couple reading my column, and hearing them say, “Hey — they fixed those doors!” You can only dream of regularly effecting positive change like that.

The best thrill I’ve ever had was sitting incognito on the subway, watching a couple reading my column, and hearing them say, “Hey — they fixed those doors!”

The worst job was my second — three months at a dying advertising agency in Chicago; Jewish-owned, interestingly. I misunderstood my position and pay rate, but even those were lessons I took with me, and I learned how to write an ironclad purchase order.

You were one of the first people to ever talk/write about Jews of Color, back in the 1990s. Talk a bit about how things have changed in terms of race within the Jewish community since then — and what has not changed.

I can’t remember ever not talking about it. One of my first significant pieces came in 1987, when I was assigned by NPR to interview Julius Lester about his re-writing of the “Tales of Brer Rabbit” from a Black perspective. He began by saying he taught “in Afro-American and Judaic Studies” at UMass Amherst. When I asked if that was one department, he answered smugly, “No, they’re separate. I’m Jewish.”

“Well, so am I!” I replied, and we agreed I needed to come back, this time with TV cameras for WGBH. This was right as “Lovesong,” his conversion story, was coming out.

I first used the term “Jew of color” in an essay for Ishmael Reed’s anthology, “MultiAmerica,” published in 1997. It’s the earliest use I’ve found of the phrase, though Shahanna McKinney of the Midwest Jewish diversity collaborative Edot says she’s the first to use “Jews of color,” in 2001. I’ll happily give her credit for pluralizing it, since that’s what we’re all about.

You’ve worked at an African-American weekly, the Bay State Banner, run a metro daily, the Duluth News Tribune, and now are joining the leading American Jewish journalism outlet. How do the ethnic and mainstream press work differently for the stuff you care about?

I’m an incurable mainstream journalist, meaning the point of media to me is to reach the broadest number of people possible with whatever your message is. That sometimes is most effective by tailoring that message to a specific audience, where you can use idioms to express ideas and save time by not having to explain basics, like what “home-training” or “dayenu” mean.

Make no mistake: My journalism, aggregately, has all been about advocating for good,

At the same time, I write assuming anyone may be reading my work. I remember a Chicago Tribune piece that said something like “When we see Black youth on the El with a boombox, we are afraid.” Well, who’s we? Did whoever edited that consider the reader might be a Black youth on the El?

Make no mistake: My journalism, aggregately, has all been about advocating for good, meaning constructive societal norms and social justice, and I don’t see any conflict with that and journalistic objectivity. Of course I report on bad news and horrific events, but I hope I do so with humanity toward repairing the world.

This may be a bit of inside-journalism gallows humor, but as an editor, I always direct my crime reporters to interview the grandmother of any murder suspect. She can always be relied on to say something positive about the accused and often, she’s the only one who will. I can’t tell you how many crime stories only report the police’s side in the initial stories. You can’t tell me that doesn’t bias a case. 

Back to the Black and Jewish press — I’ve reported the same story for both, and again for the mainstream press. It’s actually fun rewriting the lede to substitute bima for pulpit, and sometimes keeping the idioms regardless of audience to teach readers and bring them along.

What should Forward readers be looking for under your byline?
  I have a philosophy I developed in my stints as a columnist and opinion editor that I call “TOTS,” which is that good commentary should either Teach, express Outrage, cause the reader to Think, or forge a Solution — and preferably, more than one of those. 

My columns have a trademark of light humor and irony through which I try to convey these TOTS, but I also specialize in serious work based on empirical research. A good example is the diversity study I did last year of the boards of directors of member groups of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. It found only two Black Jews among more than 2,000 board members of 51 groups.

The accompanying column called that completely unacceptable given that the lowest estimate of America’s Black Jewish population is 2 percent, and that these groups were issuing statements decrying racism without looking in their own houses.

I’m happy to report tremendous progress as a direct result of that piece, and I’m hearing about numerous Jews of Color — highly qualified people, I would add — being appointed to major Jewish boards and others hired as staffers. This is the change my career has been all about.

Duluth, Minnesota, is not the first place people think of for either Black or Jewish communal life — its 85,000 people include fewer than 2,000 Blacks and 1,000 Jews. How’d you end up there and why’d you stay?

The warmest synagogue I ever found, in one of the coldest places in the world.

My trajectory is Chicago — multiple generations on both sides of my family — to Minnesota, where I ran a small-town paper near Duluth in 1986, then Boston for a fellowship at WGBH and 17 years at nearly all the major media outlets, and back to Duluth for what became a decade in the top management of the daily paper.

What also brought me back was the little shul, Temple Israel, which made a profound impact on me during my first sojourn there. After I left, I was on BET in 1991, calling it the “warmest synagogue I ever found, in one of the coldest places in the world.” It still is.

What is it like right now, as a Black man living in Minnesota. to be watching Derek Chauvin on trial for killing George Floyd — and then it happens again: Daunte Wright shot dead by a police officer.

It may sound callous to say so, but these horrific acts haven’t moved the needle on my life much at all. I’ve always been aware of the audacity of daring to be breathing while Black.

If there was a moment that shocked me into consciousness, it was when I was 16, in the vacant lot two doors down from my house, where two cops appeared in front of me and yelled “Freeze!” Being a goody-two-shoes and usually the one calling the police, I didn’t know what they were talking about and kept walking, right toward them. One crouched down, gun aimed straight at me and yelled it again. It finally sank in that the next step would be my last.

The biggest thing about George Floyd, z”l, for Black people is that white people finally know what we’ve been talking about.

I obeyed, though kept protesting. They finally decided I wasn’t whoever they were looking for and let me go, but it’s informed the way I behave around cops ever since.

That said, I’m rarely stopped, in part I’m sure because of my complexion, but mostly because I deliberately avoid any unnecessary risk. My wife, who’s Chinese American and who would until the current anti-Asian hate streak play the cute Chinese girl card, would eat a candy bar in a store before getting to the register to pay for it.

“Cut that s—- out!” I’d tell her. “You’ll get us killed — or me.”

The biggest thing about George Floyd, z”l, for Black people is that white people finally know what we’ve been talking about. I thought they would get the message with Walter Scott, where the video indisputably shows the cops planting the TASER on him after they shot him in the back, or Sandra Bland, whose entirely pointless traffic stop certainly should have made her someone anyone could identify with. But better 400 years late than never, I guess.

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday or food?

My former wife and I had heated rows over our family charoset recipes, with mine including raisins that she said were anathema. My German Jewish ancestors looked down on her Polish and Russian Jewish forebears, so of course I dismissed hers as low-class.

Shabbat is my time for figuring out the world. I’ll let you know when I’ve succeeded.

It was horrible mushy stuff, and mine was a main side dish everybody loved. Years later, I wondered where the recipe came from and tried to trace it. 

What makes Saturday Shabbat for you?

I keep kosher but I’m not quite shomer Shabbos; still, I try not to do Jewish work on Shabbat, which just doesn’t feel right. But I’m always working things over in my mind. Shabbat is my time for figuring out the world. I’ll let you know when I’ve succeeded.

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