When White Women Magazines Disregard Indigenous Women Of Color

We have to make a commitment to stop this cycle.

This is a two-part post. First, this post will lay out the specific incident that sparked a dialogue around these issues and also contains my perspective as a white cis queer disabled woman who tries to be an ally to women of color, including Indigenous women and Black women. The second piece (but not second in importance) is a statement from Lenore “Lee” Dingus, a Pittsburgh based Seneca woman and community leader, whom I approached for a comment. With her consent, I’ve publisher her statement in its entirety both on my blog and as part of this post.

Lee specifically mentions this week’s actions in DC including the march planned for March 10, 2017. So I urge you to read both components in light of that larger picture.

(Please be sure to read Part Two.)

Original logo and name for Pittsburgh based women’s networking event organized by Whirl Magazine.
Original logo and name for Pittsburgh based women’s networking event organized by Whirl Magazine.

As I understand it, this is how events unfolded in Pitsburgh recently.

  1. Whirl Magazine co-founder Christine McMahon Tumpson announced a networking event scheduled for April 4, 2017 at Three Rivers Casino. The event was titled “POW WOW” and was branded as you can see in the image above.
  2. Local indigenous and native women objected. Whirl issued a statement explaining that the acronym was not intentionally referencing native cultures. Comments questioning the veracity of that claim where removed from the Facebook event page. Other comments asking about the erased comments have remained on the event.
  3. People defending the event, Whirl and McMahon Tumpson have stated repeatedly that she is not a racist person.
  4. Native women and other WOC and white allies have called for Whirl to take more steps to address the concerns.

I don’t know what the event organizers intended when they used this branding, but it does seem that if there was no one involved who caught on to the problem - they must be woefully uninformed about current events. Never before in my life (I’m 46) have I been presented with such intense scrutiny and coverage of Indigenous American culture as these past months due to Standing Rock. The story was front and center for months, even still garnering headlines last week as the camp was dismantled.

Before attending law school, Ms. McMahon Tumpson was an assignment editor at KDKA TV. I don’t know what sort of assignments she managed, but it is fair to assume that she’s familiar with the big stories of the day. And KDKA has covered this story pretty thoroughly as has every local major media outlet. I mention KDKA in particular because of her work history there and the close ties between the station and Whirl magazine.

So if take Whirl at face value and believe that they didn’t see the problems with the event, that’s a pretty troubling reflection on their current events literacy. But given that they now understand the concerns, it seems fair to expect them to work overtime to acknowledge and undo the damage.  In other words, to expect them to say “We screwed this up and we should have known better” rather than “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

This is the part where Pittsburgh white women seem to be stuck in a rinse & repeat cycle. We screw something up, women of color help us understand how that happened, and we reject their feedback. We are masters of the non-apology with heaping side dishes of denial, avoidance and silencing tactics.

Whirl apologized, but did not take ownership of the mistake. They did change the name of the event. What’s yet to be addressed is undoing the damage caused.

Some native women, including Lenore Dingus, have suggested the magazine or event organizers make a financial donation to an indigenous program. That’s a generous and reasonable request. It hasn’t seemed to sink in yet, so I’m going to flex some ally muscles here and give the folks at Whirl a list of other suggestions on how they can salvage this scenario to everyone’s benefit.

  • Hire a FT creative staff member who is part of the native community. Bring their vision to the table of the publication.
  • Create a paid internship/externship for local native young women who are interested in media and communications careers. Work with an existing group to get that in place.
  • Devote a full feature to local native American cultures. Talk with artists, entrepreneurs, professionals, community groups, Conflict Kitchen and more. Not just the History Center, but the denizens of contemporary culture.
  • Bring a local person who is part of the native American community onto the Whirl board of directors.
  • Explore white feminism. I know that would be a huge risk, especially among conservative women and advertisers, but the right person could find a solid angle and do some good work. Look at what Teen Vogue is doing!  If not white feminism, then white privilege.

But we also have to make a commitment to stop this cycle. We are causing pain to women of color, including black women here in our hometown and beyond. We are consuming their energy that could be better invested in their already existing community work. We are making the same mistakes over and over again.

I am not going to say Christine McMahon Tumpson is a racist and only in some part because she’s a lawyer. I don’t know her heart and I have no idea what happened during the planning of this event. I can only make conclusions based on her actions and her public statements. But this is the message I wrote to her over the weekend on a discussion thread that has since been deleted

Christine, I’m unsure how any white cis woman can claim to be the furthest thing from a racist. As white women, we have absolutely benefitted from and supported racism. There’s no white person alive who is the furthest from racism. You might be a great person, but it’s important to acknowledge how racism and white privilege manifests in our lives, especially systemically. You made a serious error and have a responsibility to own up, fix it and offset the damage. I don’t think that’s happened. There’s a lot WHIRL can do to be proactive, but I strongly urge you to avoid Wendy Bell’s mistakes and take a better path. Schedule anti-racism workshops in-house, write about the work of indigenous women in this region, etc. You can do better than she did.

Why the Wendy Bell reference? Because earlier in the week, it came to light that Point Park University has asked her to keynote a social media conference, a decision met with backlash by students and alumni. Bell has since stepped down and replaced with a panel led by Tony Norman, a local black male columnist and editor with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. To best explain the Wendy Bell situation, I defer to the writings of Pittsburgh based Damon Young at his blog Very Smart Brothas.

See what I mean about rinse and repeat? Pittsburgh is awash in nice affluent white lady media figures, but sorely lacking in Elsie Hillmans.

I could make a list of examples of getting it wrong of late.

  1. Point Park University invites Wendy Bell to keynote a social media conference a year after she lost her job for racialized elements in her social media content.
  2. White Democrat men rally behind white Democrat man to replace Natalia Rudiak on City Council, reducing women’s voice at the table by 25% and still say they think more women should run for office (???). Oh, and his opponent is a more qualified white woman.
  3. Women’s March on Washington exposing the lack of intersectionality among local feminists
  4. Planned Parenthood Counterprotest spearheaded by cis het men.
  5. Indivisible Pittsburgh organizing meeting bringing further exposure to the rift between two Pittsburghs

The Whirl situation is not an isolated event. I suspect white women in Pittsburgh are not paying attention and keep stepping into the same mistakes because our organizing foundation is not solid.

I predict this will continue for the foreseeable future. Everyone feels they are at least partially right in these situations and there’s that phrase ‘good intentions’ bandied about to the point that it deserves mention in the Pittsburghese dictionary. The disparity in resources, the influence of socially conservative faith communities and fiscally conservative corporateers, the dearth of independent media and the simple fact that most Pittsburgh residents couldn’t tell you a single fact about the indigenous residents of this region gives me a less than hopeful point of view.

So I reached out to Lenora Dingus, a local Seneca woman for her thoughts. She graciously sent them to me and I opted to publish them under separate cover as well as below so they are not lost in my own framing of the situation.  Please read her feedback. I think you might find some hope there.

I do hope Whirl proves all of us wrong and takes solid, dramatic action to repair the damage that they’ve perpetuated. It is within their power to do so. They just have to be willing to ask and listen.


Statement From Lenore “Lee” Dingus, Seneca and Co-founder of Echoes of the Four Directions

As part of my earlier post, I reached out to several local women in the native community. This is a response from one woman - she offered it to me as a quote, but I thought her comments warranted their own post  and she agreed to let me publish in their entirety ~ Sue

Submitted by Lenora “Lee” Dingus, Seneca, Co founder Echoes of the Four Directions
Until this past weekend, I have to confess I have never heard of the Whirl Magazine. I do not live a sheltered life. I am very involved in and around Pittsburgh most of life. I have especially involved with Indigenous Women, and Women of Color in general. I am retired from the Federal Government and worked within the government and a variety of agencies and was always on the special emphases committees I chaired the Pittsburgh Federal Executive Boards Native American Heritage Committee for over 20 years, and was involved with the Black, Hispanic, Women’s and LGBT, and other programs. I currently work for an International Company, called Pearson which where I am a Diversity and Inclusion advocate, in addition to being a full time Test Center Manager. On a more personal level I am Seneca women that in conjunction with my husband Earl, who is Cherokee, conduct programs on Native American interests and concerns from preschool to college level and to other organizations as well. I am also an adjunct professor for CCAC where I co teach a Native American History course with Earl. So I still am involved within their programs and do feel I have a good pulse on what is going on in and around the city and a good pulse as to what is happening in “Indian Country”. I am also a traditional Seneca artist, I do bead work, quill work, as well as traditional drums, rattles, shawls and more.
A friend of mine forward the post from Whirl where this was a discussion thread about the inappropriate use of the word Pow Wow in describing a conference that was being held by the magazine.
I have to admit I was both surprised and not surprised at the same time. But that happens to us a lot. Just when I think we have come along way with racism, I am always slapped in the face with a not so subtle reminder that racism is alive and well. This one was a bit more muted then most, but still I was surprised. After I digested it a bit and did some research on Whirl, I honestly was not surprised. I looked at their headliner articles listed on the site and there were very few articles about any people of color, women or men. I saw couple of well know Steelers, and a musician interviews, but that was all.
I have to honest. I felt most of articles were “fluff”. They were put in there my writers that really do not have a pulse on the city, but think they do. They didn’t cover the wonderful initiative by conflict kitchen that just passed, featuring Haudenosaunee food. The articles focused on successful people, but no successful people of color for the most part. It seemed like they were reaching out into the suburbs and ignoring the city itself and all the color of the city and the people who are in it.
I was interested in the magazines objective to bring women together to support and help each other in a non political environment. I honestly can’t wrap my head around how any women’s magazine in this current climate cannot be political; especially if you care about, all people, the environment our Turtle Island and all the lives here, the winged, four-footed and that crawl and all our brothers and sisters. You don’t have to be in your face shouting out politics. If you have a compassion for the world we are in today, you have to be a bit political. Supporting importance social causes should be in their objectives if they want to be taken seriously.
I feel that the magazine really only gave us lip service when I messaged them this past week-end. I see “Pow Wow” is still listed on their home page. They only did a small step to change and correct the mess they started with this insensate name. They didn’t give a bit of thought to it. They did not even ask why we were offended by it. That would have been a good step to educate them selves as to why it was wrong. It was interested that they deleted some to of the initial comments made on the post. I was raised that your own you mistake, you don’t make them go away. They are not owing their mistake. They have not made any effort to be inclusive of Indigenous women or any Women of Color after this blunder. I tried to be the voice of reason on the posts that were appears on their page and giving them room to make changes. I have given them many changes. They have not reached out. It appears as of now I made a mistake. We are the invisible people of the city, yet we are part of the fiber and culture of the city. You would think they would be reaching out. I would be.
I am very sorry to say that I got no response when I asked them to put their money where their mouth is. I did not say you have to give to this place or that place. I just made a suggestion based on current events that I would have thought someone at Whirl would have been aware of. The upcoming March in Washington DC on March 10 is so important to all of us not just Indigenous people. With out water there will no life. I truly thought that they would be more awareness of the efforts that are going on right now in regards to the DAPL and even more awareness since it has coverage everyday, somewhere. Sadly my experience is that they (most people) think it does not effect them, since they are more affluent and not people of color, it does not really matter to them. Maybe they think, gee I still can just go to the store and buy water if my water get contaminated. You would be surprised at how many people do think that, and do not realize that the spills will contaminate our food sources, our land. We are all connected. No one is thinking about the next seven generations when they make decisions, not our politicians for sure. And now appears not our own white sisters in Pittsburgh. don’t care or are not thinking. They need to move out of their comfort zone and be more inclusive.
If they truly do not want to “rinse and repeat” and they want to help all women, not just the well off successful women that they seem to write the most about.
Indigenous women have always been at the forefront of our people. Perhaps they could learn a lesson for that. We could help them archive their goals. We have been there and done that for over 500 years. We have much wisdom and insight into this.
To learn more about the March 10 March on Washington, please click here.