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Lori Lakin Hutcherson publishes Good Black News
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Lori Lakin Hutcherson publishes Good Black News
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Lori Lakin Hutcherson publishes Good Black News
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"It is spreading like wildfire, the notion of otherness, of xenophobia, homophobia. The lid is off the can of worms now. And there are no blinders any more to it. Good-natured white America can't not see it anymore."
Conversations
18 January 2018

Lori Lakin Hutcherson publishes Good Black News

Interview by Eleanor Jackson
Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

Eleanor Jackson on meeting Lori Lakin Hutcherson...

Lori Lakin Hutcherson and I meet with generosity, if not convenience. It’s her lunch hour and the sunrise is just tinging my apartment with light. Despite the lack of synchronicity in our days, the conversation is warm and big hearted, and it’s not just the early hour that brings me close to tears as we discuss her life, work and extraordinary spirit.

I first encountered Lori’s writing via a post that went viral titled, “What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege.” In it, she responds to a friend’s “public, direct question” about privilege with a deeply personal and moving account of her life-long experiences of racism—experiences that ultimately led the Harvard-educated film and television writer/producer to create goodblacknews.org, an award-winning website which showcases positive new stories from within the black community. Founded in 2010, after a conversation with a friend highlighted the dearth of news sites focused on the strengths and achievements of black people, goodblacknews.org is a wellspring of narratives that counterposes media stereotypes of black communities while critically engaging with issues of race, class, discrimination and social justice. The fact that it does so with a sense of resilience and openness to dialogue is a testament to Lori herself.

Passionate and articulate, Lori embodies a way of being in the world that is rarely seen but desperately needed. This is not the chirpy, mindless optimism that comes from “always looking on the bright side of life,” but rather an attitude of resolve founded in positivity but undergirded by intellect and will. As we talk, I am reminded Lori is first and foremost a writer, a person who knows stories matter—that they hold the power to expand our imaginations and, in turn, our realities. The better the stories we can tell about each other, the better the lives we can lead. All this in the course of a lunch hour.

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

ELEANOR JACKSON: Thanks for fitting me into your lunch break. I can tell from your CV it’s not easy to jam in time like this. So what’s a typical day like for you? Do you squeeze in conversations with people in Australia all the time?

LORI LAKIN HUTCHERSON: No! Rarely! But I’m very happy to do it because Good Black News has ended up being the biggest unexpected blessing of my life. I had no intention of creating it when I did. It just happened and it didn’t stop. And it’s led me to moments like this, which I have to always say “yes” to and make time for because

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

it’s almost as if I’m meant to do this. And I don’t mean that in any kind of egotistical way. The idea landed, I heard it, I did it.

And it didn’t let go of me and I didn’t let go of it. And as somebody who has always seen myself as a very private person—you know, I’m a writer, I like the distance between me and the world, I like to think and observe—speaking or presenting myself as a story is not something I’ve ever wanted to do, but now I find myself in the position of doing it for a cause that means a lot to me and is more than me. So that’s why I make time for this in my lunch break. Not a typical day at all! But I’m embracing it and enjoying it and appreciating it.

[Laughs]. I’ve read a bit about that inception point for Good Black News, but I would love to hear it from you. Was the desire to create this platform simmering around in the background for a while? Or was it really that single incident of saying, “How do I share this positive story? Where is it? Why is Google failing me?”

Yes, I would say that was the moment of inspiration to do it, several years ago realising there was no positive news platform for the black community. But since then, my sister who works with me as lifestyle editor, Lesa Lakin, she reminded me when we were kids we used to pretend we had a newspaper and I was the editor and she was the feature writer. We were inspired by an episode of the Brady Bunch, where Peter Brady became “Scoop Brady.” And I loved being able to create content, put it together. So when I went to school—junior high, high school—I’d always participate in the paper. In college, I wrote for my college paper, “The Harvard Crimson.” I just didn’t pursue journalism professionally because I felt like I wanted to tell scripted stories. Journalism was nice, it was something I did in school, but I was never going to own a paper. And back then, there was no blogosphere, there was no meaningful way to self-publish. So I guess it’s something that’s always been part of me and something I’ve been interested in but not in any kind of real way until the technology and the idea came together literally in that moment when I’m working with the author Terry McMillan, and her publisher encouraged her to embrace social media, as they do most writers now. And then this “Good Black News” idea came up. And it was like, “I literally can do this every day and I like doing it, I like these stories, I like this and, wait a minute, people are following me who aren’t even my friends. What’s happening?” At the time, I was working on a television show called “Single Ladies,” it was a full-time writing job, and I had two children under five. I didn’t mean to create it! Days would pass where I wouldn’t post anything but then someone would Facebook Messenger me and say, “Thank you for what you’re doing. I sent this to my son. He needs to know this history.” And that feedback from complete strangers kept me going because it takes 15 minutes of my day and it’s servicing a need.

I envy it takes 15 minutes in your day. I’m so impressed at how efficient you must be!

It used to! That was when I was just literally scouring the internet trying to find stories and linking them to the Facebook page. It was before I built it in to a dedicated website, spread it across social media and started writing original pieces for it.

Okay. It looks a lot more than 15 minutes a day now!

Yeah, now it’s definitely much more of a commitment. But again it’s personal, it’s on my terms, I actually love that. It’s the first time I’ve had a job where I have complete control.

It’s empowering as a woman, it’s empowering as a person of colour, it’s empowering personally to be, like, "This is my editorial philosophy,"

‘cause I’ve been challenged many times. I’ve been doing this for about six years now. And I’ve had plenty of hurdles. I would post stories about LGBTQI people doing positive things and have readers write in and say they’re going to hell, you’re going to hell, all that stuff. And I was like, “Dude, leave my page.” I can continue to do what I do and I can continue to believe what I believe is positive. And to see that change over six years from people literally leaving the site and threatening it, to stories becoming so well loved and liked, and seeing the voice of opposition silenced because it’s not acceptable anymore to hate people simply because of their sexual orientation. I saw that change. I don’t know where it’s going to go now, but I’m proud. I didn’t have any sponsors, I didn’t have any advertisers, I didn’t have anybody to be responsible to except for what I felt was the best fit for my editorial philosophy. So that was very freeing. I put up stories that a lot of African-American sites won’t put up because there’s a lot of homophobia in the community. So even though I’m pretty much mainstream news, I can bring in the things that are less mainstream and put them into the same philosophy and hopefully help change people’s attitudes.

I love that story about starting your newspaper as a child. It’s really interesting you’re harking back to the Brady Bunch, which at the time were the quintessential white family. It’s a poignant reminder of just how little diversity there was in the media. Do you see things like YouTube and its individual channels, the really diverse explosion of media, as a positive? Because certainly it also means the alt-right can set up a website in just as much time. How do you respond to that diversity of media and the democratisation of technology?

I wouldn’t want to limit it. It’s caused too much positive change. I don’t think the Supreme Court declares that same-sex marriage is legal without the social media messaging and connections that occur before that. Because your group of friends may be more diverse than another group of friends, but they see through social media and they start to read and they start to humanise a lot of people that they may not ever have contact with. And I feel like all the things that happened in the Middle East in regards to Arab Spring, it’s been such a tool for positive political change, and of course the other has the opportunity to occur as well. But I wouldn’t want to limit it. I wouldn’t at this point because it’s created too much opportunity for people who are undervalued and under-served to get their voices out there. Without that, you don’t see these cases of police brutality that are so blatantly happening.

I’m just remembering of one of my favourite pieces of academic research, which was by a group of Maori researchers. Rather than taking a deficit-based approach of, “How many people have diabetes? How many people are in lower socio-economic tiers? How many people fit into these marginalised categories?” they were looking at reasons why Maori people have the highest level of PhD attainment in any First Nations people in the world. It was such an incredible re-framing of this vibrant, powerful, resilient community that has skills we’re all going to need to learn from. Is that the reader response that you hope for with Good Black News?

In the past week a woman wrote me, telling me she was of Asian descent. She lived in a diverse community but then married a man, lived in Vermont, and was surrounded by white people. And even though she’s faced discrimination based on her ethnicity, she felt herself falling into step with the mindset of a lot of these people that she was around in this monolithic community—to the point where she was starting to get afraid of black people every time she saw them. And she said she didn’t used to be that way, so she wanted to do something about it. And among those things she found my site, and literally gave herself the assignment of reading it every day. And she was writing to thank me for how it helped her see that her prejudices were based on fallacy. And that she doesn’t feel them anymore. Now she doesn’t feel the same trepidation when she sees black people. And she realises how you can get trapped in a mindset in a community and you have to do something to break out of it. And when I get messages like that I know I’m doing the right thing. I know putting this out there this way is worth it, ’cause it’s a struggle. It’s really a struggle sometimes when my editorial philosophy is “always be positive” when there’s so much negativity happening. But trying to reframe things, like you just said about that study, has been an awesome challenge. Because how do I write about the massacre in Charleston? How do I write about this election? How do I talk about the divisiveness that’s happening in the country positively? And acknowledge what’s negative, but see what the positive actions are? So

that’s tended to be my formula if I do have to tackle something that’s really dark and difficult—"What’s our way out of this?” And that’s how anybody heals from anything negative—to try to find the light. So I think re-framing is incredibly important.

I just read a story on a site called “The Root,” which is exactly what I thought would happen, a lot of African-Americans are buying guns now. People are starting to arm themselves. They are afraid. And it’s completely understandable but it’s a negative reaction based on a negative situation. And other than people possibly defending themselves if they are attacked, there’s nothing positive that’s going to come out of that. It’s not like somebody would have bought that gun anyway. This is literally a reaction to fear. And what I feel would work best is to organise talks, stand up, stand out. To me, the armour that we all need is a phone, capturing what people are doing and saying and posting—it seems to be doing better to stop people right now than if you actually shot them. I don’t know if you’re on Pantsuit Nation or if you follow Pantsuit Nation at all, these stories post-election have been touching me more than any others before the election because people are now calling it out. You know? It is spreading like wildfire, the notion of otherness, of xenophobia, homophobia. The lid is off the can of worms now. And there are no blinders anymore to it. Good-natured white America can’t not see it anymore. And I understand the freak out, I do—a lot of black and brown people have been very well aware of that portal to hell and crossed and traversed through it many a time. So I understand how it’s affecting that community. But now it’s affecting it to the point of action. And every time I read a story, the man in the grocery store said this, and I confronted him. My family did this, I wouldn’t sit there anymore. I’m like, “Finally!”

You wrote so eloquently before the election about what you wanted to tell your children about their next president, hoping it would be someone doing their best to strengthen the country and create better opportunities by valuing and respecting women, the LGBTIQ community, people with disabilities, people of colour, diverse religious beliefs. How have the last few weeks been for you?

Well, you know, incredibly difficult. A week before the election, I happened to be jogging and I saw Danny our pool guy’s car had a bumper sticker that said “Hillary Clinton 2016.” I was like, “Really?” I was surprised. I got a little bit closer and it said, “Hillary Clinton for Prison 2016.” And I was like, “Oh! Okay. I’m having a moment here, but you know what? Those are his political beliefs. It has nothing to do with the job that he’s doing. I’m going to just let that go, we’ll see how things shake out the next week.” Well, we know what happened the next week. Just so happened my credit card was stolen and I had to give my new credit card to Danny. I did not want to go out there and talk to him that Friday after the election. But I had to because I owed him money. And he brought it up. He actually brought up the protestors here in Los Angeles, a lot of marching downtown, all that stuff. And he just started talking about how it didn’t seem to make any sense and how they’re being cry-babies. And I said to him, “Look, I actually agree that stopping traffic on the freeway isn’t the best way to make your point. But you have to understand why they’re protesting because literally in the last three days Muslim women wearing hijabs have been attacked and had them pulled off of their heads and been held down, people have been painting swastikas.” And he said, “Really? I hadn’t heard any of that.” Because the news sources that he taps into are not covering any of that. And we ended up having an hour-and-a-half-long conversation and later he texted me: “Our conversation was very profound,” because I helped him see things that he didn’t see. The thing that doesn’t get focused on enough is that we are all victims of this system including white people who are racist. They were brought up and taught this system. And even when I see stories of people who got fired from their jobs for posting racist things or saying racist things, I’m like, “Well, what happens to them?” They’re more mad and they go onto another job and maybe they keep their mouth shut, but they’re still racist. If they were alcoholic they’d be offered a 12-step treatment program. If they had anger issues they’d be offered anger management. But nobody offers racial sensitivity training for somebody who has perpetrated something incredibly racist. It’s like, “Oh well those are a few bad eggs. But nobody’s really racist in America! It’s not a racist system! It’s not systemic!” And people are now finally waking up and realising no, this is everywhere. It’s been everywhere since it was created 400 years ago. Because it was a creation. Racism is a creation.

So me having this conversation with him was really great because it helped me realise that one of the things I wanted to do, as angry as I am, is not cut people off. You need access into my life and my world, and I need access into yours, and we need to find common ground here before this gets too crazy. We have more in common in that he was worried about his kids and their education. I’m worried about my kids and their education. We have so much in common but that gets pushed to the side because we’re on this polar political spectrum. And we may remain on the polar political spectrum but we need to get back to being able to agree to disagree. Because

you’ve been brought up in a racist system, I’ve been brought up in a racist system, and we both have to work together to change that for future generations. So, after the election, how I feel is it’s even more imperative to reach out and try to bridge gaps. Because there’s no way one side can beat the other.

Not without mutually assured destruction.

Exactly. Exactly. We’re talking “end game” at this point and I don’t want to get to that point!

As you were describing that interaction, I was really struck by the word “grace.” It’s that sense of courteous goodwill and generosity, and something you seem to be so capable of doing. Even in your editorial where you shared with your friend your experience of white privilege. How do you find that grace to engage every day with Good Black News?

Thank you Eleanor for feeling that. I think it’s a conscious effort. I’m 47 years old and I’ve gone through my wild black-and-white phase of “This is right! This is wrong!” in college. I’ve gone through so many iterations of being outraged or upset or depressed or cynical that what I’ve realised is, that doesn’t work! [Laughs]. What works is trying to find a level of truth in commonality and trying to explore and express that. And particularly raising my children—my son Xavier is about to be 10, he has special needs. And there was a time when we didn’t even know he was going to survive. So that levelled me in a way I couldn’t imagine. Like one, I had never experienced anything like that before. And two, when he did survive, the operating principle for us and him and his life became faith. It was just, I want him to survive, I don’t care what kind of challenges we’re going to have. He’s too important a person and soul to me even though he’s only a day old. It was like being hit with that: “How do I feel so much for this one person in this moment and I don’t even know him yet? But I know him.” And it extended from there.

And I’m completely flawed, I’m completely human, I completely lose my temper and all that. But I’m aware particularly when I’m in a situation like when I got my friend’s post about white privilege. And I read it, my first thought was irritation, but my second thought was opportunity. You know what? If this is a sincere question I’m going to try to answer it sincerely. Because it’s too important of a topic to blow off. And I had no idea my response would become what it became. I had no idea it would go viral. I had no idea what it would lead to. But I’m so glad I honoured that, and I mean it’s hard to take in the thought that I’m a graceful person, but I do know I consciously try to not stop at the surface level of snarkiness or mockery, as fun as that is, or sarcasm, and get to the root of what’s going on. I realised that if I have something to offer, I want people to have it.

The one thing I’ve learned about raising kids is, you are just offering your knowledge.

You’re trying to protect them, you’re trying to help them make good decisions, you’re trying to help them become independent and have their minds be open and receptive and creative. And how is that ever going to happen or flourish if all you do is criticise, snark, command, control? So like I said, it is a challenge. It’s not not a challenge. But it’s one that I try to honour.

As an Asian Australian, I think of hope and joy and celebration and laughter as acts of political resistance. Particularly if you are a member of a community that is described as being a problem, or negative, or without hope, if you can demonstrate you’re actually a set of people who make stories and challenge those perceptions, that’s powerful. It is really an act of political resistance to experience joy, make music, play, write poetry. All of those things are the inexpressible resistance of spirit. You must do that too in your work as a writer for television and for film. What is the power of those mediums for you?

I’d say the power is, and I never really consciously thought about it until I started Good Black News, the power is political and social. It really is. The show I worked on called “Single Ladies” which was about women in their thirties in beautiful clothes running around trying to find a man, that was the surface, but deeper than that was, “What are the stories we could tell about friendship, what are the stories we could tell about love, what are the stories we could tell about betrayal, what are the stories we could tell about sexism?” We thought a lot more consciously about the kind of stories we were trying to tell. And it triggered in me, not that I haven’t always thought about these things, but often times when you’re learning writing, you’re young, you’re coming up, you’re learning a lot about a lot. Structure, production, all these things. And you’re not necessarily thinking as deeply about content as I am today. And to me the opportunity to explore something revolutionary in a context that people are going to just be completely receptive to because it’s a familiar form, is so exciting. Because they see an actor that they like, they see a genre that they like—romantic comedy, action—and then you start putting stuff in there to make them think or that you think is worth thinking about, or that you want to explore.

And if you hit the mark, you open doors for people that they didn’t necessarily know they needed to open, or that were even there. When people read an article in the New Yorker or New York Times or the Atlantic, they know they’re getting ready to get information and facts, and if they have a very gifted writer they’ll be touched as they’re reading it. But people are reading for information, when they read that stuff. When people sit down in front of their television or they pay money for a film, they’re going there to be entertained. And so they’re so much more receptive to what they’re getting ready to experience. Because they’re not in their heads. They’re there to have an experience. It’s like this nice little sideway into people’s minds. And when you write and start making characters talk to each other and put them in situations, all of a sudden it’s exciting. It’s excruciating and exciting.

I wanted to ask about Hidden Figures, the film you’re working on, which looks amazing!

Yes it’s been a complete privilege to work on. I did a production polish on it and it is amazing. The timing couldn’t be better for this movie, I’m telling you. And my experience, even though I was only involved with it for a short period of time, was life-changing for me because what I had to offer was exactly who I am and what my experiences have been. Like, the way Hollywood works is obviously very different from running your own website and there’s a lot of people you have to please. There’s a lot less creative control unless you’re at a certain level. When you’re hired, you’re for hire, and literally, you’re given a set of notes and you’re expected to execute the notes. And hopefully satisfy the producers and executives. But the trick is to take those notes, even the ones that aren’t necessarily so great and find a way to address them while keeping the integrity of the story. So that can be so amazing and satisfying as well, it just doesn’t come daily. Anybody who’s worked in this industry knows that, like, those moments of “grace” as you say, they’re few and far between. But when they do happen, they’re like on eleven. They’re amazing. There’s no other feeling. So I would say for the long view that writing is more satisfying. But for daily, Good Black News is more satisfying!

When you talk about the Hollywood moment, I felt like your involvement in Hidden Figures was almost like a Hollywood moment in and of itself. As a Harvard-educated black woman you must have had that same experience as the characters, pulled over by the police and the police ask where they work, and they’re like, “We work at NASA!” It’s clear that moment of registered shock on the policeman’s face is an incident experienced by many black people who are trying to just live their lives. The characters are completely aligning with what Good Black News is doing. It’s a bit of a perfect storm!

Yeah! It’s pretty great. And there’s something I’m not talking about because it’s not finalised yet. But there’s another project that came out of that experience with a lot of the same people. I get to write it wholly and solely by myself and a lot of it is pretty much on theme of what you were saying. And that’s all I can say.

[Laughs]. That’s our scoop!

[Laughs]. When I got sent the Hidden Figures script to do this production re-write, it reminded me of the time when I was a Vice President at Fox. I was sitting in the president’s office and a producer came in, assumed I was an assistant, and asked me to get his coffee. That kind of thing happened to me all the time. And this blew the mind of the people I was talking to, the executives who were on Hidden Figures. And I’m like, “Oh don’t let me start talking about all the stuff that happened when I was an executive, who I was mistaken for, how I was disrespected, how somebody wanted to talk to my boss and not to me and wouldn’t take my call. This [points to her skin] hides you for some reason from people thinking that you have a brain or intelligence.

And it goes the other way where people are so shocked, they’re like, “You’re so articulate! You’re so special! You’re extra! You’re not like a regular black person!” And I say, “Oh I beg to disagree. Clearly you don’t know many black people because I’m pretty regular.” Intelligence is everywhere! It’s across every race, every sex! So

it’s one of those double-edged swords where you’re either super-over-appreciated for being just who you are, or nobody can believe that you actually possess the abilities that you possess based on your race.

And as a female, I’m assuming, ‘cause I’ve had a lot of white women have the same reaction to my white privilege piece where they completely related to it based on sexism. Anytime you’re “other-ised” or you’re discounted based on some feature of yours, you experience this WTF constantly of, like, “Is this really happening? Why is this happening? This makes no sense. Why are you buying into this?” It’s like we said, it’s a social construct that’s been perpetuated and benefited who? White men.

We sometimes talk about a bamboo ceiling, a sense that you can rise to be a middle manager but you’re not going to be the CEO. I would just love to know what piece of good news has stayed with you?

I just posted a story, the story that’s up and sticky right now, which is about a male senior football player from Texas Christian University who just became a Rhodes Scholar. He grew up in Carson, California in one of the least safe neighbourhoods around, raised by a single mum, lots of brothers and sisters, and he was basically told you shouldn’t even try to go to college. Just try to find a job. Every discouraging thing possible happened to this kid. A friend emailed his story to me and I watched the video of him talk and he’s so bright. And with such a great heart. And I was so thrilled for him, this opportunity that he just acquired, that he earned. And I was also so scared for him. I’m like, “He’s walking around in complete danger every day.” He has dreadlocks, he’s big guy, he’s a big black man. And I just thought somebody could look at him and end him immediately and feel justified doing that because of their misperceived fears. So it’s a story that has me feeling both ways right now, which is like I love him, I love his story. I know these kinds of stories connect very well on my site, where people come from extenuatingly horrible circumstances, and it’s such an American story. Pull yourself up from your bootstraps! Use education to forward yourself! Go to another place with your life! That is the American way, and he’s done it, and he’s doing it. And to think because of his skin colour or because of his hair texture or because of his size people are going to see him as a threat and feel comfortable with that and okay with that. That’s who we have to fight against.

You don’t want to have to tell him to cut his hair and put a child’s toy in the back seat of his car.

Right. Exactly. No, what needs to happen is for people to see him as a person and be, “Hey there’s Caylin, he’s great, he’s going places.” Period, end of story. Doesn’t matter about his hair, his skin colour, his size, anything. And that’s the world I want to live in and that’s the world that I keep trying to let people know exists on my site. Exclusively. Because all the other stuff, we can find all the other madness someplace else. It’s a distraction from the larger issues at hand. And yeah, that one sticks with me. And [sighs]. I think the ones that stick with me the most are the kids who were homeless and that end up turning their lives around. Because the youth at risk is the scariest thing for me because they’re innocent. They come into this world and have been given a set of circumstances and when they overcome, it just makes my heart swell.

One of my other philosophies very briefly is if somebody does something incredible, don’t just say “African-American teenager does this.” Say their name. Put the name out there in the universe

as “you”, you know, “you” did something amazing. You are worthy of a headline. Funnily enough, I wrote about this in my white privilege piece and people didn’t get it. In fact a lot of people questioned it, like “What are you talking about?” And then it played out perfectly during the Olympics when the media literally said for Simone Manuel, “African-American wins first gold medal in swimming.” There it is. There it is right there. That’s the dehumanisation, the minimisation that occurs in mainstream media every day, and let’s not do that. Let’s celebrate her as if she were Michael Phelps. Because she is. She’s the Michael Phelps of black female swimmers, right? So name it. You are worthy of attention because of your survival skills, your education, your intelligence, your beauty, whatever it is about you. I’m going to make you the story because that’s what it is. It’s not about the fact that you were a black kid who did this or whatever. It’s about you.

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