A Baltimore TV station has dismissed an anchor over what some have deemed a racist and sexist question that she posed regarding Black female mayors.
In a WJZ -TV news segment about the resignation of local mayor, Catherine Pugh, Mary Bubala asked Loyola University Maryland professor Karsonya Wise Whitehead the following question:
“We’ve had three female, African-American mayors in a row. They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Is this a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?”
The public backlash moved WJZ-TV to fire Bubala.
In this post, I discuss five important lessons from this controversial incident and its immediate aftermath.
1. The question brought to the surface about what it means to have racial representation.
If Black people think we can allegedly engage in corruption and politricks like White male and female politicians for the same length of time they are allowed, we are categorically Carter G. Woodson highly miseducated Negroes. We are misguided ones for lacking ethics, too.
My critique applies to Black leaders whose feet fit perfectly in the shoes I have provided.
Racial representation without a heart and mind for the people and communities and without a deep investment in changing systemic racism works as another tool of keeping our society a White supremacist one.
In other words, it is not enough to have Black people in key positions. As with anyone, I argue for a close examination of beliefs and behaviors.
As racist and sexist as her question was, more on that later, Bubala’s question brought this issue to the surface.
The violence, education concerns, need for criminal justice reform, and other community issues that have been plaguing Baltimore did not start with Black female mayors. It is absurd to expect a complete systemic overhaul by one person in one term. This unreasonable expectation does not reflect a belief in Black girl magic. It is more of a Black girl set-up.
Still, if Black people run for political office, how will we operate differently from the various White people who have occupied these positions and maintain institutional racism?
2. The question drew from racist and sexist norms.
The question reinforced racist beliefs and actions that heavily scrutinizes Black people more than White people.
There is an understanding among many Black people that we have to work twice as hard and be twice as good in order for certain White people to perceive us as equivalent to them.
In the spirit of the same kinds of racist politics, Bubala’s question presumed that three Black women furnish enough evidence to prove that Black women inherently make poor political leaders.
Why is it that after three Black women as mayors, where two resigned, a change is needed?
Since the Founding of Baltimore in 1797, Clarence H. Du Burns became the first Black mayor in 1987.
Pugh is the 12th mayor to resign.
Why didn’t Bubala bring up the track record all of the Nonblack women who served as mayor for centuries? Please review the list below of every mayor elected since the founding of Baltimore.
1797-1804 James Calhoun
1804-1808 Thorowgood Smith
1808-1816 Edward Johnson
1816-1819 George Stiles
1819-1820 Edward Johnson
1820-1823 John Montgomery
1823-1826 Edward Johnson
1826-1831 Jacob Small
1831-1832 William Steuart
1832-1835 Jesse Hunt
1835-1838 Samuel Smith
1838-1840 Sheppard C. Leakin
1840-1842 Samuel Brady
1842-1843 Solomon Hillen, Jr.
1843-1844 James O. Law
1844-1848 Jacob G. Davies
1848-1850 Elijah Stansbury
1850-1852 J. Hanson T. Jerome
1852-1854 J. Smith Hollins
1854-1856 Samuel Hinks
1856-1860 Thomas Swann
1860-1861 George William Brown
1861-1867 John Lee Chapman
1867-1871 Robert T. Banks
1871-1875 Joshua Vansant
1875-1877 Ferdinand C. Latrobe
1877-1878 George P. Kane
1878-1881 Ferdinand C. Latrobe
1881-1883 William Pinkney Whyte
1883-1885 Ferdinand C. Latrobe
1885-1887 James Hodges
1887-1889 Ferdinand C. Latrobe
1889-1891 Robert C. Davidson
1891-1895 Ferdinand C. Latrobe
1895-1897 Alcaeus Hooper
1897-1899 William T. Malster
1899-1903 Thomas G. Hayes
1903-1904 Robert M. McLane
1904-1907 E. Clay Timanus
1907-1911 J. Barry Mahool
1911-1919 James H. Preston
1919-1923 William F. Broening
1923-1927 Howard W. Jackson
1927-1931 William F. Broening
1931-1943 Howard W. Jackson
1943-1947 Theodore R. McKeldin
1947-1959 Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr.
1959-1962 J. Harold Grady
1962-1963 Philip H. Goodman
1963-1967 Theodore R. McKeldin
1967-1971 Thomas J. D’Alesandro III
1971-1987 William Donald Schaefer
1987 Clarence H. (Du) Burns
1987-1999 Kurt L. Schmoke
1999-2007 Martin J. O’Malley
2007-2010 Sheila Dixon
2010-2016 Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake
2016-2019 Catherine E. Pugh
2019-present Bernard C. (Jack) Young
That’s a lot of White folks.
It took almost 200 years before a Black person was elected. Why can’t Black people have almost 200 years of opportunities to lead, too?
Why are White men allowed centuries and decades to succeed, fail, and develop only to be given more chances, and Black people are granted strikingly fewer opportunities before certain White people express a need for change (read: return to White leadership)?
When it comes to her job, Bubala seemed to desire the kind of grace she had afforded to White people that she did not give to Black women.
3. The “sincere apology” misses the mark.
Bubala’s “sincere apology” via Twitter missed the mark. She stated:
A sincere apology pic.twitter.com/gV4dz7CFkd
— Mary Bubala (@MaryWJZ) May 3, 2019
Bubala could be leading more powerfully in this moment. At the time of this post, she has missed an opportunity to demonstrate to White people and all people how to simultaneously take responsibility and challenge WJZ -TV’s handling of the controversy.
I think Bubala’s “sincere apology” via twitter is horridly lacking at best because it is almost textbook “I am not a racist even when confronted with racist thinking” non-apology.
Bubala might not moonlight as a neo-Nazi after work. However, her comments show that she has not recognized that she has more scrutiny of Black people than White people, as stated in the second point. She has not connected her thinking to normalized racial and gender biases which can turn into discrimination.
Let us briefly analyze the twitter apology to see how racism is maintained through these rhetorical moves:
Statement: “Last night, during a live interview, I asked a question that did not come out the way I intended.”
How did she intend to phrase it? Here is her chance to reword it, but she did not take the opportunity to demonstrate the intended wording. It is a move that tries to dismiss the reality of racism and sexism because there is no escaping that she brought up Black women in leadership and a change of direction.
Statement: “I am so deeply sorry and sincerely regret the words I chose.”
What words did she want to replace? African-American? Women? Change? Leadership? Bubala did not call anyone a racial slur. If here focus was leadership style, ethics, or fiscal responsibility, then she would not have even mentioned African American women.
She mentioned African American women because she allegedly thought these factors disqualified them. A problem lies in lack of responsibility about the beliefs behind the words after Bubala was been confronted about it.
Statement: “I appreciate those who have contacted me to share how this has impacted them. I am devastated that the words I used portray me as someone that I know I am not.”
Her appreciation falls short because she recenters the apology on her feelings. Instead, she focuses on how she is not a racist or sexist, without naming these issues, which proves that she has not really empathized with those impacted by her statement.
Then again, she did not say what kind of impact is she referring to.
Statement: “I hope you allow me the opportunity to regain your trust.”
Bubala has little trust to regain with numbers of people because when it comes to anti-Black racism, the bar is low for a sincere apology. Instead of raising the standard, she met these White supporters at the low bar.
It is difficult to regain trust when she neither named nor owned her racist and sexist question. Her apology demonstrates a commitment to looking like a good white person, especially to White people and Black people who support her, without taking responsibility and changing.
Given these issues, here is an example of a framework which could produce a better apology and way of moving forward more powerfully:
a) Explicitly state the racism and sexism underlying her question, and how hearing the stories highlighted these issues.
b) Thank the people for calling her higher in her responsibility as a journalist.
c) Now, that she is more informed, explain the steps she will take to keep unlearning taken-for-granted racist and internalized sexist thinking.
d) Apologize with substantive evidence reflecting new knowledge of how these incidents impact people.
e) Take the steps and revisit them to show commitment to change.
4. Missed teachable moment by the news station and Bubala.
I think Bubala’s incident could have been used to revisit and expand our thinking about issues of race, gender, and leadership.
If she gave a racist monologue about why Black women were unfit for leadership, then I would agree that she needs to be fired. Otherwise, I think the news station could have provided a space to powerfully demonstrate how to move forward together when these kinds of racist and sexist incidents happen.
Allegedly, WJZ -TV did not allow Bubala the opportunity to apologize on air.After her Twitter, apology, Bubala took to Facebook to discuss the matter of her dismissal.[Text: “In my 22 years of working in TV news in Baltimore – 15 of those years with WJZ – I have always treated people with the utmost respect and dignity. I loved my job because I loved the people of Baltimore.
Last week I realized I made a mistake in the language I used on air. I immediately apologized for any hurt I unintentionally caused. I received immediate support from WJZ because they knew it was not in my heart to intentionally cause this kind of harm. I wanted to do an on-air apology but was not allowed. I hope that the people of Baltimore know that I would never do anything to hurt anyone.
Unfortunately, I now stand in the path of the tornado. WJZ was forced to let me go. I am saddened and shocked by this decision. Baltimore City has been my home for 25 years and I treasure and am so grateful for the relationships I have made with the people of Baltimore during this time. I fully intend to fight to restore my reputation because I’ve invested my heart and soul in my work and my city. Thank you Baltimore for all of your support during this difficult period of time. It means so much to me.”]
Do you know how many times I asked a question in my ignorance? I do not have a count. How can anyone grow if they are penalized at every turn for speaking?
Everyone messes up and everyone has problematic thinking about some construct that we are unaware about—guess what? It will come out. However, these moments could be instructive for others to learn.
There is a noticeable distinction between anchors using thinly-veiled racist language, racial slurs and racist imagery and anchors, like Bubala, asking a question, which highlights their lack of racial and gender knowledge. In other words, I think these situations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to look for pattern, intent, and severity.
This incident will not be the last time a White person asks a question that demonstrates some uninterrogated racist belief that they did not initially perceive as racist.
5. Public supporters of Bubala have helped to maintain everyday workings of racism.
If you look at social media, you will see that many White people, and a smaller fraction of People of Color, have commented about Bubala telling the facts, truth, doing her job as a journalist, political correctness, and being treated unfairly.
Of the thousands of people supporting her, a significant number have not challenged the racism and sexism underlying Bubala’s question.
Black women make poor leaders is neither truth nor fact.
These individuals can challenge Bubala’s firing and hold her accountable with a message such as:
“Mary, although it was not your intention, do you understand why your question was sexist and racist? What are your next steps? If you refuse to take responsibility for your question and have no plans to change, then I cannot support you remaining in your current position. If you do, I stand by WJZ keeping you as a news anchor.”
Please note the “and.”
Instead, many of these individuals play along with the White innocence rhetoric that many of them have been socialized into enacting in the world. It is the kind of rhetoric that prevents White people from being held accountable for anti-Black racism.
Although I think the news station and Bubala could have handled this matter in a way to become a learning opportunity in a public media space, the masses have a responsibility in how we respond to when racism and sexism shows up.
Let us stop playing along with these racial games where we relentlessly hold Black people to the fire and allow White people to be comforted by luke-warm baths of their tears when challenged or held accountable.
If we are going to be just and undo racism, then these games must go.