Message when I read the obituaries: “Only white men are important”
So, what is it? Only white men are important?
While I don’t regularly read the obituary section of any newspaper, it was pointed out to me (by my mother nonetheless) that the obits are mostly written about white men. While I wasn’t surprised by this observation, I wanted to see it for myself. So I first checked out the New York Times, and here are some screen shots:
Okay, so I think you get the point. I continued to check NY Times obituaries everyday, and consistently I witnessed the same observation: white man, white man, white man, white woman, white man, white man, white man, black man, etc. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of the people who are represented in the New York Times obituaries; however, I’m making the observation that there’s a lack of equal representation of people of color and women (especially women of color) in the New York Times obituaries. This is not a jab at the New York Times specifically, because other major newspapers do this and should be held accountable. However, I only researched in-depth the New York Times obituary section. Check out other newspaper obit sections* like the Washington Post, L.A. Times, Miami Herald, or Chicago Tribune to see the same lack of representation.
Additionally, I checked out New York Times’ slide show on “Notable Deaths of 2009” where out of 54 people listed, there were only 2 men of color, 10 white women, and no women of color listed.
This is pitiful, to say the least. The New York Times is sending the message that only white men have made an impact on the world to make it into the exclusive New York Times obituary section. I am unsure of how editors pick which people deserve an obituary, but I can imagine a lot of it has to do with money and wealth status.
There are many people out there who have made enormous contributions to society, whether through charity in non-monetary ways or philanthropy, that should be equally recognized. Having this recognition, first and foremost, should be the criteria for who makes it into the newspapers. This could help to even out the representation of women and people of color in any obituary section, making that section more representative of the U.S. population.
Needless to say, this is an embarrassment for not only the New York Times but all major newspapers out there. And this needs to change now. What can you do about it? I suggest that we write to the editors of these newspapers, calling them out on their lack of representation of people of color and women in obituary sections and stress that the importance of highlighting people who have made generous contributions to society, monetary or not, should be the first criteria for picking obituary subjects. Many people out there who deserve obituaries because of the impact that they’ve made to this world, and many are not white men.
Below is a very short and incomplete list of some of the women and men of color who died in 2009. I got most of these from an extensive “Deaths in 2009” list from Wikipedia, which you should check out. If you want to add to the list, please leave the names and what they were known for in the comments below.
- Naomi Sims: “(age 61) died from breast cancer on August 1, 2009. After appearing in a magazine in 1968 she quickly became an icon of the “Black is Beautiful” movement” (from Notable Black Women Who died 2000-2009)
- Margaret Bush Wilson: “a civil rights lawyer and the first Black woman to run for congress (in 1948) passed away on August 11, 2009. Wilson was the first African American woman to head the national NAACP board of directors” (from Notable Black Women Who died 2000-2009).
- Nagesh: “(born C. Krishna Rao Gundu Rao; 27 September 1933 – 31 January 2009), was a Tamil film actor, mostly remembered for his roles as a comedian during the 1960s. He is regarded as one of the most prolific comedians in Tamil cinema” (from Wikipedia)
- Aasiya Zubair: “also known as Aasiya Hassan (June 17, 1972 – February 12, 2009) was, with her husband Muzzammil Hassan, the founder and owner of Bridges TV, the first American Muslim television network broadcast in English” (from Wikipedia; also check out an article about her death in the Guardian)
- Elsie Bernice Washington: “(December 28, 1942 – May 5, 2009) was an American author whose 1980 work Entwined Destinies has been considered the first romance novel written by an African-American author featuring African-American characters” (from Wikipedia)
- Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem: “(1961 – 25 May 2009) was the general secretary of the Pan-African Movement, director of Justice Africa, the Deputy Director of United Nations Millennium Campaign for Africa, as well as a writer for newspapers and journals across Africa” (from Wikipedia)
- Natalya Khusainovna Estemirova: “(28 February, 1958 – 15 July 2009) was an award-winning Russian human rights activist and board member of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial. Estemirova was abducted by unknown persons on 15 July 2009 around 8:30 a.m. from her home in Grozny, Chechnya, as she was working on “extremely sensitive” cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya” (from Wikipedia)
*I did check out The Guardian (UK) obituary section and noticed that they did have significantly a more equal representation of women, but still men and women of color are still lacking in that section. On the day I visited, I only saw Michael Jackson on the front page as the one person of color.