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Message when I read the obituaries: “Only white men are important”

March 5, 2010

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:

Oh look, here are some white men who died . . . From

Oh look! There's a white woman in there. From

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[1] 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.

  1. Jessica Mack permalink*
    March 5, 2010 7:32 am

    I’ve noticed this too, and it’s frustrating. It seems like the obituaries we are seeing in 2010 are the product of the inequality of the last century. That is, unless someone is dying very young in 2010, he/she would have been born in the 1920’s or 1930’s, most likely, then grown up or “had his/her 15 minutes of fame” through the 50’s-70’s when, as we know, women and especially women of color weren’t given the due opportunities or recognition they should have been. Obit editors in this day and age owe it to the social justice and equality of the present day to work harder to give important women and men and women of color their due, though they may have been forgotten in the past century.

  2. Emma permalink
    March 5, 2010 12:32 pm

    Question: Don´t you have to pay to publish an obituary?

    • Ken S. permalink
      March 5, 2010 1:16 pm

      Some death notices are paid for as part of the costs of the funeral. Usually this is handled by the funeral director. Those often are the death notices that appear in long columns of type and don’t really tell the person’s story. The longer obituaries under discussion here are seldom paid for. Newspapers (at least when I worked in them as a reporter) scanned the death notices and then, if someone prominent dies, an obit writer or an idle reporter may be assigned to make a call or two and do a story. That’s what you are noticing in the NYT.

      That said, Emily has done an excellent piece of content analysis on this subject. I can see someone turning it into a master’s thesis or even a dissertation. I think what you uncovered here is a number of biases in the social system. Keep in mind that most often it is white men who are on the city desks as assignment editors, etc. They will usually make the decision about what gets covered. How do they make that decision? Most often this is a product of what they know or are familiar with. So it’s not surprising the white males choose white males and, to a lesser extent, white females.

      I suspect, if you take a look, newspapers in the African-American community will most likely pay attention to the deaths of local and national African Americans. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

      So, I believe, the phenomenon that Emily revealed in her analysis is not necessarily racism — more digging would have to be done to extract that conclusion — but actually the human notion of identifying with what one knows. One remedy for this would be the inclusion of more members of minority groups on newsdesks and in newsrooms in general. Another would be for editors and reporters to explore areas outside the normal coverage area. The paper I worked for was engaged in a year long effort to profile every African American leader in Miami/Dade County. That took reporters, including me, to places we just never went to except on rare occasions usually involving a killing, etc.

      Thanks Emily.

      • March 6, 2010 6:41 am

        Hey Ken,

        Your take on this seems to be missing an understanding of how institutionalised racism (as opposed to individually racist actions) works. When one group has an unequal share of power, that very human phenomenon to which you refer become the vehicle of racism. The papers Emily discusses are not really community papers but major national (and even international) papers with a far broader reach and circulation than any aimed at a specific community.

    • March 7, 2010 8:35 pm

      Even if the NYT obits are paid for, it speaks to the monetary privilege of men that they have money to leave for an obit.

  3. Ken S. permalink
    March 6, 2010 1:58 pm

    I get your point, Elizabeth. But I make less of a distinction about the spectrum of racism extending from personal acts through institutionalized racism on an international level. I see it as all one long element. One end does not diminish the other and is probably better represented as a circle rather than a line. But that also raises the issue of who makes the decisions and how that operates. The decision-making process — whether hiring, firing, assignments, promotions — is largely the same throughout the industry. These patterns of behavior are deeply ingrained, learned and repeated. Making a distinction between national and international and local community newspapers is less helpful than recognizing that these practices outlined by Emily’s analysis encourage the ongoing decisions we all seem to abhor — namely choices made regarding gender, skin color, age, etc. I hope I’ve clarified my take on the issue.

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