“Near the fireplace, in white, looking ravishing.” This is the email Jazmine sends me as I’m on my way to meet her for the first time. Is there anything better than people who make jokes without reservation? Jazmine Hughes is hilarious, smart, 24-years-old, and an editor at The New York Times Magazine. She is shy of this title, but not about what she stands for. Jazmine and I spoke about how to deal with the tougher topics of life, why humor helps, and how she is carving out her identity as a black woman.
“I’m really vague any time someone asks me what I do. I’ll say, ‘Oh, I work at a magazine.’ They’ll ask, ‘Which one?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, The New York Times Magazine,‘ which will lead to, 'What do you do there?’ And finally, ‘I’m an editor.’ It takes until question three for me to really put it out there. I’m always afraid of sounding like an asshole… even though I’ve worked really hard to get here! It’s not like I walked in and immediately blew everybody’s socks off. It was definitely a process: ‘You have work to do, we’re going to teach you how to do it, and it’s fine.’ I waste a lot of time focusing on my age, and it’s unproductive. It was more intense when I started. Now that I’ve been there 15 months or so, I’m getting better. I’m good at my job! I can say it.
With my writing, I feel as if I’ve just started coming into my own. I’ve especially come into my blackness, in which I can say I’m proud to be black and don’t have to hide behind a self-deprecating approach. There are issues I am more recently attune to, there are causes I am more aware of. I have a wide group of black friends for maybe the first time since middle school. It’s a group of other young writers who have taught me a lot and challenge me in incredibly productive ways. I’ve gleaned a lot of lessons from them. Writing is a time where I’m really just trying to figure things out for myself; I’m just very lucky other people might need to figure out those same things. I’ve always approached heavier topics with a sense of humor. That’s partially due to fear, because it’s scary and exhausting to get in touch with things that confuse or upset you. But I also feel like I’m filling a void: There’s plenty of literature that deals with those subjects in a hefty way, that really gets into the weeds of the systemic issues we face. And that’s fine, but I want to provide the antithesis to that and say, ‘Here’s how you can deal with these fraught emotions but still laugh about it.’ It’s not all doomed. And if we are doomed, at least we’ll laugh our way to grave. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to look at these topics from a lighter perspective, if you’re still treating them with respect. It keeps you from drowning.
I went to a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. During orientation my mom and I were counting all the black people. We got them all in one hand, and two of them were us. Since then I’ve been, in a relatively fucked up way, used to being one of the few black people. When I was going into publishing it was like, ‘This is going to be my reality until I… get a career doing something else.’ My first job was at New York Magazine as an intern. I remember every single black person there, because there were so few at the time. From what I know, they’ve since hired a bunch of other people of color. But at the time, it was disheartening. I don’t want to pretend that I agonized over it every day and was super dejected—it just sort of sucked to look around and see that no one looked like you, especially when I was just starting out. That experience was the impetus to create Writers Of Color—a website I have with a couple of my friends. Through that website, and through working in the industry and becoming an editor, I see so many people of color who would kill to be in a newsroom. It makes me more sad than angry—the deck is beyond stacked.
There is an adage oft repeated among my friends:‘Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.’ It’s on bags. It’s on people’s twitter bios. I don’t know where this came from, but I love how, in some small way, it reclaims this power only granted to a certain set of people. It doesn’t mean that white men are only the establishment—all white people are complicit in this—but my purpose in life is not to help out a bunch of white dudes. That’s not to say that I’m trying to ruin them! It’s just sort of like, that’s not my circus. Those aren’t my monkeys. They have each other and they have history. They have the world. That’s not something I’m going to put myself into.
With the tiny amount of clout I have, I’m going to use it very carefully.
I’m far more up front and transparent about what I expect of people in my twenties. It’s always interesting to see the difference between my white friends prior to coming into that versus the people I spend time with now. Something happened a while ago that made me see that more clearly. I was with a bunch of college friends, and talking with one white friend who I’ve known for many years, about the Kanye and Jay-Z song, ‘in Paris’. I was alluding to it because I was in a room with a bunch of white people, and I don’t mind saying the N word, but I don’t, as a rule, say it in mixed company. White people will start trippin, and I have no time for that. This woman said it right out. At the time I thought, 'I guess that’s the name of the song.’ It was late, I’d been drinking and I didn’t want to start a fight, so I didn’t say anything. It ate at me for hours and hours afterwards. We were staying in a hotel and sharing a bed, and I just felt grossed out by my inaction. I think the angry black woman trope is so misguided and outdated, and something that I shouldn’t even think about because it’s so completely incorrect, but I know that my opinion isn’t shared by everyone. And if I defend myself or stand up for what I think is right, I might think I’m being forthright, polite, and strong-willed, but someone else might say, ‘She’s a bitch! She’s being too woke! She’s overly sensitive!’ How, Sway???
Years ago, I sort of wrote about this for Jezebel—about the accumulation of microaggressions. It was based around my relationship at the time; my college boyfriend, a white American, and I dated for nearly five years. When I wrote the article, we’d been dating about two years, we had just gotten very serious. There was a huge learning curve for us both when it came to ‘race relations’—for him to learn about me, for me to learn about myself. It was a productive and effective challenge: ‘What do I have to teach myself in order to pass this on?’ Of course I thought about what it’d be like to date a black person, someone who would understand more of where I was coming from, but, it’s so overwhelming and easy to get consumed by and fatigued by and furious about whiteness. I had someone up close who was working, in his own small way, toward understanding his position, his privilege, his power, every day. It was so gratifying. It made me so proud. We learned a lot from each other.
In regard to sexism, it’s ever-present. Weird looks from men are the bare minimum, right? If you walk down the street in New York City as a woman, with a single limb out, and only get weird looks, that’s a lucky day. I have four younger sisters and I like to scare myself and think about how they fit into the world at large, now that they’re almost grownups. My youngest sister just graduated from high school; I was recently thinking about what may to happen to them and how I can’t do anything about it, and I just broke down. I’m trying to be a person that says to people, 'That makes me feel uncomfortable.’ I like to travel, and I try to go on trips by myself every year. I went to New Mexico recently, and was sitting in a park when a man came up to me. He asked me when we were going to hang out, and I tried to be cavalier in rebuffing him, because in my mind I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable,’ which is a fucked up thing. But I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable because I didn’t want him to kill me. I was by myself, I was trying to be firm but friendly, but he wouldn’t give in and I ended up yelling at him before he went away. I had to grab all my things and shout for him to realize that I wasn’t being coquettish. It wasn’t some cat and mouse game that was going to end in me saying, ‘You broke me. Let’s go fuck behind the dumpster.’ It was right after I’d landed, and it tainted the first part of my vacation by making me realize, ‘I forgot. I have to be on the defense this entire time. I have to get all my site-seeing done by 7:30PM, and I can’t go for a run with headphones in because I don’t know where I am and I don’t have anyone around to call if something happens to me.’ I was furious at that guy, but also, in a twisted perverted way, felt a small sense of pride when I got him to leave me alone. I stood my ground. I tried to carry that with me for the rest of the trip, and I’m trying to hold on to that now. But it can be hard. I slept with a pair of scissors by my bed every night I was there.
When it comes to fear at work: of course I’m still scared! I’m mad scared. I joke about my being fired almost daily. But fear is boring. I need to be productive, to be proud of myself, to feel myself growing and improving. Maybe my 20s are my selfish decade. That would be dope, because then I have five more years of being selfish, and I’m only going to get richer and buy myself nicer things. In order to do that, though, there’s not much room for fear. I was talking to a friend about this when I had just started at The Times, and she told me, ‘Fear is unproductive. If you’re feeling bad about yourself, it’s hard to actually do anything. Think about fear as a waste of time.’ I’ve remembered that ever since. Of course I can sometimes be lazy and knock out a good six episodes of Real Housewives of New York in an afternoon, but in general:
I like to work hard. I don’t like to fail. I won’t settle for mediocrity. I get shit done.
I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know that I have this force, this drive. What else am I going to do? I’m not interested in anything else. I’m consumed by writing. I love journalism. I love elevating the voices of women and people of color. I love being funny. I think the drive is really your journey to figure out where the destination is. The best advice I’ve ever been given is to always take the meeting. Even if you’re happy as a clam doing what you’re doing, just go and see. And always hold on to what makes you strange. I was home-schooled until fifth grade, and I was a fucking weird kid. I remember thinking that I had to fold my weirdness up into a little corner because I wanted to make friends, and I was so unacclimated to the public school life. Then years later when I started working and writing, I wanted to tap back into that weirdness. I felt like I had locked it behind a door and couldn’t find the key; I had to figure out a way to access it again. Now I’m just sounding like a chocolate bar wrapper, but: be weird. Let that weirdness be unfettered and don’t feel like you have to control or temper it. Say ‘yes’ as often as you can, unless you think you’re going to be murdered or not paid well.”
Interviewed by Amy Woodside, June 2016
Photography by Amy Woodside