Journalists of Colour: In Their Own Words

A lot can happen in a week.

Last Monday I published a piece on my decision to leave The Globe and Mail. I detailed a dispute over a story involving race and spoke to other frustrations on the topic. I also wrote more broadly of the challenges journalists of colour can face — which battles to wage, which to not — and likened the experience to walking a tightrope.

While I expected the piece to generate some discussion, and consider the issues raised within it to be of the utmost importance, I was struck by just how many journalists of colour either shared similar stories with me or posted them online.

I found these stories to be extremely powerful and highlight some of them here in the hope it will further the understanding of what our newsroom experiences can be like.

Simi Sara

“When I first started in this business it was the early 1990s. There was a lot of optimism and effort being made to diversify newsrooms so they better represented their communities. It seemed like a time of breakthroughs and it felt rewarding to be a part of that push. I loved being a part of the business and I wanted to get along and be like everyone else. I even joked with others, had a laugh, when I was referred to as ‘the token.’ But that got pretty tiring pretty fast. In time I learned to respond better. Yes, my background may have gotten my foot in the door but it didn’t open it fully for me — ability did. It’s amazing how many times I’ve had to say that over the years.

“I thought things would get better. I thought once people got to know me and my work I would cease being the ‘brown’ media person and just be like everyone else. I thought it was only a matter of time. But what I’ve learned is it never really goes away.

“Over the years when I’ve received promotions, there are the inevitable whispers that, despite my extensive experience, it’s because of the colour of my skin. Heck, I’ve had coworkers who told me that to my face — people I thought were friends. And yet, when someone in charge decided racism was an issue all heads would turn to me, as if I was supposed to summon up opinions and outrage on command. Not when I wanted to talk about it but when others decided it could be talked about. And not the way I wanted to talk about it but through the filter they set.

“What it comes down to is this: I have never seen the colour of my skin as a ‘difference.’ But others have seen it that way for me. I believe I am like everyone else because perspective is​ diverse and we all have something to contribute to that discussion. It shouldn’t be segregated as a ‘diversity’ issue. It’s all of us. It’s our communities. It’s having respect for someone’s lived experience and how they feel and making sure that is represented.

“This business prides itself on storytelling. To those in charge I would say: you aren’t telling or hearing the stories of all the people who work with you. If they are telling you they aren’t being heard — ask yourself why that is.”

Name withheld at person’s request

“As a junior reporter I would take any assignment, as most newbies do. However, even when I became an experienced and respected reporter who broke top stories on a regular basis I would still find myself being assigned ‘ethnic’ stories when they came up. Sometimes that would be understandable if language was our competitive advantage. Often though, ethnic assignments came with predetermined, inappropriate and inaccurate bias and assumptions that I was then expected to spin a story around. I would refuse and explain why the editor’s hypothesis wasn’t true and could do harm but it fell on deaf ears and the editor would turn around and assign it to another reporter. It disturbed me that my newsroom seemed to value my ethnicity when it was to their advantage — like touting diversity in an effort to win a new audience — but not when I was trying to expand their views about my culture.”

Stephen Hui

“Being a journalist of colour can mean biting your tongue from time to time — perhaps to preserve workplace harmony or to avoid being ostracized as the difficult one. Biting your tongue as management pats themselves on the back for tokenistic decisions. Biting your tongue as industry peers whitesplain systemic racism to you. Biting your tongue at all the convenient objectivity and colour blindness. Biting your tongue one, two, three times — until you lose count.”

Name withheld at person’s request

“An editor at the Toronto Star told me that I should write more South Asian stories. Presumably he thought I would be plugged into the community because I’m brown and this would be my ticket to getting on the front page. I’m sure he thought was being helpful. But if he’d bothered to ask I would have told him I grew up in an Italian and Jewish neighborhood in Toronto and didn’t spend any time in India. And that I had lived most of my life in another country in the Middle East. But, of course, he like many other editors just made an assumption based on my skin tone.

“I’m not discounting the value of having a reporter who is familiar with the community reporting on said community. Believe me, sometimes that makes all the difference, especially when there are cultural nuances to be considered. Lean on those people as resources.

“But when newsrooms aim to hire diverse candidates, they need to recognize that just as all white reporters don’t have the same interests, neither do all brown reporters. Or black. Or Asian. We might have other interests — like tech, business, arts, sports, health. We might want to do investigative stories or have data journalism skills.

“So dig a little deeper. And your newsroom will be better for it.”

@HabibaNosheen

@Sholarsenic

Name withheld at person’s request

“I decided to leave a job that would have propelled my career because I was tired of pushing for (oft-tokenized) race- and Indigenous-related stories to be held in as high regard as stories related to city hall, crime and education.”

Name withheld at person’s request

“I echo a lot of your frustration and sadness at the way these things go. I also kind of ‘left’ journalism for similar reasons.”

Name withheld at person’s request

“I contemplate quitting every day.”

Name withheld at person’s request

“As a young, brown journalist, I have often found that we are underrepresented, particularly at the top, in Canadian media. I’ve often felt that this has led to either a total lack of coverage of our perspectives or misrepresentation of them.”

@dougquan

@AtongAter

@fatimabsyed

@Ginella_M

Name withheld at person’s request (outside Canada)

“I was asked to work on a project involving people of colour and I explained it was important to me that we tell these stories in a way that didn’t play into any stereotypes about marginalized communities. I was told we shouldn’t be afraid of being politically incorrect. But isn’t telling stories without getting caught up in stereotypes our one job?”

Name withheld at person’s request (outside Canada)

“[Your piece describes] exactly what I am and have been dealing with every day. It is exhausting. I want to give up. I’m trying not to.”

This post was updated Nov. 6 to include two additional tweets.