Faima is a contributing writer for Journo Resources, writing a range of practical features about the journalism industry. She was previously our in-house senior staff writer. Faima is an award-winning journalist with other bylines at Metro.co.uk, Stylist, Time Out and HuffPostUK.
August 17, 2021 (Updated )
As we assembled on the swanky rooftop of the Financial Times building for a TV documentary, a group of journalists of colour and I prepared to talk candidly about racism in the media. And yet, many of us came with the same trepidation: how will my frankness affect my career?
The media certainly has a race problem. Despite years of calls to make the industry more diverse, journalism continues to be overwhelmingly white (no underlying changes have been made in the number of ethnic minorities journalists in the UK, according to the most recent NCTJ stats). And, sometimes, we see the consequences of the media’s whiteness when large corporations mix up two Black people, when they choose to overemphasise certain stories and scapegoat marginalised groups.
While these instances of racism are often talked about – writers of colour are actively sought out and commissioned to speak on such matters – there’s something that newsrooms seldom reckon with: their own racism.
Having worked in various different newsrooms, I’ve been subject to these and also witnessed it being done to others. When well-meaning colleagues who would otherwise think themselves as diversity champions transgress these lines, it hurts a little more. And if you think you’re one of the good ones, consider how good your BAME staff retention is – how many people of colour are in leadership positions? What’s driving them out? How much are they being nurtured?
Every single time I’ve met a journalist of colour and we share our experiences, there’s a moment, a perpetual eye-roll where we know exactly what we mean when we talk about the white supremacy of newsrooms (yes, this is a major problem in media).
An editor who always mispronounces our names, a colleague who mistakes us for another person of colour, asks weird and insensitive questions about our background, makes assumptions based on how we look, shoots down story ideas for lack of ‘relatability’, overcorrecting, scrutinising us and so much more. We don’t forget that we are other because they keep reminding us.
And then we’re left to reel privately and consider whether we’re making mountains out of molehills, whether to give them the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps they’d treat a white staff member the same way. But, if that were the case, then why do so many journalists of colour feel the same way?
Sadly, we can only talk about such issues in hushed whispers, in private group chats, and without naming any names. This is because we fear what happens when we speak out. Will we get a reputation for being difficult? For being perpetual moaners? Will we look disloyal to our publications? Will we get work again, and what type of stories will we be trusted with?
But it’s exhausting trying to protect the people who violate us in these small (or big) but insidious ways. Like others, I am tired of worrying that I’ll upset the wrong person, as if I owe something to the people who made me uncomfortable. When we make journalism heads (et al) uncomfortable with our stories, it shouldn’t be a reflection of our characters, but rather their own. We should be able to be honest without jeopardising our careers.
Not only is it tiring worrying about our future prospects when we speak out, we also have to contend with the fact that our testimonies might fall on deaf ears. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Many people reading about our experiences might sympathise, without any introspection into how they might be contributing to the problem. But if we try to open up direct dialogues with people, we might also alienate them. Educating people takes up a lot of emotional labour, it requires carefully crafting your words, it takes sensitivity, and it takes time. Which is why many writers of colour choose not to say nothing.
Part of the reason why it’s so uncomfortable to talk about newsroom racism, beyond offending anyone, is that we’re so ill-equipped to talk about race in the UK. Our understanding of it is limited to binaries; only bad people do racism. And since the BLM protests of 2020, many now think they’re ‘doing the work’ (by reading books and amplifying people of colour), which makes them ‘the good ones’. But when it comes to anti-racism, there is no arrival. There is only continuous, difficult, relentless, and uncomfortable work.
That work also includes listening. So when a journalist of colour has some things to say; don’t be defensive, really take the time to understand what we mean, talk to us, check in with us, respect our boundaries. And know that uncomfortable interactions don’t make us love our work any less. Because we do love it, we just want to make sure we’re also being treated fairly.