Trainee Journalist

February 19, 2022 (Updated )

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has been a journalist in mainstream media, print, radio, and TV for a generous 38 years. She was the first-ever person of colour in the UK to get a newspaper column, and has contributed to outlets including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Daily Mail and many others. 

After coming to the UK from Uganda in 1972, Yasmin has become a respected and consistent voice around race and gender equality. Currently, she writes a weekly column for the i newspaper and features for other publications. We find out what life is like as a journalistic icon.

My Day Starts With…

The first thing that happens is my dearest husband brings me a cup of coffee in bed. Every single day. He has done this for 33 years, which is very good because it’s only after the first two sips of coffee [that] I feel I’m in this world.

I have that coffee and he brings me the papers. I don’t like reading them online. The papers [are] kind of as important for me as food and drink. Then I begin work, usually at 9am.

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“Immigrants don’t have the choice to do what they want. We just have to live, find a job, exist.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I Always Thought I’d Be…

Well, my first dream was to be an actress, and that’s what I really wanted to be [but] my family wouldn’t let me do that. So the next dream was writing. I knew I wanted to write and be a journalist quite early on, actually.

When you’re an immigrant, it’s really hard — you don’t know how anything works. People have connections; I had no connections. You have to survive. Immigrants don’t have the choice to do what they want. We just have to live, find a job, exist. That’s what I had to do for quite a long time. Then I did it. I am not trained as a journalist. I just did it.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Supplied)

The Thing Which Surprises Me Most About My Job Is…

That there would be so few people [who] knew basic stuff about empire and colonies — [which was] life for millions and millions of people around the world, for hundreds of years. Here was this blank, even amongst the most educated fellow journalists; I still find that quite alarming. You talk about the empire […] but know nothing about the people in that empire. That remains one of my biggest shocks and disappointments.

I still have fellow journalists saying to me, how do you know so much about Shakespeare? Because you guys ruled over us and taught us Shakespeare in schools and Dickens — and I’m very grateful. How do you not know that?

My Typical Day Involves…

Like most people, I’m at the computer most of the time, writing. Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m writing my column; on other days, other work, TV, and radio. I usually do that until I have a break, [when] I have a nap. I always have a nap in the afternoon. I need it. Every day, even if I was at university, I had a nap in the afternoon. In Africa, we always [napped] anywhere.

At around 6 to 7pm, I finish and cook. I love cooking — I go into the kitchen, and it’s my relaxing time. I put on a CD and I cook something nice, and then put on some TV, maybe. I cook everything, and I’m always trying out new things.

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Yasmin was one of 30 inspirational women honoured by Women in Journalism.

I Got The Job Because…

I don’t know! What I did was woke up one morning and wrote an article. I couldn’t even type really well. I sent it to somebody who used to come in and talk to my students, and he said, “This is rather good.” The Guardian published it and I got a couple of more things in there, then I started pitching. Within six months, I was given the job. So, luck has a lot to do with it.

I think maybe what made me stand out was that I was writing about stuff that nobody else was: what it was like to grow up in the [British] empire, then come here and be treated like third-class citizens, even though we have British passports. Nobody was writing about that stuff. I think that helped, in some way.

I Grew Up…

I didn’t grow up in a privileged family — a lot of people don’t know that. Most people assume I did. Asians in Uganda were the middle class, Black people were at the bottom, and white people were above us. Not all Asians were rich. Everybody thinks […] most of them were quite well off, but not my family.

My father was useless, so we lived quite a humble life, an insecure life. I didn’t have my own bed until I was 12 and a half. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with five of us, and my mother really struggled to feed us and pay the rent. But I’m very pleased because that made me a socialist, and I will always be a socialist.

yasmin alibhai-brown and lata mangeshkar
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown with the late legendary Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar. (Image: @y_alibhai via Twitter)

I’m Most Proud Of…

Being the pioneer, the first person of colour [to get a news column]. Gary Young was the second person of colour [to do so], and he’s been my lifelong friend. Because I now realise that my presence in this very wide world had started creating the space, and gave others — young people — the idea [that] ‘I want to do that’.

I’m proud of that because journalism in Britain is not an open, fair, and equal profession. It took a lot of courage and self-belief for me to break through, and I had some good supporters within.

If I Was Starting Again, I’d Change…

I might have started earlier than I did, found my courage earlier. I might have pushed for more. I so admire the younger people now in the business [who] just keep pushing and getting better.

If you’re the only one, you feel tremble-y a lot of the time. You don’t feel you have the right [or] permission. I wish I had given myself permission to push harder. [I had] always wanted to work with the BBC, and I tried once or twice and didn’t get into that — I never pushed enough.

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“I think maybe what made me stand out was that I was writing about stuff that nobody else was: what it was like to grow up in the [British] empire, then come here and be treated like third-class citizens, even though we have British passports.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I’d Be Wary Of…

Never be proud. You say, “I don’t want to write about race. Why should I write about race?” I understand where that comes from, but never do that because if you’re Black or mixed race, you can write and think about race in a very different way from white people.

In a way, it’s your responsibility not to think it’s a second-class subject. It’s very definitely not; look what Black Lives Matter did. If you don’t, somebody else will, and they will do it badly.

Yasmin accepts her award at the Asian Media Awards in 2017 (Credit: Asian Media Awards)

Another thing they say is, “I don’t want to be a token.” Be a token, that’s your foot in — don’t be so proud. I was a token, and look where I am now. That’s the way you sometimes make your name.

I would be wary of pride. The very pushy types say to me, I want to write a column, how can I do that? Let’s say you do know how long it took me to get to [a] place where I felt confident enough that I could write a weekly column; you [still] can’t just walk into a column. You have to be confident, assertive, and proud of who you are. Not so full of pride, that you crash and bang your way around.

If People Wanted To Follow In My Footsteps, I’d Say…

Well, it’s never too late — I was 37 when I became a journalist. It’s really important that you want to do this. This is a very tough profession, and it’s getting tougher because it’s shrinking, and also because of online attacks. So you have to really want to do it in your heart.

Take advice, be humble, and take care of each other. You don’t have to be a b*tch or a bastard to be a journalist. I have never, ever destroyed anybody in my career.

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“If you’re black or mixed race, you can write and think about race in a very different way from white people. It’s your responsibility not to think [that race is] a second-class subject.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

The Thing I’d Most Like To Change About The Industry Is…

I think it’s […] become more diverse. What I would like to change is to have a better balance between left and right. Eighty-five percent of our newspapers are right-wing, and they have a really big effect.

When Boris Johnson stood for mayor, their support got him that role. Even within the Conservative Party, there were people [who are] left [or] centre left, who would have made better leaders. So I just think we need somehow to balance the power of the right in the print industry.

After Work…

My husband and I are best friends, so we talk and talk and talk, and sometimes go out. I have a lot of friends and a lot of interests outside journalism. That is my passion, the thing that makes me wake up in the morning. I have a lot of other stuff I like to do but I am primarily a passionate journalist.

Inayia Angel Beddelem
Inayia Angel Beddelem

Inayia Angel joined the Journo Resources team in 2021 and focuses on original features. She is a budding broadcast journalist, with a vision of using her lived experiences to voice the unknown. She has a passion for creativity and diversity. and to uplift the voices of people from different backgrounds.

Inayia-Angel has freelanced for outlets like the CPAG and JfKL and is a campaigner for social change. Outside of Journo Resources, she is part of running a creative network for foster care leavers, Care Creatives, hosts her own YouTube channel, curates events, and contributes to podcasts. She was recently awarded The Jack Petchey Award.