Industry buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusion” are meaningless unless and until newsrooms start hiring more Black and Brown editors and journalists to publish the stories that affect their lives.
In early March 2019, a Black writer named Danielle Dash published an opinion piece for Trench magazine about controversial British author and influencer Chidera Eggerue (aka the Slumflower) emphasizing the importance of Eggerue receiving guidance from other Black feminists. Eggerue, the author of the best-selling What a Time to Be Alone, mixes her brand of body positivity and self-confidence with provocative statements that often create Twitter firestorms. On Father’s Day 2018, she tweeted, “The only solution to ensure the safety of women, is for men to not exist,” a post she later deleted. In response to being asked to empathize with male suicide rates, she doubled-down in another infamous tweet: “Maybe other people’s feminisms are about making the world better for men. As for me, I don’t have time to think about the reasons why the system you created at my expense to benefit you is now choking you. If men are committing suicide because they can’t cry, how is it my concern?” She deleted that post too.
Dash’s piece on the Slumflower can be viewed as a representation of many of the opinions shared by Black writers, based on a deep understanding of certain intricacies only Black women face when navigating online spaces, and indeed life.
Dash made clear that the Trench magazine article was more than just commentary on the Slumflower. It was additionally a response of sorts to a piece published by the Guardian and written by a White writer, Zoe Williams, who says of Eggerue, “The idea that you can address the objectification of women by abasing men… is a race to the bottom.” As Dash points out, Williams’s take lacked nuance and dabbled in misogynoir (racialized sexism). The question, in light of Williams allegedly curating her ideas for the piece from Black-feminist Twitter, is why none of the well-known Black women feminist writers, including Dash, were called upon to do such a piece more justice? A few weeks later, Williams would once again attempt to handle subject matter that could have been easily and less clumsily tackled by a writer of color. There are writers of color with the knowledge and skill to professionally unpack topics that are intertwined with our identities and cultures, so why do certain news stories keep being told through a White lens?
Part of tackling the structures that suppress Black writers includes noting specific gate-keeping mechanisms that so often silence our voices or unfairly demand additional racialized emotional labor. The most obvious of these is to ensure that newsrooms have representation at least on par with their audience and city. After the recently held National Press Awards for 2018, BuzzFeed reporter Ade Onibada commented that “there are more Black people serving wine than there are here as guests representing newsrooms.” This trend, of few Black writers or writers of color in newsrooms, is far-reaching and easily noticeable. One only need scroll through the list of contributors in GQ’s culture vertical, glance at a celebratory tweet from a Brooklyn-based HuffPost editor which highlighted how Black women (and women of color) are still excluded from many “feminist wins,” or look through the masthead of popular women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan U.K. to get an idea of who runs the show—and, by extension, who the target audience is. Academic platforms are often no different, with similar trends seen in the editorial staff of The Chronicle of Higher Education and the list of contributors of Wonkhe, two top academic websites based in the U.S. and the U.K. respectively. Many of these writers and editors are highly skilled and capable, however, there are bound to be important perspectives that slip through the cracks through gatekeeping.
A while back I pitched a piece that focused on racism in science, with the hook being DNA pioneer James Watson’s latest racist rhetoric, to a well-known U.K.-based higher education platform. Feedback on my draft wanted me to remove all information that would convey the urgency of the initial message I had pitched. In fact, any mention of racism would be edited out. What frustrates me about this particular situation is I am convinced the White editor didn’t harbor bad intentions: simply focus more on why ethics in science is needed, and less on Watson because as damaging as his views are they are just views. However, focusing solely on ethics in science would entirely miss an opportunity to engage academics in critically evaluating how racist rhetoric has been the basis of many unethical behaviors imposed on people of color over history in the name of science. I ended up politely withdrawing my piece and publishing it elsewhere in its original form.
These kinds of experiences emphasize the need for more Black editors across all media platforms who will be able to see and appreciate the specific perspectives Black writers bring, and the need for our stories to be told by us. It also highlights the need for White editors to be proactive about cultural awareness and respectfully sensitive about assignments specifically about race.
However, not every Black writer wants to write about race and that should be absolutely fine. Yet, this is often expected of us. Many women of color writers have faced similar situations. Considering the burden we already bear in terms of exclusion in publishing, speaking up about these biased practices can create even more barriers to access. One Black woman with a reputable freelance career and a large social-media following (who chose to remain anonymous) told me, “Gatekeepers of media are White men and women who would commission their (usually White) friends over real talent,” she said. When I asked her if she’d ever been requested to write specifically about race she said, “I was approached by a publication to write some sponsored content. They told me the theme and sent over three ideas, one was related to race. The race idea was commissioned.”
She also shared something disturbing: Not only is it harder for her to get her ideas accepted and published, but she’s experienced plagiarism by White writers stealing her ideas and repurposing them as their own. “A newspaper rehashed a story from my publication and the writer tried to deny it but his email address was found in our database, as we operate a membership/paywall platform. If you don’t have a membership an email address is needed to read an article.”
This is not the first time a Black writer has expressed concerns about rehashed work. With the fact that most newsrooms are still dominated by White people in positions of power, these experiences are inevitable. If there is no one on staff with the cultural relevancy to know the subject matter as lived experience, and to have read about it in publications by and for people of color, how could they possibly do it justice? Fixing the racial disparity in newsrooms is a start, but editors also must acknowledge their own shortcomings. As noted by Jelani Cobb for Columbia Journalism Review and in The Guardian, “When newsrooms are dominated by White people, they miss crucial facts.”
Investigative journalist and reporter in the critically acclaimed BBC Africa Eye documentary, Sweet Sweet Codeine, Ruona Meyer says this about gatekeeping in news media: “The only way these challenges can be overcome is for people to decide that they’re actually going to talk about it. You can’t keep ticking diversity off as just boxes.” Of diversity schemes to enlist Black writers and writers of color, Meyer notes that once we get these writers in the room it’s important that “we’re listening to them, and we’re accommodating because you cannot have that discussion if you’re not willing to understand that there will be uncomfortable nuances to that discussion.”
And indeed, the American Society of News Editors gathered data that supports the need for more Black and POC leaders particularly revealing a positive correlation between newsrooms with racially diverse leadership and racially diverse staff. A concern, however, is highlighted when inspecting the newsroom representation and its parity with its city. This could be one of the reasons “newsroom diversity” is so often regarded as a performative buzzword. There is much need for change, and actionable recommendations have been outlined many times. It is thus very frustrating to navigate everyday racism outside of work whilst still often encountering microaggressions and other subtle acts that hinder our careers within the workplace—even when it’s virtual.
Gatekeeping Black writers can only be stopped by intentional action. Editors should commission stories responsibly. This will ensure that the most appropriate writer tells stories with an added layer of understanding due to a shared identity. Further, we need editors and staff writers who are Black and POC in newsrooms. This means intentionally hiring for those positions, not for tokenistic purposes but with the full realization that these individuals are talented and merit these posts. Lastly, Black writers and writers of color should not be burdened by only having to write about race. This kind of work takes an emotional toll. We should be allowed to write about the same range of issues assigned to our White counterparts, be that the Forbes 30 Under 30 list or avocado toast. However, when we do want to write about race, we need adequate and capable editorial support. There are some stories that are best told by Black voices. Bypassing us and allocating the assignment to others, even when we merit these bylines, will lead to content that’s both lukewarm and dangerous.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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