Earlier this month, I became the only Black female writer at a publication I work for. My former editor and another Black female writer recently left because they were unhappy. That brought the total number of Black people in the newsroom from eight to six. This, while people were taking to the streets nationwide to protest for equality for Black lives. The timing couldn’t have been worse — but it was no coincidence.
You don’t get down to one Black female writer, nor lack diversity, by accident. It happens from conscious decisions by white executives and editors who exercise the privilege of only hiring and promoting people who look like them. I’ve seen the scenario play out many times.
I once interned for a TV station where, despite my solid performance, I was told there was no budget to hire me. I begged to stay as a contractor, figuring I just needed to prove myself to earn a permanent place. I continued earning slightly more than minimum wage for strong work, taking shifts no one else wanted. A month later, my white male editor hired a young white woman in the role he’d claimed he had no budget for. The editor said she reminded him of himself when he was a young reporter, and wanted to groom her. To add insult to injury, while I continued as an underpaid contractor, I had to listen to her complain about my dream job. I was so scarred by the experience I took a corporate job and stopped writing altogether.
Only by chance did I find myself back in a newsroom six years later. So many other Black journalists never do. They give up dreams of writing stories that matter because conditions in many newsrooms are too oppressive to overcome. I mourn for Black reporters and editors who’ve had it much worse than I did.
Then when we stay, Black reporters often carry survivor’s guilt. We reason that the conditions don’t need to be perfect; at least we have a paycheck, a platform. But that’s no longer enough.
Too often, publications that do hire Black journalists only hire a few, who get propped up to signal representation when, in reality, we account for a tiny fraction of the organization. Being among those chosen few is a privilege and a prison. I feel at once honored to have a platform, and guilty I was chosen while so many others were not. I feel annoyed when issues about my community arise and I am not asked to help cover them, yet tokenized if I am singled out for that coverage. This is only true because there aren’t enough Black journalists in the room. If there were, I wouldn’t have to fret over every assignment.
For media outlets with some diverse representation, it probably hurts to know their version of doing good is still not good enough. It probably feels daunting to imagine letting go of some white staff to build more diverse newsrooms. But when you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression.
Many white leaders in media have been quick to issue statements of solidarity with the Black journalists speaking out. Everyone now wants to say Black journalists matter. But what does it look like to show that you mean it? Everybody supports a cause until it’s their turn to step up.
I ask newsroom leaders: What are you willing to personally sacrifice to diversify? Are you willing to give up your spot to let a Black editor or reporter in? Would you sacrifice a portion of your salary to fund a Black reporter’s job?
I, for one, would love to see some well-meaning white executives and editors put their words to action. Systemic racism in America’s newsrooms is not a problem Black people created. It’s not a problem we should have to fix.