by Sonya Thomas
More than 50 Women of colour in journalism met on 8 March (International Women's day) to talk openly and candidly about their experiences.
On our panel, joining Afua Hirsch who chaired the event, was Anjana Ahuja, a former Times columnist, feature writer and now a contributing writer and science commentator at the Financial Times; Megha Mohan of the BBC; Victoria Sanusi of BuzzFeed, and freelance journalist Aisha Gani.
The event was kindly hosted by Wiggin LLP at the their central London headquarters.
We heard that in some parts of the media, women of colour are overlooked and ignored. Even the more enlightened publications, the ones that boast of their commitment to diversity, who honestly believe they’ve achieved balance in the newsroom, are blind to their own failings. They lack any understanding of the extent to which women of colour feel alienated, one panellist said. It was hard for many woc to go up against their bosses and speak out in newsrooms. Publications viewed as progressive are often more resistant to change.
One panellist described when, as a feature writer, she was asked to spend a week in Bradford with the Muslim community. She was Hindu. The commissioning editor, she said, could see nothing but her brown face.
Another said that early on in her career she wrote about race, then feared that she faced being pigeon-holed as a result. Another talked about changing her hairstyle to fit in, to get a foot in the door. The change was eventually reversed when she felt more secure in the role, but the point was that black and Asian journalists shouldn’t have to change how they look in the first place; they shouldn't have to filter themselves.
The authenticity paradox was touched on, and the fear that when woc are asked to speak about our own communities, we feed into a niche. We’re expected to act as spokes people for our cultural group and communities, and put under pressure to prove our authenticity.
A panellist said there was a duty to write stories that challenged stereotypes and showed that ‘black and Asian people are multifaceted’. Tabloids are the worst at demonising black and Asian people, and telling positive stories is just one way of countering it.
The myth of ‘impartiality’ deserved closer scrutiny, another said. Giving a Nazi sympathiser the same treatment as the victim of an acid attack, was just wrong.
The panel touched briefly on Grenfell, with one panellist raising the issue of the nuanced perspective she was able to bring to her reports on the tragedy. Grenfell happened during Ramadan, yet some mainstream publications had no idea, which affected their reporting. (Muslims observing Ramadan are thought to have saved many lives by alerting residents to the fire and helping them to escape.) There was a lack of empathy. Editors sent reporters to cover stories despite how removed they are from the lives of the very people they've been sent to report on.
The audience, mostly women of colour, nodded along to all of this. Everyone present could relate to the stories told by the panellists and if they hadn’t as yet experienced anything similar, there was a good chance that they would, at some point in their careers. So what advice did the panel have for them?
There’s no escaping the fact that journalism is still viewed through the prism of the white upper-class male experience, but things are changing, they said. Change is slow, but there is a growing number of diverse voices, and we need more aspirational people of colour in journalism. And as scary as it might feel, you have to have the confidence to get out there, to raise your profile, and carve out the identity you want for yourself and do it on your terms. Don’t let others tell your story.
Solidarity was important. Don’t be afraid to form alliances, and if the other people around you don’t like it, tough.