My first job in media was as a television producer. I was 28 years old, eager and brimming with ideas, some of which I’m sure were good and others of which I’m sure were not. Not long after starting the job, I asked to produce a segment with a well-known black actor whose work I had long followed. As the only black producer there, I knew from experience that when walking into an entirely white environment, it always felt good to be greeted by another brown face.
My white male coworker, who produced a lot of the entertainment segments and clearly wanted to meet this actor himself, said to me, in front of the entire staff: “Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you get to produce all the black guests.”
This producer had a point: He may have known just as much about film and this man's career as I did, and being black doesn't necessarily make me better qualified to do a segment about a black person. But his response was so hostile and pointed that there was no doubting his intentions: He was making clear that he wasn't afraid to mention my race aloud, lest I thought it was my personal ace in the hole. His assumption seemed to be that I’d use my race as a cudgel to get good assignments. His strategy, in turn, was to use it as a cudgel right back.
That incident over 15 years ago wasn’t an outlier. It was an initiation into a career fraught with similar experiences. And now I've had enough—I'm quitting the mainstream media.
It’s a strange and incredibly demoralizing time to be a black person in American media. The words “racist and “racism” have cynically become clickbait, all while various newsrooms are claiming that they want to hire more writers and reporters and editors of color, but don’t. What it feels like you are hearing is: We’re not really trying to diversify our newsrooms, because we don’t actually have to.
Among the challenges that make racism so difficult to fix, and so odiously constant, is that white people often don’t even recognize when they’re saying or doing something that cuts their black colleagues to the bone. Or worse, they do recognize when they’re being racially insensitive, but then demonstrate some semblance of regret and move on unscathed. If we can't say anything about this kind of behavior—or don’t—then who will? What’s more, if we do speak up, particularly if we are among the chosen few who are granted a voice in mainstream media, at what cost?
Since leaving my most recent staff position with an online publication last summer, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on my career in the media industry. In doing so, it has occurred to me that at nearly every job I have ever had, I have encountered some sort of racial incident—either personally directed at me or witnessed by me as a third party.
Since that first media job as a TV producer, I have held editor positions at a range of startups and other online outlets. I started to recognize a pattern after one job when a white coworker openly dismissed an idea to write about a black artist on the rise: “Nobody even knows who she is.” Actually, I said, a lot of people know who she is. “Mostly just black people, though,” she countered. I argued that “a lot of black people” set the tone and establish pop cultural relevance in this country. My coworker was stunned. She looked at me with an expression of both disbelief and betrayal.
At the start of each new job, where I was almost invariably the only black editor on staff (unless it was a black publication—I have worked at a few), I would be heralded for my “voice” (and the implicit diversity it brought), until that voice became threatening or intimidating, or just too black. My ideas were “thoughtful” and “compassionate” until I argued, say, that having white journalists write the main features on a new black news venture sent the wrong message to the black online community. My editors disagreed.
Years later, in a conversation about Trayvon Martin with another boss, I said something like, “Racism is real.” My white boss came back with an answer that still astonishes me: “But you don’t experience racism, right? I mean, you’re attractive and educated—I can’t imagine that you would ever experience racism.”
And a colleague, perhaps thinking she was being progressive rather than insensitive, once told me that she would hire a “good” black editor over a “very good” white one—as if this were an either-or proposition.
This is how it has gone throughout my entire career. I love media, and I am not necessarily leaving the industry forever, or even entirely. I will continue to write and be vocal about race and culture in America on various platforms. But I'm leaving the staff bullpen of journalism. I'm tired of jockeying for position in a profession that never hesitates to finger "racists" in public, but can't see the very real racism in its own newsrooms.