I am not your Black unicorn

If newsrooms want to make progress with diversity, we must consider the humanity, complexity and goals of individuals. Here's why I am a journalist.

July 13, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

My radio career began in middle school. For my final project before eighth-grade graduation, I produced (brace yourselves) a call-in radio show about Reconstruction.

“Today we will travel back in time to explore segregation evolving into discrimination throughout American history,” I say in the show open.

I found it on a cassette tape a couple years ago when my parents asked me to clean out my childhood bedroom so they could turn it into an office. You can listen to my extremely high-pitched voice here.

We cast our classmates as callers with a range of scripted opinions on segregation and racism. We had a segment with interviews from Black elders, including my dad, scored heavily with the dramatic musical stylings of Yanni (I was very into Yanni and went to see him in concert just a few years ago). Then, we referenced modern headlines in a sort-of PSA segment. “Racial issues are ever-present,” I say in the narration. “It may seem like everything would be solved if we were all the same race, but the truth is, there is no difference.”

I wonder what 13-year-old Priska would think if I told her that her first full-time job would be working for a call-in show, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” That as recently as June, she’d interview a Black elder and produce a segment for Reveal about the 1967 Detroit uprising (this time with much better scoring). That her most meaningful stories thus far would be about the health risks Black moms and babies face and how racism, not race, is to blame.

I share this history because it is part of who I am as a human and because we all have a reason for doing this work. As newsrooms grapple with their overwhelming whiteness and seek to bring in more Black and brown voices, I want to make one thing crystal clear: We are not your unicorns. We are more than numbers to fill a quota or a quick fix for your newsroom’s long-standing diversity problems. Our unique skills are our own.

As a Black woman in public media, I’ve gotten used to being the only (or one of a few) person of color in any given meeting. I’m also an award-winning reporter and producer, host and newsroom leader with national and local experience. I’ve been able to fight to tell impactful stories about people who look like me with nuance and care. And, even though I’ve had more “difficult conversations” than I can count, I still want to be here. I am passionate about the mission and telling stories with sound.

In order for us to make real progress, we have to move beyond tokenization and truly consider the humanity, complexity and goals of individuals.

Let me tell you an embarrassing story to illustrate what I’m talking about: Years ago, I was approached about a job and decided to apply. After months of phone and Skype calls, I had one of those marathon in-person interviews. It was a full day of meetings with various teams. (I was awkwardly introduced to the few Black employees along the way). At the end of the day, I sat down with the hiring manager. After all of this, I was asked extremely basic questions about my experience. I was disoriented, confused and exhausted. I burst into tears. I was suddenly questioning why I was there at all.

“I never want to be considered for a job just because I am a Black woman,” I eked out as tears streamed down my face. I was assured that that wasn’t what was happening. I didn’t end up working there but this led to a conversation that was illuminating for both of us.

Those tears were about more than that one interview. I know so many journalists of color who have had experiences where it was hinted or even said directly that they were only there because of the color of their skin. And when you start to think about what you bring to the diversity pie, these questions start to haunt you: Am I 25% of the Black employees? 12% of the BIPOC workforce? How many grant proposals or funder luncheons have been framed around my presence in a given newsroom? Am I here because they want me or because I’m checking a box for the finalist pool?

And when we leave one workplace for another, there’s another set of questions we ask ourselves: Will leaving set the newsroom back from achieving its goal to be more reflective of its audience? Will it lead to renewed conversations about retention and recruitment? Will someone continue the coverage I began?

Our leaving is not the problem; the problem is that newsrooms are so overwhelmingly white that one person’s departure can “tank” its “diversity.” If we are missed when we leave, it shouldn’t be because of the diversity reports. It should be because we inspired our colleagues; we did stories no one had ever considered and asked questions no one ever asked. We interviewed people others would have avoided and mentored those others would have cast aside. That’s why more of us are needed in newsrooms. But our mere presence is only the start.

Something I’ve realized only recently is that when lots of people of color leave a workplace, it’s not necessarily an oasis for white employees. It may be that white people, especially white men, are the ones with the confidence needed to navigate problematic working environments. They also may have the privilege that makes them blissfully unaware of the problems. In many cases, white employees are leaving too, but their movement isn’t tracked in the same way.

There are baseline things newsrooms can do better: onboarding, training, feedback, performance evaluations, hiring transparency. This stuff isn’t all corporate B.S. But I’m not saying that a “lift all boats” approach will fix everything. There are things around race and ethnicity that need to be tackled head-on. We all have biases and it’s important to have frank conversations about things like microaggressions and foster a culture where employees feel safe to raise concerns and offer feedback.

Part of my mission is to uplift and empower other journalists of color so that it is a less lonely and loaded experience. I regularly speak to college students and interns so that they know (because I didn’t for a long time) that public radio can be a space for them. When I was a reporter at KPCC in Los Angeles, I went to an elementary school career day for years in hopes that by seeing me, with a mic in my hand, big hair squished by headphones, the children in these diverse schools would know that they can be journalists.

That’s how early I got hooked. I wanted to be a journalist, even before that middle school project. My parents tell me when I was about 5 years old, I used to walk around “interviewing” family members with an imaginary microphone.

My brother, Bill, planted the seed. He was 17 years older and he was my hero. He majored in journalism and, when I was learning to walk and talk, he was an editor at The Hilltop newspaper at Howard University. He started a graphic design business and would pick me up in between dropping things off at the printer. He worked at Knight Ridder to learn more about HTML and publishing. He was a successful entrepreneur. At some point, he was a guest lecturer at Poynter.

My brother didn’t get to hear that radio project in middle school. He died suddenly from a heart issue in 2001. He was 30. I was 13, halfway through eighth grade. Over the years, there have been so many moments when my parents and sisters would say, “I know Bill would be so proud of you.” His life and death shaped so much of who I am and the work I do.

Do you know why your employees and coworkers got into journalism? Do they know about your journey? Are you hiring a person of color because of who they are or what they can represent for an organization? Will their values and ideas be supported once they are there? What are their long-term goals?

Let’s use this current moment to see each other as humans because when we don’t, it can add to a cycle that pushes people out of the field completely. Let’s do some internal reflection, wrestle with the fact that the white gaze is not the standard for objectivity. Realize that serving the audience means supporting the people doing the work. Otherwise nothing is ever going to change.

And to managers making hires right now, here’s some advice from 13-year-old Priska from my sign-off in that eighth-grade radio show: “Make an effort daily to accept others for who they are because we are all human.”

Priska Neely is a reporter and producer at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is based in Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter @priskaneely and on Instagram @priskaradio

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  • I think the most jarring thing for me as I read this piece was to think about how, right at the same moment, you have one person raging and hurting and indignant, while the rest of the world just watches them on Mute. I remember working for the very White London Philharmonic Orchestra and being made to feel time and again that my ethnicity and background was more of an annoyance than anything else– except for that one time they could count me as non-White for their stabilisation funding application when they were in a spot of financial trouble.

  • Fantastic!

    You made me cry with the telling of your big bro. I’m so sorry for your loss. Clearly, he would be proud of you.

    Thank you for all you do. Forward ever!