Overcoming systemic racism begins in our own newsrooms

I’ve concluded that silence is complicity — and I will no longer be silent.

June 26, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

Dear newsroom leaders:

Like many of you, George Floyd’s death has shaken something loose in me.

I am angry. I am heartbroken. I am unsettled.

I am also acutely aware.

Aware that the system of white supremacy that paved the way for Floyd’s death is the same system at work in our newsrooms. Aware of the ways newsroom leaders have allowed white superiority to harm our colleagues. And aware of the part I’ve played in that harm, enabling people who have both given me so much and benefited from my silence.

I’ve concluded that silence is complicity — and I will no longer be silent.

I am white and Latinx. I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and a fourth-generation Texan. I grew up the youngest of seven in an extended family whose Mexican heritage flowed proudly on both sides of the border. Our food, our Catholicism, our love for the mariachi ballads my mother swayed to while performing weekend chores — all little markers of my identity that I suppressed in certain contexts as I grew older. Being proud of my Mexican roots (and oh, was I proud) drew grade school challenges from my brown classmates (“But do you speak Spanish, güera?”) and indifference from white peers. Both stung for different reasons.

After college, I was complaining to a mentor of mine — a Brazilian foreign correspondent-turned college professor who began every class with “Good moooooorning, America!” — about my so-so Spanish. “I really think I need to do immersion. I’ll never be able to work in Spanish!” I said. He urged me to read Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s book “Mexican Enough.”

I’m sure he figured the title was advice enough, but so was the story. Griest, a third-generation Mexican American, set off on a yearlong journey to explore her Mexican heritage and reclaim her roots. In the book, she recounts episodes of insecurity so familiar to me, the moments when you’re challenged to answer, “Who do you think you are?”

“For a biracial, nothing is more humiliating than this: trying to be half of yourself while the other half keeps intervening — and getting caught,” Griest writes.

This feeling has been with me every time I go to conferences for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, where eyes inevitably scan my face then my name and then my face again; every time I’m asked to present my work in Latin America, where I’m sure to rattle off a few go-to phrases in perfect Spanish; every time I’m invited to participate in forums with journalists of color, where I’m hyper-wary of being seen as an outsider. It’s impostor syndrome on steroids.

As much as I’ve grappled with this dual identity, I know I’ve also benefited from it. Employers have gladly ticked their diversity boxes on account of my being Hispanic, while I’ve reaped all the benefits of being white, including the ability to use my voice in ways that my Black and brown colleagues never could.

One time a veteran print editor — the kind who’d done tours overseas and written books — became unhappy with me for encouraging my digital team to collaborate with his print reporters. He called me to tell me to stop, and I, the 20-something digital editor that I was, declined. This was my job, and I was not going to tell a journalist not to contact another journalist for advice on a story because that defeated the entire purpose of having a newsroom. When the yelling commenced, I yelled back — and lived to tell the tale.

In retrospect, I am not proud of my reaction. As a woman who has regularly been labeled “difficult” for being assertive, I have learned to temper my voice. But I also know that I was and am able to exercise my voice, my experience and my leadership more freely simply because I am white. I can speak out without being worried that my job will be in jeopardy.

This is my privilege.

And while I know these things, I rarely speak about them. Throughout my 18 years in professional journalism, I have been profoundly uncomfortable claiming my full identity — the Latinx upbringing that informs my desire to make journalism more diverse and responsive to the communities we serve, and the white privilege that affords me a life and career that shouldn’t be any more accessible to me simply because I am less of a threat to my white colleagues.

But I’ve come to realize that no matter how much “good” we think we do through our journalism — elevating other voices, exposing wrongdoing, holding the powerful to account — the silence we wield within our own newsrooms is as dangerous as it is hypocritical.

Systemic injustice requires systematic dismantling.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a whole lot of box-ticking by my white peers scrambling to confront racism in the newsroom — read the books, listen to the podcasts, get educated. But this is just the beginning of this work. There is no point in accumulating all this knowledge if it doesn’t move us to reexamine our own thoughts, behaviors and language with a sincere intention of undoing the harm we are — whether we like it or not — complicit in. Because this work isn’t done with one book read or one box checked.

Journalists spend a lot of time hand-wringing over the lack of diversity in newsrooms (to the extent that newsrooms even report those figures) and ways to build better pipelines of candidates of color. And they should. But there needs to be a deeper reckoning around the culture that we hire journalists of all colors into, where white privilege predominates in ways that consistently minimize the voices and experiences of the very communities white leaders claim to want to prioritize — and reinforce white privilege as the ideal.

Here are a few places we can start, based on my observations as a leader with feet in both worlds, who has earned the trust of many brown and Black journalists, and who has also too often been silent in spaces where those same colleagues are absent.

Be more transparent about salaries. The lack of transparency around salaries disproportionately serves white men and women in our newsrooms. I learned early on, thanks to male mentors, how to negotiate my salary. How to ask for what I wanted, instead of starting with my previous salary. How to do my homework on similar positions in comparable newsrooms and to know the market. I have spent the better part of two hours in an in-person job interview that only went so long because it was so enjoyable, only to have it cut abruptly short when I dared to ask for what I knew I was worth. I ended up getting the job and the salary. I have prided myself in helping my mentees — especially young women — negotiate their own salaries. But you know what would be a whole lot better than teaching as many people as possible the secret handshakes of salary negotiation? Adopting transparent starting salaries for open positions and paying people according to them — something we intend to do from now on at The 19th.

Don’t hide behind human resources. This is not a blanket swipe against newsroom HR directors. In fact, I’ve had incredibly positive experiences with HR, both as a junior staffer and a manager, throughout my career. But I have also seen HR used to shield senior leaders from having to substantively address concerns of inequity or mistreatment, especially when directed toward white newsroom leaders. On occasions where I have passed along concerns from my brown and Black colleagues to my white peers, I have been met with the inevitable, “Well, yes, but there’s always another side to the story.” That’s code for, “Leave it alone.” And that has been that. I do understand, as a manager, that there is almost always more to the story. But citing HR can’t be the default mode of escaping accountability, and frankly, if your team feels like HR is the only place they can go to safely raise concerns, you’ve got a bigger problem. Which leads me to my next point.

Invite more honest conversations on race and identity. Employ the same sense of humility, empathy, curiosity and concern that you’d apply to address any other issue that you don’t yet know enough about. Better yet, don’t make personnel issues the only time you’re talking about race in the newsroom. If we’re walking the walk, that means hiring diverse newsrooms where people bring their lived experiences with them to work. How do these experiences shape conversations had in Slack, in the break room, in social settings? How comfortable are your colleagues pitching story ideas born from lived experiences? Are critical questions of coverage raised by colleagues or readers consistently engaged or ignored?

Diversifying is about more than who we hire. It’s about how we operate. It means reexamining all our defaults: our sources, our networks, our commitments, the way we get everyday things done. Who’s at the table for decisions about standards, process, workflows and resourcing? Please also realize that when you call in favors, the people who tend to benefit most are people who look like you. It’s the same reason so many sources in our stories are white men: because it’s often convenient to access those voices. Every time we tap an existing relationship to get something done (perhaps cheaper, perhaps faster), we’re foreclosing on opportunities for talented Black and brown colleagues to step into those roles and for us to diversify our networks. Collective white privilege is a likely factor in someone’s ability to do you a favor or cut you a deal in the first place.

These are just a few of the ways white superiority is reinforced in our industry, but there are many more. I’m tempted to say “I don’t raise them to assign blame or judgment” — but actually, I do. Perhaps it’s the Catholic in me. One upside of being raised with so much Catholic guilt: I’m accustomed to living with that kind of reckoning and discomfort.

What I’ve grown to realize, though, is that naming a fault is one of the best ways to move past it and grow through it. That death brings new life and transformation. That is what Nikole Hannah-Jones — the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and MacArthur fellow — has done with the New York Times’ 1619 project. She has named the roots of systemic injustice so that we may finally acknowledge our failures and grow through them.  Her journalism presents an opportunity, yet it provokes such anger among those more interested in preserving the status quo.

I sincerely hope that we, as newsroom leaders, will name and confront our own collective failures. That we will put down our defenses. That we will break our silence. And that we will build and grow something new in its wake: a representative industry that is far more reflective of and responsive to the communities we serve.

Amanda Zamora is publisher and co-founder of The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy. You can connect with her on Twitter @amzam or at azamora@19thnews.org

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