Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox the last Wednesday of every month.
When I was covering a protest one day in Brooklyn, an elderly woman came up to me. She was shorter than me, her hair was silver, and she walked with a limp. I can’t remember if she held a cane. I was standing on the side of a crowd that had gathered, with a notepad in one hand, a camera around my shoulder and my press pass around my neck.
Old women at protests are usually sweet and warm. They ask me where I work, what I am covering, where I am from. Sometimes they tell me they like my hijab. And then they ramble on about how they went on their daily walk, saw the protest and just had to join. I always enjoy speaking with old women. So when she approached me, I smiled.
“Did Arabs murder any people today?” she asked. “Did your people burn any pregnant women?”
I was stunned. I couldn’t seem to comprehend what she asked. I stood there, and she stood there, too, staring at me, as if daring me to answer. I think I muttered a “no” until someone approached the woman and told her, “Let’s go walk over there.” She left, but I still stood there.
Later, I would wonder why I hadn’t answered her. I would wonder why I didn’t tell her, “Ma’am, you are racist.” I would wonder why I didn’t educate her. I would wonder why — as a person who encourages others to share with me their truth, as a person who is obsessed with words for a living — no words came out of my own mouth at a time when they should have most.
For the past three and a half years, I have covered everything Brooklyn. From crime, to the opening of a small business, to the pandemic, to lost dogs who later found each other, to politics, to death. Brooklyn is huge and it’s diverse. I live in a neighborhood surrounded by Muslims on one side, Orthodox Jews on the other. Right across from my building is a Roman Catholic church. Brooklyn is the only place I have ever truly known, which is why by default it’s a place that I write about. I try to write stories I never grew up reading, about communities not usually covered by the media. If we don’t share the stories of people in the communities that we belong to, how can we trust anybody else to?
People often write to me online. Sometimes they send an email. They DM me. They comment under my article on Facebook. “Anti-Semite.” “Terrorist.” This is nothing new, and thousands of Muslims experience the same thing. Other Muslim women journalists experience this, too.
About four years ago, a bunch of reporters and I were on Ocean Parkway covering the Port Authority pipe bomber story. I remember a prominent reporter from a prominent news channel approached me, her cameraman right behind her. I was a new reporter at the time, so I thought she would ask me which outlet I was from. Instead, she asked if I was related to the bomber. I remember I reached out for my press pass; perhaps it was my fault and it wasn’t visible. But it was visible. I told her no. I told her I was a reporter. She let out an “oh.” And then she laughed and walked away, leaving me to wonder.
I’ve learned that if we experience these things, we should tell our editors. Or our friends. Or our colleagues. And if and when we are comfortable, we can call them out. Of course, lots of women journalists face harassment from sources and colleagues. But Muslim women journalists also face harassment from the very community we are a part of.
I had written an article about a beloved masjid that was receiving pushback from community members. And then I received messages from uncles — men in my local Pakistani community: “What kind of Muslim are you?” “You are supposed to amplify our voices, not criticize us.” “How are you any different from white journalists?” “You know what this makes you? A kaafir.”
A kaafir is a nonbeliever. An infidel. A person who rejects Islam. It is not me.
I’d laugh it off when I’d first see these messages. It’s easy to dismiss these people as trolls, sitting behind a screen with nothing else to do. And my first instinct is always to laugh. But after some time, I’d find myself thinking about them. Am I using my journalism to disgrace Muslims, or am I strictly telling the truth in hopes that some positive change comes to this community? Ultimately, my purpose is the latter. And it will always be the latter.
I haven’t written about the apartheid in Palestine yet, but I do tweet about it. And I’ve gotten “you’re an anti-Semite” DMs. But this time, I don’t let it bother me because there’s far too much at stake for anyone to stay silent. And I don’t think journalists of color who cover this kind of stuff should let unfounded criticism bother them. We are writing about an ethnic cleansing currently taking place. We are writing about death and suffering. We are criticizing how our white journalism industry makes it a “both sides” issue and calls it a “conflict.” Raising awareness is the absolute least we can do.
It’s hard being in an industry where a lot of people don’t look like you. It’s hard knowing that in many parts of this country, people don’t look like me; that people despise anyone who looks like me. It’s hard when you are not protected by the industry you work in. Why would the leaders of the organizations we work for rather fire us for anti-apartheid views than embrace us? It’s hard when people say you are biased because you report on your faith.
Representation matters so much, in every industry, but particularly this one. We have a duty to tell all these stories of so many people who don’t fit the John and Jane Doe profiles. We have an obligation to tell the stories of people who look like us — of communities who were ignored or only written about to fit an agenda.
If we stop writing, then how do we create the change we so desperately need?
The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.
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This story originally published on July 1.