Opinion

I Tried To Talk To My Bosses About Racism At Work

Spoiler: it didn't go well. At the end of 2019, I left the Globe and Mail, convinced that no one with real power there was ever going to pursue true equity, either inside the newsroom or in its coverage.

An image of one brown egg lined up among white eggs.

(Photo: iStock)

Along with every other institution, journalism is facing a reckoning on racism. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked local unrest that quickly became global, more proof that struggles against anti-Blackness and racism are ongoing everywhere, always. That includes inside newsrooms, where white supremacy takes the form of homogeneous editorial teams producing simplistic and often harmful stories—and where racialized journalists have long pushed for change.

The American stories are flashier, as they always are: accusations of discrimination have caused Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport to do a spectacular flameout, Variety to put its editor-in-chief on leave, the opinion editor of the New York Times to resign and even Anna Wintour to apologize. But Canadian media is just as troublesome, and Black, Indigenous and other racialized journalists here are just as fed up. Now, many of us are finally willing to say so.

The list grows daily. It includes writer and producer Kathleen Newman-Bremang, who spoke about her frustrations at her former employer, CTV—out loud, during a live CTV segment. After the National Post ran a column about the supposed lack of racism in Canada, reporter Vanmala Subramaniam criticized her workplace on Twitter, then wrote her own column to counter the first. Using the hashtag #BlackintheNewsroom, former Toronto Star reporter Morgan Campbell spoke about the condescension and open hostility he’s faced during his career.

Fifth Estate reporter Ronna Syed collected tweets that her colleagues had made describing their experiences at CBC, and there were a lot of them. One of the worst stories was from Tlingit radio host Christine Genier, who says she had a non-Indigenous colleague show up at her house uninvited, to explain that the increase in Indigenous reporters in newsrooms had been difficult—for them. And the vanguard award goes to the team at the Vancouver Sun, which did away with Canadian racism-masked-as-politeness way back last September, when many of them used Twitter to condemn an anti-immigrant op-ed in their paper.

I get spikes of adrenaline watching racialized journalists tell their truths, followed by a flush of shame at not joining in. Canadian media is a very small pond, and the unspoken rule against criticizing its big fish—especially regarding issues of race, representation and equity—became clear early in my career. Doing so is intimidating, even though (or maybe because) I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. But if so many others can overcome fears of being marked as troublesome, or simply gossiped about, then I can too.

My first job was at Toronto Life, as the magazine’s first online editor. For four years there, I was the only non-white editorial employee; there, I learned that media in this city generally sees the suburbs where I grew up, which are full of Black and brown people, as fodder only for stories about crime or poverty. I then freelanced for a decade—broken up by a year-long internship at the Toronto Star—writing hundreds of pieces for all the big institutions, as well as smaller indie and trade magazines. I’m so old I remember Saturday Night, but can’t remember if I ever wrote for it.

So when I say that mainstream media in this country has a racism and representation problem, I know what I am talking about. And when I say that trying to discuss this problem with those in power is an exhausting, infuriating exercise, I also know what I am talking about. Most recently, I left the Globe and Mail, convinced that no one with real power there was ever going to pursue true equity, either inside the newsroom or in its coverage.

I was offered a full-time job at the Globe in fall 2015. Of course I knew that the paper was “conservative,” whatever that means. I also knew the editorial staff was overwhelmingly white (I’d estimate 90 percent when I left). Sure, I worried about being a beard. But I also wanted financial stability, and I’m a skilled professional who does good work. I took the job, telling myself that the day I hesitated to speak up about something that bothered me is the day that I would quit.

I’ve never had hiring power, but I tried to be proactive. As an editor, I assigned a variety of stories to racialized writers, and LGBTQ writers as well. As a columnist, I tried to be equally wide-ranging, and to not always focus on discrimination and trauma. I was on the style and grammar committee when it decided to replace “illegal” immigrant with “irregular,” and to use they/them pronouns for transgender and non-binary interviewees. I argued for capping Black, as in people and cultures, but the topic was repeatedly shelved until this month, when the Globe joined all the other publications monumentally deciding to make the smallest possible change.

I was intimidated then, too, but I didn’t let my bosses off the hook. At the end of 2016, for example, a masthead editor congratulated me on Colour Code, a podcast about race in Canada that I co-produced (while also working as an editor and columnist). He said he was happy that the show was a big success, and that the Globe was finally addressing racism consistently in its coverage. This was at a party, and there was wine. So I asked, without demurring, “When are we hiring more Black and Indigenous journalists?”

His response was one I heard often: that media organizations are shrinking and there just wasn’t any money for new hires. I was also told, often, that as older journalists retired, the newsroom would start to look more like modern Canada. Well, there were two rounds of buyouts while I was at the Globe, and the problem persists: last summer’s buyouts actually decreased racial diversity in management. In 2018 and 2019, I can think of four full-time, permanent editorial hires there who were racialized. None were Black, or Indigenous. In that same time period, at least 12 white people were hired in full-time, permanent editorial jobs. Seven were women, and research out of the U.S. shows clearly that white women are the greatest beneficiaries of diversity and affirmative action initiatives.

Along with wine-soaked asides, I had a number of formal meetings about race and racism with senior Globe managers. In June 2019, I spoke to a masthead editor about an editorial that dismissed the use of the word “genocide” in the final report of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (incidentally, the head of the editorial board once told that my “ideology” precluded me from joining the team myself). In November 2018, I spoke to my manager about the departure of Vancouver reporter Sunny Dhillon, who had quit abruptly before writing about his own experiences with racism at the Globe. Both times, I was told that there was no budget to hire racialized reporters or editors, which I argued would result in better, deeper, smarter coverage.

And in July 2018, I had a conversation with editor-in-chief David Walmsley regarding a story about then-Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. At the time, Hussen had held a small event at a Nigerian restaurant in Toronto. The Globe’s story called the restaurant a “known hangout” for the “notorious Black Axe criminal syndicate,” which was described as a group that had originally had a “focus on reviving African culture” but had “morphed into a criminal organization.”

In the story, the owner of the restaurant denied involvement with the Black Axe, using the word “unfair.” Although “intimidation” of the Nigerian diaspora was listed as a Black Axe tactic, there was no suggestion that if its members were frequenting the restaurant, it might be against the will of the owners. The story also stated that Hussen hadn’t been briefed on any possible affiliation between the restaurant and the group. In short, the basic throughline was “Black Canadian politician goes to place; Black bad guys have also gone there, at other times.”

A day or two later, I heard that the restaurant was receiving significant abuse, and was forwarded an email that had been sent to the owner, with a photo of lynched Black bodies and a violent, Islamophobic message. I spoke to my manager, who said that the Hussen story was one I’d have to take up with Walmsley. So I sat down with the Globe’s top editor in his office, which is glass-walled and faces the entire newsroom.

He defended the story’s merit, and dismissed the idea that the Globe bore any responsibility for the racist abuse the restaurant was receiving because of it. Our conversation was 42 minutes long and not satisfying to me at all. This is how I remember it ending: “It’s probably true that we should run more stories about Nigerians that aren’t about migrants or the Black Axe,” Walmsley said. “The Nigerians that I know love music and soccer.” I thanked him for his time.

This week, when I asked Walmsley to comment for this column, he confirmed my recollection via email. He clarified that he does believe that what happens after a story comes out is beyond the Globe’s control, as long as the paper hasn’t been “irresponsible in assessing facts and what we decide to publish.”

I usually liked my actual job at the Globe, as well as many of my colleagues. But the overall environment was exhausting, and being held responsible for racially inept stories while out in the world was embarrassing. By mid-2019, summoning the energy to address what bothered me seemed pointless. I began looking for a new job. At least I kept that promise to myself.

Last Thursday, the union that represents my former colleagues released a statement about “long-standing internal problems of lack of diversity” and “a workplace culture that thrives on and often rewards white male privilege.” For over a decade, the Globe’s response to such concerns has been to form that time-honoured change-avoidance body: a diversity committee, tasked with fixing problems it has no power over. According to the statement, a current employee was on one 18 years ago.

One of those diversity committees met in the summer of 2015, and wrapped up around the time I was hired. I was at a town hall meeting where Walmsley said in front of the entire newsroom that he accepted each of the committee’s recommendations in full. I heard him make a number of promises, including the public release of a demographic survey of the newsroom. Much later, we were told that conducting a mandatory survey and releasing it publicly wasn’t possible. I believe the reason stated was privacy law.

It’s grossly unfair how often racialized staff everywhere make ourselves vulnerable just so our workplaces are more bearable, never mind actually fair. We organize workshops, sit on committees, and respond to white colleagues’ inquiries—which are well-meaning and even intelligent, but also labour, for which we should be recognized and paid.

Certain burdens are particular to journalism: a Globe social media editor told me last year that my columns attracted, by far, the most disturbing comments. Hate mail and trolling are compounded by the mental stress of constantly documenting racism, especially for Black journalists reporting on police brutality.

And despite publicly championing free expression, media organizations often have codes of conduct barring journalists from openly criticizing stories they find problematic. At the Globe, my tweets earned me more than one talking-to from my manager. On her last live show before she quit last week, Genier mentioned her issues with the CBC’s “Journalistic Standards and Practices.” Requiring professionalism shouldn’t equal silencing the voices of marginalized employees, particularly when enforcement of such standards is uneven at best.

Journalists are incurable gossips, and racialized journos maintain our sanity by gossiping about the daily indignities we suffer at the hands of our white bosses and colleagues. While editors-in-chief are ultimately responsible for the make-up and output of their teams, all the publishers, directors, producers, managers and colleagues who stand by as racialized employees repeat themselves, year after year, are helping to hold up the structure of institutional racism. If you’re worried about your past behaviour and whether we’ve talked about you, no need to worry any longer: we have.

Any genuine attempt at repair begins with putting Black and Indigenous women into senior editorial positions, and making sure they have everything they need to succeed. This is why pursuing equity is still and always my job, too. Chatelaine is the most racially diverse masthead I’ve ever been on, and I genuinely believe everyone on our small team cares about telling the true breadth of stories relevant to women in Canada. The effect on my mental health has been significant and our freelance roster is almost exactly what I’ve always dreamed of. But we don’t have any Black or Indigenous women on our staff, and I haven’t even touched on LGBTQ status or ability here. The work goes on.

For 20 years, I’ve argued that diversifying mastheads is about equity, but also growing audiences and improving Canadian journalism, which currently tells less than half of the story. For 20 years, few with power have listened to me, or to so many others. We’ve been biting our tongues, as our mouths filled with blood. Eventually, some of it was going to spill out.

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