U.S. Media Have no Moral High Ground in the Diversity and Inclusion Discussion
American mainstream media want us to believe they are champions of diversity, but everything about the industry shows otherwise.
When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, American media became awash with stories and commentaries about how diversity and inclusion were going to be the antidotes to systemic racism.
The stories became even more amplified when Biden put together the most diverse cabinet in American history — one that, unlike his immediate predecessor’s — “looks like America.”
The irony, however, is that the U.S. mainstream journalism industry itself doesn’t look like America. In fact, it has been heading backwards in terms of diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity employment. As a result, only 17 percent of journalists in it are non-white, even though people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. At the New York Times, for example, 81 percent of journalists, are white, despite the city being only 32 percent white. The numbers aren’t any better at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. They are even worse in television and radio journalism, where respectively only 25 percent and 11.7 percent of journalists are of color.
When editors are asked why it’s so difficult to recruit, they often blame young people from minority communities for not seeking careers in journalism. The truth, however, is that there are so many journalists of color who never got a fair chance to work in mainstream newsrooms, or were driven out for attempting to change narratives about their communities.
I know it because I was one of those journalists. Despite being highly skilled and passionate about storytelling, I struggled to find a place in American journalism. The irony is that I am the perfect person of color the gatekeepers of the industry say they can’t find.
Journalism became my calling at a very early age. When I was a child growing up in Kenya, my heroes where journalists. I wanted to be on the radio. I wanted to write for newspapers and magazines, and I’m sure I would have wanted to be on television if I knew what that was when I was a child.
So, I spent most of my childhood reading every printed word I could find in English, Swahili and Ekegusii, the three languages I spoke. When I ran out of books, newspapers and magazines, I read every word on the packaging of products like soap, salt, and bread. One of the most memorable childhood beatings my father ever gave me was after he caught me reading a cigarette packaging I found discarded. By the time I was in Sixth Grade, I had secretly read, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which I found hidden in a suitcase under my father’s bed.
Reading sparked in me a burning desire to tell stories. I began to write in my spare time, which wasn’t common in a culture where most children read and wrote only what they were assigned in school. In my Seventh Grade, I wrote an essay titled, I Want to Be a Doctor When I Grow Up. My English teacher took it to his Eight Grade class to show students an example of how they should write if they wanted to pass the national exam to qualify for high school. I never meant a word of that essay. I wrote it to appease my father, an untrained primary school teacher who had other plans for me.
“Any idiot with a pen can write,” he told me after my English teacher marveled at how well I could write.
I was born in the rural Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya. My mother had no more than five years of primary school, the victim of a culture that valued boys’ education more. (One of my high school teachers — who often started class with a misogynistic joke about my female classmates — used to say that a woman only needed enough education to differentiate between her husband’s important documents, and the wastepaper she might use to kindle fire).
As a male child, my father set to become one of Kenya’s leaders. In 1965, he enrolled in one of the best high schools in the region. But he dropped out after only one year because his father abandoned my grandmother and their nine children, making it impossible for her to pay for high school, which isn’t free in Kenya.
After years of unskilled employment, my father was hired as an untrained primary school teacher by borrowing a cousin’s high school diploma, and bribing authorities to get an identification card that matched it. It was common practice back then. He got away with it because it was soon after independence from Britain, and education was open to all, not just those who embraced Christianity and collaborated with the colonial government. Because of the unprecedented influx of new students, the government of Africans was so desperate for teachers that anyone who could read, write, and speak in English and Swahili, and could do basic arithmetic got a job as a teacher.
My father’s classmates, whose parents did everything right, became lawyers, judges, CEOs, architects, professors, members of parliament, accountants. My father wanted to live their lives vicariously through me.
When, according to him, I couldn’t show potential to greatness, he responded with violence and verbal abuse. His heavy hand stripped me of all my self-esteem and made me feel stupid and incapable of ever amounting to anything. That was confirmed after high school when I failed the college entrance exam. (Later in my adulthood, I learned that I didn’t fail. Like many Kenyans, I was the victim of a corrupt government that raised the college entrance bar so high to lock students like me out of high education because that was easier than building more than the four existing universities that catered for a country of 30 million people).
By the time I arrived in the United States at the age of 20, my father had beaten my dream of becoming a writer out of me. I was so distant from that dream that as I struggled in college to decide on my major, a career in journalism never crossed my mind. But as I went through my undergraduate studies at California State University, Hayward, my writing caught the attention of a few professors.
Prof. Lonny Brooks asked for permission to make copies of my term papers to show my classmates an example of a well-written term paper. Prof. Marsha Ginsburg, a veteran journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, encouraged me to join the student newspaper, where I would rise through the ranks to become its editor-in-chief. And Dr. Robert Terrell — a no-nonsense professor students said would give you a C if you “work your ass off” — gave me straight A’s.
“The best writer in this class wasn’t even born in this country,” he would tell his American students.
I was happy to rediscover the confidence I had lost in my childhood as a writer. I was even more encouraged by numerous classroom discussions about lack of diversity in American journalism, which, like the editors I would encounter later, seemed to blame students of color for not studying journalism.
I vowed not to make the same mistake.
Terrell encouraged me to apply for graduate school in journalism. To my surprise, the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, accepted me.
“You are going to do great,” one professor told me. “Newsrooms are going to be fighting for you because they are looking for highly educated black journalists.”
Having worked at my undergraduate college newspaper, I found my first semester at Berkeley to be easy — even boring at times. On the contrary, many of my classmates didn’t have newswriting experience because they came from undergraduate majors like English, history, and philosophy. I became their unofficial teaching assistant and tutor, which I really enjoyed because it proved that I had earned my admission, something students of color are often implicitly asked to explain. But by the end of my second semester, I began to think I had made a mistake.
I learned very quickly that mainstream newsrooms didn’t want highly educated journalists of color. In fact, I began to feel like my blackness was a liability.
In the summer between the two years of graduate school, students were required to take an internship. I submitted dozens of applications by mail and in person at internship fairs hosted by Berkeley.
I didn’t receive any offers.
Those who were kind enough to give an explanation told me they were looking for students who had daily newspaper experience. I didn’t have the courage to ask the editors how my white classmates got internships without experience. Afraid that I might miss out on graduation, I petitioned the school to let me substitute internship for an independent project in Kenya through the university’s Human Rights Center.
Although I was glad to spend the summer with my family in Kenya, I returned to the journalism school angry. I felt betrayed by my college educators. How could I spend several years and tens of thousands of dollars on university education and not learn that a highly educated black man must still know his place in America? I would have appreciated if someone had mentioned that I was a black man first, and a highly educated man second, and therefore could never get the same privileges as my white peers — even those who didn’t perform as well as I did in school. What I got instead was America through the eyes of my mostly liberal white professors, who thought what we were in “post-race America.”
By my last semester at Berkeley, I had become so incensed that I would argue with the so-called “equal opportunity” employers for contradicting their commitment to “diversity and inclusion.” When the job and internship fair returned to Berkeley, I blatantly told every editor who declined me that the daily newspaper experience requirement was racist, citing the fact that many of my white classmate had gotten internships and even jobs without prior experience. When one professor told me that an editor had complained that I was “confrontational” and “unprofessional”, I told him I didn’t care how the editor felt about me.
Over the years, I have learned that the reason there aren’t enough people like me in American newsrooms isn’t because we don’t go into journalism. I have attended annual conventions and seen long lines of journalists of color still looking for work, even as mainstream media set up booths and declare they are there because of their commitment to diverse newsrooms.
I have since learned that white people embrace “diversity and inclusion” only if they are the ones who decide what those words mean. They are not interested in hearing from us what would make us feel accepted in white spaces. They want us to write stories that confirm the racist stereotypes they have been spreading about our communities for centuries. Journalists of color who toe that line do well. Those who challenge the racist narratives get labeled “unprofessional” and “difficult to work with.”
I remember one day coming back from Kenya with footage I had gathered for a documentary about then 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama. As we sat in the editing room putting the story together, I proposed to use a shot of me walking down a beautiful street in downtown Nairobi to transition to the next scene.
“That doesn’t look like Africa,” the editor countered.
“What does Africa look like?” I asked, insensible to the implications.
The image of Africa the editor had was of the giraffes my cameraman filmed as we drove west from Nairobi to Obama’s ancestral home. The editor and I had what I thought was a constructive discussion about why I didn’t want my film to be full of stereotypical images of Africa. I informed the editor that correcting that flawed image was the reason I had gotten into journalism. In the end, we agreed to include both giraffes and the shot I had proposed.
But that was not the end of it.
The editor’s attitude towards me changed completely. The warm greetings I often got from the editor ceased. I began to worry that I might never get another assignment approved. When I asked another person on the staff why the editor had turned cold, I was told that the editor had said that I was difficult to work with.
If I were in any other profession, such things wouldn’t have worried me. I would’ve just applied for my next job and kept my relationship with the editor out of my resume. But in journalism, our work is public. A potential employer can do an online search for your published work and contact any of your past editors. If the editor says you are unprofessional and difficult to work with, that’s your ass. After years of sending resumes and cover letters into black holes, I gave up on ever working in mainstream American journalism.
I would spend more than six years driving for Uber and Lyft to provide for my family. For most of those years, I kept my driving a secret from even my closest friends because I was too ashamed. Many African immigrants who drive cabs do so to pay their way through college, graduate school, and into white collar jobs. I felt like a loser for finishing graduate school first then going backwards to earn my living by driving people around.
My experience is not unique. I have had discussions with numerous journalists of color who have either been fired or been victims of implicit efforts to frustrate them. Many of have quit journalism.
“I didn’t want to do stories [about my community] that sound like a white man wrote them,” one journalist told me when I asked why he quit what seemed like a dream job to go work at a home improvement store.
Another one left his job after his employers told him to take lessons to learn how to speak “the English most people understand,” if he wanted more on camera reporting. My friend’s English became a problem only after he voiced concerns over his newsroom’s sole focus on stories of crime in the African-American community.
Yet, the gatekeepers of the mainstream media want us to believe that they are champions of diversity and inclusion. But everything about the industry in the United States shows otherwise. As other industries have continued to make strides — albeit small ones — towards a more inclusive workplace, journalism has headed in the opposite direction.
In the 1990’s, news media published stories about new trends of industries going outside their traditional pool of white candidates to recruit. They wrote about a globalizing world where U.S. universities, and companies in Silicon Valley were increasingly looking abroad for the best talent. Journalists reviewed Hollywood movies starring foreign-born stars. And they wrote about professional sports teams acquiring players from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
But, as if journalists weren’t reading their own work, they let the trend of globalization they covered pass them by. Instead of media companies exploring ways diversity could help them stay relevant, they closed international bureaus and downsized their staff at home. Predictably, journalists of color were among the first ones to be let go. (I know a newsroom where six out of 10 reporters laid off at one time were not white).
Yet for four years, journalists in mainstream media relentlessly attacked President Donald Trump’s administration for tearing down progress the country had made towards racial parity. They felt confident in doing so because their definition of white supremacy is limited to the use of racial epithets. If they had embraced diverse newsrooms, we might have told them that racist slurs of typical white supremacists are of little harm to us because such people are often too poor and uneducated to impact our lives. It is systemic white supremacy that is detrimental to our well being, and the Fourth Estate plays a significant role in its existence.
Denying journalists of color like me opportunities, or driving them out of journalism for attempting to correct racist narratives about their communities, gives more prominence to the bigoted ideas of the white people who have dominated the industry for centuries. That is the perfect example of enabling the ideology of white supremacy.
Until the American mainstream newsrooms begin to acknowledge the systemic racism that exists within themselves and become open to honest discussions about reforms, they shall have no right to lecture Americans about the dangers of white supremacy.