It’s an act of racial repression when others attempt to force-fit my professional identity and ambitions into false constructs about women journalists of color based on what people think they see when looking at me.
At the risk of being accused of trying to win a gold medal in the Oppression Olympics, I’m going to go long and deep and share some journalistic experiences you may not hear much about. While I’m committed to doing more work in investigative journalism and hard news, I’m doing so at (another) stressful time in America’s racial history where its twisted concepts of racial identity threaten press freedom in ways few want to address.
Not all my experiences have been negative as a journalist; I’ve gotten great opportunities to do outstanding work more often than not. But, I’m having identity politics imposed in a different way that’s important to recognize. So, hear me out and see this as an opportunity to understand different perspective about America’s obsession with racial identity. I promise I’m going to be an equal opportunity critic of all actors in my personal and professional drama.
There’s no way I’m not going to offend some people and perhaps a number of readers. But I won’t apologize for using my voice to call out repression meant to silence me. I won’t apologize for wanting out of this abusive relationship with white supremacy that leads my experiencing the buffeting black pathology this system begets.
This essay will be a provocative read for some, but I’m not soliciting pity since I don’t feel sorry for myself because I’m experiencing a backlash against me for being me. Rather, I hope my essay engenders positive reflection by those who deal with me, regardless of their race because my challenges aren’t only with white people. I expect those who are thoughtless about the harm they do to women journalists of color with the maltreatment I cover here, whether intentionally or not, will rethink their behavior.
More importantly, after reading this, I invite those engaging in acts meant to limit my choice of identity as well as my journalistic focus to shift their mindset and behavior rather than defensively retreating from the discourse followed by vengeful treatment against me for speaking out against an oppressive institution.
But fighting against others, regardless of race, who use my unique racial identity as (one more) justification for excluding me from work opportunities is repression I won’t stop battling even if some refuse to change.
Mainstream Media’s Neo-Reconstruction
I read somewhere that whites had experienced black overload after eight years of Obama and they wanted their media back. But, they never really lost it. The long history of overwhelming racism in the news industry, where whites and their worldview dominate in media appeared to go on hiatus during the Obama years with more black faces appearing on television.
But the way we got portrayed during Obama’s presidency, including the ways the media covered the back president himself showed that media racism never ended. In fact, there was what Van Jones called whitelash during which some of the worst racism since post-Civil War Reconstruction played out on television news like it did everywhere else in America.
Since Trump’s election, the mainstream media completed its neo-Reconstruction, returning to an industry that rejects diverse voices. We’ve seen most blacks and people of color, especially those with anti-racism activist voices, purged from television news channels and national media sets. That includes those long considered “liberal,” which removed entirely or replaced black faces with white, sometimes conservative, ones.
The price of intellectual, political, and economic independence in any profession is high for women of color, but especially in the high-profile world of media, where speaking out about racial challenges is risky. Everything we do and say must be acceptable under the white gaze to which we’re constantly subject. At the same time, our right to maintain our ‘black card’ gets tested constantly. In both contexts, we must behave respectably or we must remain silent.
The images and most of the news content aired and, in the news, get controlled by whites, and they are the lead anchors and writers. Worse, the news media is shifting right post-Obama, and conservative media is more flagrantly racist than ever, something most whites I know find appalling and repugnant.
I haven’t been exempted from racist experiences because I’m an independent journalist. That racism (and sexism) is why I became one—to define my path and writer’s identity. The price of intellectual, political and economic independence in any profession is high for women of color, but especially in the high-profile world of media, where speaking out about challenges is risky. Everything we do and say must be acceptable under the white gaze to which we’re always subject. At the same time, our right to maintain our ‘black card’ gets tested regularly. In both contexts, we must behave respectably, or we must remain silent.
But, since it’s such a regular part of my experience, telling my unique story about my experiences in both spaces have become important as I begin pursuing this aspect of my journalism career again. It’s a way I can maintain possession of my own journalist’s identity as I participate in this still quite segregated space.
Mixed Racial Confusion: Self-Rejection to Gain Acceptance
Part of other people’s challenge with me is determining where I “fit” as someone often quickly identified as mixed-race–which is not to say “biracial” or even fair-skinned. With looks resembling Tamron Hall’s, I’m multiracial of indigenous North American, Western European and African descent (with some Central American mixed in for interest) and my medium brown skin, facial features, and hair texture reflect that combination. It’s a mix that’s evident in my multiracial family, going back to early America on both sides of my family.
That means ever since I was a preschooler before I was old enough to understand the false construct of “race,” I’ve gotten asked “what are you?” or “you’re not all black, are you?” Because I’m also a well-educated, accomplished professional, these questions have come more from black and other people of color. But whites, often in disbelief I could be so accomplished, and I’m so articulate, have demanded I answer these questions, too.
I’m not talking about people who ask as part of getting to know someone nor am I suggesting all I face is personal and professional hostility. Again, I’m surrounded by plenty of love and respect, and I work for and get offered great opportunities. People who intend to embrace me as most people do inquire about my racial background in a curious manner, not a combative one.
It’s those who ask me the question with an edge in their voice, through clenched teeth sometimes or smiling lips and hostile eyes, as if I just called their baby ugly or worse, slapped their child. They’re defending for their own racial identity or value and believe it’s perfectly acceptable to offend me since they’ve “othered” me.
People who ask me in this manner want to know whose “side” I’m on or if they can trust or be comfortable with me. I’m so comfortable in my skin–with my multigenerational mixed race identity–that I often miss the social cues showing their confusion and their quick acceptance or rejection based on how I “respond to” they’re invasive interrogation about my racial identity. Sometimes outright rejection or acceptance comes without the interrogation, but I quickly figure out why that’s happened.
Those who require I identify myself racially don’t or refuse to understand how dehumanizing that questioning is when it’s posed the way they often do, as an order I give the “right” answer. It requires me to cleave myself into parts and only identify with those that make those in the space I’m occupying at the time most comfortable. I’m supposed to reject the other parts of myself when others make that necessary for acceptance or inclusion in certain spaces.
But, in many places, it “earns” me temporary approval as long as I don’t prove to be too much like the “other” racial identities that don’t make people here feel I’m safe and trustworthy. Because of my comfort with my racial identities (and my understanding of how false they are), I can code switch with ease. I integrate into most situations without appearing to pretend I’m trying to be someone I’m not (though most say I ‘seem’ or ‘sound’ more ‘white’ than anything else I am).
That means for some I’m just ‘white-adjacent’ enough to be comfortable and reliable fit for whatever I’m doing or where I am. For others, I’m just ‘black enough’ for the purpose they have for me at the time. I have to remain consistent in those ‘roles’ while I’m in those spaces to prevent rejection and expulsion from those spaces.
Equal Mistreatment Under U.S. Mixed-Race Politics
Lest readers assume otherwise, whites and people of color take both positions and penalize me for betraying whatever it is they expect me to be at the time. They treat me equally poorly or equally well depending on the response I give them to their question about my racial identity. The truth is they want to define my identity for me in a way that makes them feel comfortable around me but first ask me what I “think” I am to see if I provide their “right” answer.
“Woke” black folks ask to find out if I will deny my indigenous and white heritage and prove I’m black enough but if I claim all my racial identity, I’m accused of denying my blackness, of not being “black enough.” This response often happens whether they identify as monoracial black people or are known to be mixed race themselves but deny anything other than ‘black.’ For these folks, black purity and allegiance to whatever they believe being black means are of paramount importance.
Besides demanding to know ‘where I stand,’ they have one of two objectives in posing this question. One is to remind me that I’m no better than them. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe that; they just want me to know. Some want to show me how much more accomplished they are or remind me how they’re otherwise superior despite my background and racial identity. The other objective is to reject me for not being black enough.
Whites who do this are most likely to be racist liberals, progressives whose movement emanated from conservatism but was no less racist or moderates with whom Martin Luther King took issue in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written just 4 1/2 months before my birth. They are trying to determine if I’m “too black,” therefore too unsafe to part of their always safe world.
The “wrong” answer serves as their trigger warning. My job is quickly to reassure these whites that I’m going to be their black friend though few have genuine black friends. My answer serves as confirmation that they’re either good white people or not…except it’s racist.
White racist conservatives typically see me the way they see Michelle Obama. Since I refuse to deny my black identity and culture or worship them, nothing I can tell them about myself ‘ensure’ them of my value.
Indigenous people, unless they’re also black, deny my right to my indigenous heritage, like they do that of other African Native Americans. At times, have expressed racial animus toward me for asserting that part of my identity. But, that’s not surprising coming from this racial group that also enslaved Africans.
I’m as likely to experience this in professional situations as social ones. None of these groups show any concern about the harm this behavior causes me–including when it’s economic damage.
The Media Profession’s Skin Tax
Throughout my journalism career, some editors and many readers have tried to direct what I write based on their limited views of my gender and perceived racial identity. In some cases, they hostilely demand I fit their idea of what I should be as a journalist. They have worked hard to dispossess me of the identity I believe God gave me. I have had editors of all races do this.
Though this is far from true when I’m writing editorial content for large corporate brands, as a journalist, it remains the case. Apparently, the corporate media hasn’t gotten the memo on the cost of racism in America to all Americans and how it’s causing this country to lose economic ground and political capital globally.
Many editors seem intent on forcing me to work on what makes them most comfortable; some editors only offer me writing opportunities in less intellectually compelling, less lucrative areas of journalism. Frankly, they want to crush my ambitions, limit my financial success, and marginalize me as a journalist. Just as often, because they self-identify as monoracial, these mainstream media and news blog editors want to punish me for being multiracial and making it impossible for them to “place” me racially.
(Then, some castigate me for pursuing much more profitable editorial content writing opportunities from corporate clients committed to diversity and inclusion and willing to treat me as an intellectual equal. In fact, my apparent race hasn’t been made an issue by these clients. All I’m required to prove is I can deliver a consistently excellent work product, and that’s what I focus on providing.)
I push back and insist I’m capable of award-winning investigative journalism and hard-hitting hard news as well as writing about personal finance, political economy, cybersecurity as well as the surveillance-industrial complex and other national (in)security, like the deep state. But, these predominantly white media organizations reject the idea I can write about more than “black issues or subjects,” despite my extensive experience doing exactly that.
When I do agree to write about these matters, it’s almost always from social justice, political equality or economic parity perspective they don’t want (and want to be paid well to write the pieces). Those contexts get rejected, and they either refuse me the opportunity to pitch again or editors with whom I’ve previously worked stop offering me assignments. Not so surprisingly, whites who want to write about the black experience with the same type of depth get those assignments.
Just as often, a publisher’s predominantly white readers and advertisers don’t want to see my face and name behind stories they read or support. Apparently, I’m black enough for my skin to be offensive to them and my expertise, experience, and educational background won’t change that.
Those who feel this way demand I stay in the narrow lane where they’ve placed me in their mind. Otherwise, I will pay the skin tax for attempting to move into to areas where I’m as qualified or being “too black” for wanting to write with an intellectually and politically nuanced approach about black American life.
Often, these editors don’t say much about my attempts to be more than they expect of me. As I said, I just will get few or no opportunities at all from these outlets. In other cases, I’m the “token” black writer who gets occasional work when news organizations need to show ‘diversity’ among their contributors but not regular enough work for them to show inclusiveness. But, if I make mistakes whites would get a pass for, I risk getting cut from their contributor roster permanently.
Several white friends said, in essence, about my speaking out on this issue, “Don’t worry about those who won’t want to work with you if you speak out. They wouldn’t have wanted to anyway and your speaking out provides them an excuse to remain racist.”
Similarly, I’ve had black editors insist I focus on celebrities, gossip, and entertainment. Some have wanted me to prove I’m “really black” and then pull my “black card” when I won’t. Editors of publications targeting other racial groups automatically assume I can’t write content that appeals to their audiences or outright reject my ability to when I show I can.
Personal finance and small business topics aren’t pertinent to all people of color? Those perpetuating institutionalized racism answer “no” far too often. Those in control of media makes teaching and learning keys to financial success a “white privilege” then they use the same exclusionary mainstream media to blames people of color for not managing our finances well.
Being Considered the Help
Precisely because in some racist white minds, I’ve been put on earth to serve whites without protest or thinking, they demand I write the stories they believe “fit me,” no matter how otherwise qualified I am. In their tiny minds, blacks are meant to be either the help or entertainers, not intellectuals. This practice has roots in America’s enslavement era the one today’s neo-Confederates willingly kill to preserve.
So, for these Antebellum era thinkers, my role under systemic racism is to keep whites feeling comfortable with me or with other blacks by writing celebrity gossip, covering the latest reality TV or other writing gleefully about entertainment perpetuating stereotypes about black people. If I’m “lucky,” I get to be a fashion blogger who’s encouraged to care more about what’s on Beyonce’s body than what’s in her mind and reflect that in my work. (Again, I’ve had black editors make these demands, too.)
I’m also expected to help educate white readers about “the black experience” because I look like I’m ‘just’ African-American, so some assume I know about all black experiences everywhere. It’s as if being a woman of color provides me an innate understanding of or obsession about writing about intractable poverty, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, drug sales, urban crime or public assistance.
Those issues affect poor people of all races, but because of the need to perpetuate white superiority to maintain systemic racism, these issues more often get transformed into social pathologies associated mostly with African-Americans. However, despite Donald Trump’s assertion otherwise, I’ve never lived these real social and economic challenges as the multigenerational experience that some like to read about like poverty porn, and I don’t know anyone who has. So, I can’t write about these experiences honestly.
Conversely, I’m supposed to understand white racial pathology as well as the issues that plague people of color because of the white racists’ destructive bigotry. In a country where more whites are attempting to navigate and control discussions about race, I’m supposed to help white people understand racism. Most times, they make that demand as a silencing or derailing tactic in interpersonal exchanges about racism.
But, as a journalist or professional blogger, I may be asked to write a blog post similar to this that includes numerous resources explaining racism to readers who can find the same information using any suitable search engine. Because they “see” me as ‘black first’ (and often, only black), my life depends on understanding institutional racism as well as the whites benefitting from and perpetuating it. If I don’t explain whites’ racial dis-ease to them, these otherwise smart (but racist) whites won’t understand how to fix themselves. But, “the help” always happily cleans up white messiness, right?
Asserting my right to agency over my journalism career leads to demands for an explanation for why I’m not grateful for “getting a chance” or for an apology for my declining to cover some editor’s ideal black subjects or people.
As I’ve said, white people aren’t always the source of these experiences. I have many black editors want me to prove my right to claim blackness by writing about issues in a way that show allegiance to blackness but may alienate whites. They’re likely to abandon me when I experience backlash, though, since it’s their way of making me “pay” for not being “all black.”
But, since there aren’t enough African Americans in positions of editorial power, it’s the white editors who reject ideas of diversity and inclusion who are more likely to be the perpetrators of this racist pigeonholing. After all, they feel they have every right to make these demands because they control most of business and industry, especially media.
The Racial Gag Order
While at this point in America’s history, it’s more common to discuss these issues publicly, sharing opinions about issues of race as I do on this blog or social media causes some to refuse to work with me. Again, they don’t tell me directly that’s their reaction to my speaking up about discriminatory treatment toward people of color. They stop contacting me or responding to my queries for work.
So, despite how vocal I am about many issues, this racial gag order made me stay silent, at least publicly, about this experience. Facing this polite white supremacy, most women of color feel they must, under the guise of respectability, remain silent when they have career challenges, or suffer economic loss for speaking out. But, silence in the face of racial oppression is emotionally and, often, physically exhausting.
It was three of my white friends, two men and a woman, who encouraged me to speak out about this. They all said, in essence, “Don’t worry about those who won’t want to work with you if you speak out. They wouldn’t have wanted to anyway, and your speaking out provides them an excuse to remain racist. You don’t want clients like these. Find those who let you be a whole person and work with them.”
I didn’t need their permission as much as I did their support since four are successful journalists, two much more veteran than I am who’ve written best-selling books. And they’re white, so they remind me of what white people in media are going to do whether I try to make them comfortable at my expense or not. Those whites who don’t want to will refuse to see me as anything but “the other” who was bred to ensure their comfort. That will start the moment they encounter me for the first time.
Mixed Fruit and Social Experiences
From the time they meet me, most people make multiple assumptions about me based on what they see rather than allowing me to be a whole individual. They treat me like they treated Michelle Obama. Like her, I have an undergraduate degree from a prestigious undergrad institution and am pursuing a graduate degree from a top 20 national university.
Nonetheless, as was true with the former First Lady, even for white progressives and far too many people of color, it’s hard for them to look at me and believe I’ve had experiences that differ from what they assume. They can’t imagine I live a life that’s inconsistent with what they think my identity ought to be.
For example, if I was sitting in a public eatery with the bowl of mixed fruit and grains shown in this post’s header image in front of me, many whites passing by would be surprised. They assume I wouldn’t eat this or sushi or some other “white people food.” (Other people of color are guilty of this, too.)
They’ve decided the amount of melanin in my skin limits my dietary choices. They’re wrong. This is how I eat regularly, and this kind of food has been my preference since childhood. It’s as normal to me as breathing. (I learned my food choices, this one, in particular, is consistent with Finnish DNA I learned I have recently.)
Throughout my journalism career, people commonly have made assumptions about my writing options, too. Many decide based on my perceived racial identity my reporting capabilities are limited. Many have looked at me or learned something about me and decided, “She must be, do, believe and want to write about this because she’s black/multiracial/cisgender female/mother/mature/Christian.”
Derailing as a Dispossession Tactic
All of what I’ve described here are different ways of gaslighting and derailing me to dispossess me of my journalist identity. It’s forcing me to justify my right to my agency about what and whom I write. It’s imposing the concept of intersectionality on me to claim “sameness” with my experiences when it’s expedient while “othering” me if I assert my “same” ability to write what whites do with regularity.
It’s insisting I’m not smart enough to write about some topics while demanding I not be so intellectual when asked to write about black entertainment or accusing me of being anti-intellectual when deciding how I conceptualize social justice issues. It’s failing to recognize I have my own voice, insights, and interests as a journalist since somehow the skin I’m in means I shouldn’t.
It can’t be that I’m just not talking about one of the groups with which I’m most identifying at the time; it’s that I’m excluding them deliberately. I’m not merely expressing my own experience or that of others in my primary community; it’s that I don’t care about people in other groups. When it comes to race, I’m supposed to cover other groups at the expense of the melanated people with whom those controlling the media most identify me at the moment. They’re racializing me to dominate me and put me back in the place they insist I belong–in subjugation to them. That keeps them feeling (white) empowered.
Moreover, if I won’t submit to allowing those who live outside my experience reconstruct my reporter’s identity in their image, I’m labeled “difficult.” Being justifiably angry about any of this unacceptable. Any response other than grateful for being included in any context, of course, comes with economic penalties for refusing to be “respectable” and it’s mostly so-called “progressives” who behave this way.
Like a good servant, I’m expected to aside my ambitions and submit to their limited idea of what a woman journalist of color should be. That economic and professional survival strategy hasn’t helped African American women achieve the parity we deserve nor has it changed most whites perceptions of us.
Just Let Me Be Great
Suffering silently career crushing blows to my goals is not an approach to addressing racial repression I can continue as I expand my writing career to reincorporate narrative long-form nonfiction, hard news, and investigative journalism.
I won’t suppress my voice or any part of my multidimensional identity to fit society’s narrow concept of a melanated writer. I won’t submit to the routine, systematic psychological assault and devaluation of African American professional women in America.
Instead, I’ll take my white ally colleagues’ advice. I will find woke, racially evolving leading top news organizations committed to genuine journalistic diversity and inclusion. That way, I can contribute consistently excellent, intellectually rigorous journalism while remaining imperfectly human…and emotionally and psychologically intact.
(c) 2017. Dahna M. Chandler for New Fourth Estate Media, LLC. All rights reserved.