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The Great White Nope

Canada’s old white publishing institutions are a lesson in what happens when your media industry contracts: journalism no longer serves the reality of the country.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  12 minutes (2,912 words)

I wouldn’t call Canada racist. I’m not being nice when I say that, I’m being polite. Canadians are like that. That kind of polite where you hear a racial slur and pretend it didn’t happen. Or you see some bro get too close to a woman and you walk right by because it’s not your affair. This is not a confrontational country. I remember one recent Toronto subway ride where a white workman fresh off some job site, boots muddy, reflector bib on, interrupted two men — one brown, one white — who were about to brawl. You could feel the entire car getting progressively more tense as their voices escalated. But the workman got between them. “Come on guys, we’re all tired. Chill,” he said. And they did. And when it was my turn to get off, I thanked him. “It’s just what you do,” he said. I assume he was from out of town.

With all the free health care, the gun control, the less-extreme wealth disparity, Canadians can convince themselves that they’re superior to Americans. But none of that makes them any less racist, it just makes the racism easier to overlook; with a country that does so many things right, how can they be wrong? Our media is a microcosm of this denial, a lesson in what happens when your industry contracts to a handful of major newspapers and magazines, one major national broadcasting corporation, a smattering of websites, and one watchdog — and is only getting smaller. More than one fifth of Canada’s population is made up of people of color, but the popular press acknowledges that about as much as it acknowledges that the industry itself is overpoweringly white. The result is a media landscape that is overwhelmingly conservative — politically, and in every other way — and overwhelmingly lacking in perspective about it.

Outside of broadcasting, our newsrooms are supposed to self-regulate and yet there are no — zero — updated reports on their demographics. But a new study published by The Conversation last month analyzed two decades of the country’s three biggest newspapers, looking specifically at news and politics op-ed pages where journalists’ identities are clear. “Over the 21 years, as the proportion of white people in Canada’s population declined, the representation of white columnists increased,” Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah reported. Since 2016, whites have been overrepresented by 11 percent in these newsrooms. As Maclean’s Andray Domise, long one of the few black columnists in the country, writes, “Too many of my white colleagues in journalism still seem to believe their profession and the assumed stance of objectivity places them at a distance from white supremacy.” That these journalists can’t see their own means they can’t see anyone else’s. This is why I don’t work in Canadian media. It doesn’t really see me or anyone else who isn’t white.

* * *

I was genuinely shocked to get this job. I had written one story for Longreads — fittingly, a reported feature about Justin Bieber’s vacillation between Canada and America — and a few months later, the site’s editor called me from New York and offered me a weekly column. For most of the phone call I was confused. I think I literally said, “So this is an actual job?” I didn’t understand how this could happen. Thirteen years into a journalism career and I had never once been handed anything. Not even one story. I was inured to 13 more years of proving myself over and over and over again, even with the same editors at the same publications. And yet this guy had decided, after I had only written once for his site, that I deserved an actual job. That would NEVER happen to me in Canada. It HAS never happened to me in Canada.

In a now 14-year media career, I’ve landed 14 job interviews in Canada (that I can remember) and only once secured a position. I was repeatedly told not to take it personally, but from my first internship on, it’s been Sisyphean. I was recently told by an old journalism professor, unprompted, that I was one of my graduating year’s most promising, but the industry kept insinuating the opposite. I just assumed the white guys in my class, and a good number of the white girls, were getting jobs because they were exponentially better than me. I wrote for white editor after white editor, met with white exec after white exec, and nothing seemed to stick. Not too long ago, a friend of mine at the CBC — an older white guy — helped me get a job interview, which went well … until it veered into the details of my Pakistani history. Another (white) editor asked me to coffee, invited me to pitch, and never took anything I did, while their (white) spouse continued to appear prominently in their pages. Yet another group of editors, all white, declined to give me a job (which went to a white journalist), then offered me a short series of articles — about race, obviously — one of which they mismanaged so badly that we never worked together again. One major newspaper commissioned so many features from me in a row that I asked my editor to be made a permanent employee; they tried to lower my rate instead. As the years passed, I watched white woman after white woman, younger, less experienced, get staff job after staff job and thought: Oh, shit, do I just suck?

Canadian media is designed so that journalists of color give up. In 2017, black columnist Desmond Cole loudly resigned from The Toronto Star, having had his space reduced and his activism questioned. “My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support, and compensation I have received in return,” he wrote on his blog. (Cole’s first book, The Skin We’re In, is out next year). Also in 2017, freelance journalist Septembre Anderson revealed she had given up journalism and was turning to web development after hitting her head against a walled-off industry for seven years. “Racialized voices just aren’t being heard,” she wrote in Torontoist. “They aren’t making decisions nor are they carrying them out.” In 2018, The Globe and Mail reporter Sunny Dhillon also resigned, despite having nothing else lined up. “I have worked as a journalist in this country for the last decade and with the solutions as obvious as they are unacted upon — hire more people of color, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence — I cannot say I am particularly optimistic,” he wrote on Medium. Shriveling newsrooms usually shed their newest, usually more-marginalized staffers first, but a 2017 Public Policy Forum report on Canadian media questioned “exactly how many jobs have been lost in journalism — and how much frustrated talent has fled.”

I’m still in journalism not because of Canadian media but in spite of it. It was the editors outside of the country who hired me for their newsrooms: as a film and art editor at Time Out Dubai, as an entertainment editor at The New York Daily News. In Canada, it was the women who threw me a bone, mostly freelance assignments (though one woman actually hired me as an editor for AOL Canada). To fill in the blanks — too many to count — there was my mother. Because as much as this is about media with a dearth of opportunities for nonwhite journalists, it is about which journalists have the financial support to keep going anyway. Early last month, an Excel sheet circulated in which a number of American journalists anonymously revealed their salaries. Most of the journalists were white, and many of them reported wages too meager to survive on in the big cities where they were living. A number of people noted the discrepancy and wondered what kind of financial support these journalists were getting from their families that so many people of color were not.

So here it is: I am a woman of color and my mother is the reason I could do an unpaid internship in California, which got me my first job, which got me my second job, which got me my third — and, in between, she floated me when I couldn’t quite make ends meet. I wasn’t living off of her, but she was keeping me alive. On the one hand you could call her a patron, on the other hand she’s a vexing reminder to a number of journalists who are probably better than me that they do not have this extra support — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color like me. An extreme version of this leg up, of course, is nepotism, something I have not experienced but that so many white journalists in Canada have. Highly positioned media people whose families are also highly positioned in media, include: Toronto Life editor in chief Sarah Fulford, whose father, journalist Robert Fulford, has the order of Canada; former Walrus editor in chief Jonathan Kay, whose mother is National Post columnist Barbara kay; not to mention all those CBC staffers’ spouses who secured CBC contracts.

In September, the publicly funded Canadian educational channel TVO aired an episode of current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin, asking, “Is Canadian Media Losing Its Touch?” The panel was made up of Paikin, who is white, and two other journalists, a man and a woman, both also white. All three of them focused on the shrinking industry, never once mentioning its racism. But just three months prior, several mainstream media organizations were excoriated for belittling the landmark National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report, the more-than-1,000-page document of 2,000+ testimonials outlining how colonialism in Canada has systematically destroyed First Nations communities. Instead of white Canadians grappling with the country’s long-awaited admission that they not only live on stolen land but have also helped decimate the people to whom Canada actually belongs, they diverted attention to the term “genocide.” Canada’s two largest newspapers, the Globe and the Star, published board-wide editorials denying those three syllables, while the Post had a Catholic priest doing the same. As journalist Justin Brake tweeted: “Colonialism is ubiquitous. Even in journalism.”

That was already clear two years ago when the (now ex-)editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, in an issue meant to celebrate Indigenous writing, called for white journalists to aspire to a nonexistent “cultural appropriation prize” in order to enrich their work. In response, high-ranking members of the country’s leading media companies — the Post, Maclean’s, CBC, Rogers — offered cash for its coffers. More recently, there have been several incidences in which newsroom photographs have circulated on social media showing a sea of white faces. In October, the Globe was sideeyed for hiring a white woman, Robyn Urback, from the CBC to add to its prodigiously white team — reporter Robyn Doolittle quipped, “Robyn, I look forward to everyone confusing us in the years to come.” — which only got whiter once Indo-Caribbean columnist Denise Balkissoon left earlier this month for a higher-ranking position at Chatelaine magazine.

“Since working my first paid jobs as a journalist in 2007, I have been constantly told, explicitly and implicitly, that nobody will care about stories about people who are elderly, Aboriginal, racialized, queer, living with a disability or chronic health condition, or living with an active addiction or mental health concern,” University of British Colombia writing instructor and former magazine editor Jackie Wong told rabble.ca in 2016. This irresponsible coverage is being predominantly identified by journalists of color, who are also the ones principally assigned to write racialized articles. The Star’s Tanya Talaga has named the requirement to constantly advocate for and be a workplace’s symbol of diversity “the invisible workload.” Journalists of color are often siloed into multicultural media spaces like the Aboriginal People’s Television Network or smaller publications. Vicky Mochama, now the culture, society, and critical race editor for The Conversation, had a column for Metro until 2018, while Sarah Hagi wrote for Vice until she didn’t, then a site called Freshdaily, until it unceremoniously dumped its entire editorial staff after two weeks. Meanwhile, Kyrell Grant, the freelance writer and Twitter deity who coined the term “big dick energy,” occasionally publishes in places like Vice. “Black women are consistently thought leaders whose uncited ideas regularly appear in mainstream media,” Anderson wrote in Torontoist, “but it’s increasingly apparent that our bylines don’t.”

White journalists, meanwhile, are increasingly insulated from critique. Maclean’s’ Domise apologized for being a gatekeeper, for instance, while those who actually created the gate to keep the likes of him out remain silent. It’s virtually impossible to fix the problem in mainstream Canadian media because it won’t even acknowledge that there is one. What it will do is apologize for suggesting that white people could be at fault for anything. Last month, correspondent Jessica Allen of The Social (Canada’s The View) was forced to apologize for saying hockey players tended to be white and tended to be bullies, both of which are true. “We would like to apologize to everyone who was offended by the remarks,” CTV announced in a statement. In a recent interview with the newsletter Study Hall, BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul admitted she was professionally ostracized after she tweeted in 2016 that BuzzFeed Canada was looking for pitches, particularly from “not white and not male” writers: “I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with executive-level editors in Canada who wouldn’t work with me because they thought I was racist against white people.” Koul now works in New York.

* * *

I suppose it follows that my favorite place to work in Canada is not in fact a media company. Hazlitt is an online literary magazine run by a publishing company, Penguin Random House, and its long-form nonfiction skews experimental. It’s probably no coincidence that Hazlitt is where Koul got her start and where plenty of other people of color like me can write long, rambling essays on the nature of everything, something a media landscape as homogenous as Canada’s has no appetite for. Both of the editors I worked with — the editor in chief and senior editor — are white, but they’re what you might call allies if you’re so inclined, and they understand writing at a molecular level. Hazlitt is equivalent to a magazine like The Believer or a site like Grantland. It’s there that I got my only National Magazine Award nomination in 2016. But the site is small, and you can’t live off it. My job search to supplement my work there included a failed  interview to write news for an elevator screen and naming 500 color swatches for a marketing company. Then Longreads called. Did I mention the guy who hired me is not white?

I’m not really sure what to say to Canadian journalists of color who don’t have that opportunity or the support to create it. Because it’s not really about them. It’s about the white Canadians who are hogging all the power positions and refusing to admit that, let alone step aside. It’s about their refusal to make it a priority to hire people of color from top to bottom because they refuse to see these journalists’ absence as an issue. Domise has credited his column at Maclean’s to a “handful of editors” who recognized the magazine’s lack of diversity. But the columnists around him are still majority white. Our media seems to have a really hard time reflecting 20 percent of our population, of not overrepresenting whiteness to the point of implying its supremacy.

In June, the CBC and Radio-Canada announced that by 2025, they would have at least one non-white person working as a key creative — producer, director, writer, showrunner, lead performer — on each of their programs. One. More recently, a friend who works at one of the bigger media companies in Toronto mentioned that they were hiring but that all of the applications “sucked.” Knowing the number of journalists who have lost their jobs over the past 10 years, I was baffled. Considering the same white people are often shuffled around the industry over and over again, I asked if they had gone beyond submitted applications to ask peers, to check social media, to look into other publications that have recently closed down. My friend looked at me in embarrassment. That’s the look that I think every white journalist in this country is missing. 

Canada is racist: there I said it. My country is racist and its media is racist and its journalists are racist. Not saying it doesn’t make it any less true. Canada is multicultural, yes, that doesn’t mean its media is; the industry that is supposed to inform this country is whitewashed, and its information is whitewashed too. Politically, socially, economically — in every way — Canada misrepresents itself. What results is an entirely misinformed public but, more than that, a public represented by an industry that cloaks itself in white and believes that saying nothing will make it invisible. You’re not invisible. You may not see us, but we see you.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.