Stop assigning journalists of color the 'racism beat'

  • Journalists of color have a unique understanding of racism.
  • However, they are often assigned the "racism beat," which is inherently a taxing thing to cover.
  • Journalists of color are more than just the color of their skin, and should be treated as such.
  • Neha Maqsood is a Pakistani journalist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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As a writer of color, I possess a distinct power. Through my identity as a Pakistani-Muslim, certain lived experiences have facilitated my writing on topics like racism, immigration, microaggressions, and Islamophobia. These subjects are not wholly accessible to a white writer who hasn't felt their effects firsthand. My authority on these topics has undoubtedly helped propel me at the start of my career, leading to multiple bylines with different publications.

However, in my early years as a journalist, I was also inadvertently pigeonholed onto the "race beat" – white editors and major publications would chiefly commission me to write on issues dealing with race that had already been covered extensively by writers of color before me.

Despite my frustration, the race beat also cemented the belief that as a brown woman, I was obligated to ensure that the unreported stories and events of communities of color were brought to light.

This was an opportunity to chronicle the systemic disparity and prejudice that was widespread across the globe. Through my writing, I attempted to appeal to the average white person to view things from the perspective of a person of color – to step into our shoes and see how different life was from this side. Ultimately, however, I realized that race was not  just a 'beat' – it was a lived experience. And having to retell these traumatic stories would not only be taxing, but also an immense sacrifice to my mental health.

Following the latest uprisings connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been an abundance of features, op-eds and think pieces examining the tragic stories about police brutality. However, once these pieces are published across a wide range of publications, writers of color, particularly black writers, are continually asked to relive traumatic experiences by writing about topics which seem pretty cut and dry — racism is bad, white supremacy still reigns supreme. The end.

The responsibility of racial coverage has consistently been put solely on writers of color, granting white writers the license to bypass the subject. However, there is an inherent need to instill racial consciousness across the spectrum of all writers. Race is an intersectional phenomenon, and even white writers must be educated on how to integrate it into the narrative of stories. Whilst it is true that the expertise of writers of color can permit them to craft unique connections, it does not justify the burden of putting race reporting purely on them.

Race is entangled with inequality in politics, healthcare, business, housing, environment and other avenues. A 2016 research article published by Sage Journal found that white reporters' history of remaining 'objective' when reporting on communities of colour had not benefited said communities in the slightest.

Objectively laying out the facts, instead, allowed for 'a narrative of ignorance, stereotyping, and racist framing'; remaining passive to the perspectives of marginalized communities perpetuates a vicious cycle where people of colour are seen as simply belonging to the binaries of good and bad. White writers must examine the trends, analyse the data and immerse themselves in a community which isn't their own to comprehend the more intricate reasons behind systemic bias.

Exploitative personal essays

Beyond news reporting, editors often rely on personal essays from writers of color to highlight critical issues. but in many cases these essays are not only achingly uncomfortable to write but also often verge on being exploitative.

In 2019, I had penned a very personal essay for a prominent publication in the UK detailing my parents' immigration from Pakistan to the UK in the 1980's. My parents had moved in pursuit of a better life for their future children to a place where they believed success was based on merit and came to anyone who worked hard enough for it. However, after a few years of being subjected to blatant racism (from violent threats to being called 'Paki') and the second class treatment, my parents ultimately returned to Pakistan.

Through this piece, I conveyed that Britain had unfortunately forgotten to acknowledge its own colonial past and its xenophobic present. But following the publication of the piece, there was extraordinary backlash from predominantly white people. There were the classic responses including, 'Why don't you just go back to your own country' or the subtle: 'Paki's will always be our slaves'.

As journalists, we generally stay detached from our stories, but this was a different ballgame. This wasn't really my story; it was the story of my parents who had graciously shared their experiences with me knowing full well it's significance in South Asian history. Having white people trivialize the experiences of writers of color and invalidate the prejudice they feel, can make the entire process of writing seem not only soul wrenching but worthless .

I still often get commissioned on topics related to the 'race beat', but I mostly decline them. Most recently, I got asked to write an analysis piece on the Kashmir conflict and the brutality invoked upon Kashmiri-Muslim's under the banner of Hindu nationalism, but I refused to do so. Thousands of writers before me have covered this story, and it is unlikely that my words will manifest actual change. At best, the piece may get a few retweets, a handful of angry comments and then be permanently archived in internet history. How many more angry think pieces are required to be written before sustainable and effective change is undertaken?

When journalists or literary writers write about such distressing issues, there is an unconscious hope that our work will at the least strike up a conversation and at the most, will induce a public response or lead to a policy change. But more often than not, our work seems to come to a standstill.

I will still continue to write about race and cover underrepresented communities and their stories, but I also want the media world to view me as more than just the color of my skin. Writers of color contain multitudes; stories about love, light, family, sacrifice, and compassion. It's high time that our stories be accepted in spite of the color of our skin and equally because of it.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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