We need to talk about female journalists of colour
How a panel on Trudeau's cabinet decision became a debate about the racial appearance of a female journalist
what else do i need to do here pic.twitter.com/zi8HpLpOA7
— Scaachi (@Scaachi) November 2, 2015
The comment was made in regard to Scaachi Koul’s appearance during a segment on The National about affirmative action in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Koul, a senior writer for BuzzFeed Canada, spoke in agreement with Trudeau’s promise to have a 50-percent-female cabinet, which placed her in opposition to her fellow panelists Jonathan Kay, editor of The Walrus, and Tasha Kheiriddin, a CBC political commentator and National Post columnist.
Koul was the only person of colour on the panel. That’s a double-edged sword. It’s great for diversity and representative opinions. It also, however, implicitly means she has higher standards and expectations to meet, which she notes in her response to all the comments she received:
“I spent too much of the morning looking at Twitter, watching my feed fill with people trying to guess my race, whether I represented WOC appropriately, whether I had been crushed by the other two panelists. Not just the question of whether I did an okay job, or if I made valid points — rather, was I everything?”
The internet applauded Koul’s blunt reponse. From André Picard to other women journalists like Denise Balkissoon and Heather Mallick, many retweeted affirmatively. All of them implied that the abuse female pundits like Koul face is absurd, unwarranted and just plain wrong. I say “implied” here because that’s how I interpret the quoted retweets of Koul’s article.
Retweets, however, are not a step toward affirmative change. As an industry, we talk a lot about the need to increase newsroom diversity, but we refuse to delve into specifics. If we do, we don’t see changes implemented, or we haven’t yet.
Why not, though? Why have we still not taken steps toward addressing the integration of journalists of colour? It is so rare to see a panel that is representative of society in terms of gender and race, which is probably why those who try to break the glass ceiling receive reactions like the one above.
Judging by the retweets, Koul is not the only female journalist of colour who has had to face more commentary about her appearance than her content. While most of Twitter may have responded in kind, there is a discussion to be had about the formation of panels, who is on them and how we respond to them. As Koul wrote,
“I want to do the panel and try to be the voice, but it so frequently results in coming home to attacks on my character, my race, my looks, my existence. If I don’t do the panel, my existence is merely entirely ignored by the public consciousness. You suffer consequences either way.”
From one female journalist of colour to another, I salute Scaachi Koul for surviving yesterday and bringing problems faced by female journalists of colour to light. It’s not just about the inclusion of diverse voices anymore, but the acceptance of those voices without commentary on what they look like.
The irony is that so much time was spent on Twitter yesterday debating the pros and cons of a 50-percent-female government cabinet, when the mirror in front of us shows that we, the journalists, should be talking just as seriously about parity and proportional representation.
by Fatima Syed
Fatima Syed is the blog editor of the spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.