A collage of cops in riot gear looking up at a black man being arrested and a woman holding up a fist.
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Politics

“White People Don’t Respond to Our Pain; They Respond to Theirs”

What it’s really like to be a Black journalist in America.

As protesters take to the streets to demand a reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism, the journalists tasked with covering those protests have taken to social media to demand a reckoning of their own. Journalists of color, most of them Black, have shared their experiences with pay inequity, discrimination, and hostile management at media companies like Refinery29the New York TimesComplex, and Bon Appétit—leading to decades-late mea culpas and high-level departures across the industry. At the heart of the conversations playing out in newsrooms across the country is the double bind that Black journalists find ourselves in: We’re expected to do our jobs along with the additional, unpaid, and invisible work of making our workplaces more equitable. We’re labeled as “affirmative action hires,” solicited as sensitivity readers for others’ work, and enlisted as diversity consultants for our newsrooms, all while we cover the deaths of people who look more like us than our colleagues do. Slate convened a panel of Black journalists to discuss the double bind and this long-overdue moment of reckoning. —Rachelle Hampton

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at the New Yorker.

Errin Haines is editor at large at the 19th, a new media outlet about the intersection of gender, politics, and policy. She was previously the national writer on race for the Associated Press.

Alex Samuels is a political reporter for the Texas Tribune.

Carvell Wallace is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Previously, he was a parenting columnist for Slate and a host of the podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Rachelle Hampton: As journalists who have been covering unrest for a while, and also just as Black people who have probably been talking about police brutality for a long time, to what extent do you see this moment as different?

Errin Haines: I’ve covered a lot of protests, starting with Ferguson in 2014. These are a lot more diverse. There are a lot more white people in the streets. I’m seeing Asian Americans in the streets. I’m seeing Latinos in the street. I think over the course of those protests, people—especially people of color—did kind of start to see themselves as having a shared destiny. And even white Americans are starting to understand that their fate is tied to the fate of Black and brown people in this country. It remains to be seen how long that solidarity kind of holds, right?

A demonstrator celebrates as a business burns during rioting following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case on Nov. 24, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
A demonstrator celebrates as a business burns during rioting following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case on Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jelani Cobb: I think part of what’s different is that unfortunately we’ve become accustomed to seeing Black people die on video. We can list a number of them: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and down the line. But all of those deaths had some way people could finagle plausible deniability and turn this into a conversation about Black overreaction, and to make it a kind of Rorschach test. “Look at this video, what do you see?” But to kill someone over the course of nearly nine minutes is an excruciating way to die. And for people to witness that, there’s no way you can get around the fact that it took an extraordinary level of commitment to extinguish his life. And so it was, I think, the absence of any other narrative that could be connected to it that made people say, “Oh wait, maybe this is something. Maybe what people have been saying all along has been true.” And then I saw, at least with people I was talking to, a counter-reaction among some African Americans, who were angry that it took something that brutal and macabre to shock people’s consciences into believing what we’ve been saying all along.

Carvell Wallace: My observation over the years has been that when it comes to issues of race, white people don’t respond to our pain; they respond to theirs. And I think that for all the reasons you just mentioned, Jelani, this caused pain in white people in a way that maybe these other things didn’t. But I also think, against the backdrop of COVID, one of the things that really strikes me is that this is the first time a lot of white people have ever experienced the America that we experience all the time. An America in which forces you can’t control are controlling you, are threatening your livelihood, are threatening your health.

I was at a protest with my kids the first night. They’re teenagers, so this was their first time out, really, in the streets. And they were like, “Is this what it’s always like?” And I was like, “Well, this one has a little bit of special sauce on it, because people have been cooped up for three months.” And that’s just the energy. People were like, “I’m out of my house. I’m with other people. I don’t ever want this to stop.” The other thing is that capitalism makes it really hard for people to protest and assemble on the streets, because you’ve got to get to work, and you can’t take the time off, and your boss isn’t really sympathetic to your situation. And now people have all the time in the world.

Alex Samuels: This is the first protest I’ve ever covered or been a part of, just because when everything was happening in 2014, I was still in college. COVID disproportionately harms Black and brown people, and those are the people primarily out protesting in the streets. I am cautious but also curious to see what this means for Black people going forward.

Hampton: We’ve talked about how this moment feels different, but at the beginning, it felt sickeningly familiar. Jelani, your coverage of George Zimmerman’s trial was one of the first pieces of journalism I ever really connected with. But does it ever feel like you’re writing the same story over and over?

Cobb: Yes, to the point where you can actually recognize the life cycle of it. There’s a video that gets some attention on social media, bounces around, then it gets picked up by progressive media. Then, you start seeing activists generating attention around it, people get into the streets, media people start picking it up on mainstream outlets. Then, there’s invariably a press conference with a grief-stricken family begging for justice. There is an attempt from, typically a police union, to defend the actions even when they are abjectly indefensible. And then, from there, potentially things explode into violence, potentially things don’t. And then you have the calls for reforms that often don’t get heeded. I’ve been through that cycle enough times to know where we are, based on what’s happening at any given point in time. And my initial reaction to the George Floyd video, which I still have not watched, was that I saw a still picture on social media of him lying on the ground and the officer’s knee on his neck. And I saw his face, and I just was like, “No, not today. I’m not doing this today.” And it probably took me two days to actually start engaging with the story.

Haines: I also have not watched the George Floyd video in its entirety. And prior to the job I have now, I was the Associated Press’s national writer on race. A lot of my job was to cover these killings and the country’s response to those killings. So, I did have to watch those videos for work, even though they were very difficult for me to watch as a Black person in America.

I left that job to take the job I have now as editor at large at the 19th, thinking I’m going to be able to lean more into my gender, not that I wouldn’t still care about race, but that gender was something I could have the luxury finally of focusing on a lot more. Obviously, that has not been the case whatsoever.

When the George Floyd story broke, because I knew that that was not going to be a 19th story, I knew I did not have to watch that video if I didn’t want to. And I didn’t want to. But Breonna Taylor’s death was very much a 19th story, because this was a Black woman, an essential worker in the pandemic, gunned down in her apartment because of a no-knock warrant that was served on the wrong home. I am still amazed that the only thing that was able to break through wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic was racism, and specifically, the racism inherent in our policing system in this country. But that’s just how important and how urgent that felt to the country and to Black America specifically.

When I started writing about race almost 20 years ago, I thought I was going to be writing about the vestiges of the Jim Crow era, the gains that have been made during the civil rights movement, and how those were playing out in our society. But what I find myself writing about in this stage of my career is the retrenchment of racism and the loss of those gains.

Samuels: As journalists, I feel like we try to look for ways to cover Black joy. Juneteenth [was] Friday. One of our reporters was like, “What are the happy things that are happening? How can I tell a story of Black joy that isn’t a story of someone dying or being a victim of police brutality?” It’s so hard to be covering so much trauma, because there’s this idea that as a Black journalist you have to cover these Black stories. Or if a white person is covering this story, then you need to read behind them and make sure that everything is sensitive and written in the way it should be and that’s just an added burden.

Wallace: Everyone’s all excited now, and all the corporations are like Black lives matter and your life matters. I’m getting all these emails from Wendy’s or whatever, and that’s never happened before. My first introduction to this topic was Rodney King when I was 15, and it has been nonstop since then. And I’ve never seen corporations getting involved. So, on the one hand, you want to be like, “Well, that’s new. Maybe that means something’s changing.” But having seen the short window for the larger society’s attention span for Black issues and the way those issues are held as an incidental, ancillary thing, as opposed to a daily lived experience, if I’m being honest, that doesn’t give me a lot of hope.

As a writer, you’re always questioning, “Am I even doing any good here?” I feel like what I want to do is write the thing that heals all Black people and heals all racism. I want to just write a thing that makes everything better for all of us in this conversation and for all the people we love and for all of our families. Knowing that I can’t do that sometimes is incredibly frustrating. And then I remember: But also part of my job as a writer is to put stuff on the record so that people know what happened. If we don’t write, then who tells what happened and can they be trusted? And that’s the thing that keeps me going. So, it’s not an optimism; it’s more a grim sense of duty.

I don’t want to write about trauma and pain. I want to write about relationships and heart and love and birds and trees and stuff. That’s what I’m interested in. And one of the things I find really tricky for me as a Black writer who has a lot of white readers is that when I write stuff like that, then white people get really excited. I think part of it is that they’re like, “Oh, here’s some Black stuff where no one’s mad at me. Let me share this.” And I’m like, “No, I’m plenty mad at you, but I’m not really talking about you right now.” And so, there’s the question of how to be authentic to my experience of life and write about the way I view the world, which is through relationships and love and intimacy and beauty and so forth. My desire to write about that comes from my experience of Blackness for these 45 years now. That feels authentic to me, but there’s this difficulty of mistrusting what white readers are going to do with that. I don’t know if anyone else has this, but for me, I find myself constantly struggling with having to sort out how white people are going to use and misuse what I’ve written to serve their own gains. And that’s just exhausting, too.

Haines: That’s real. I definitely was where you are maybe 10 years ago. And what I decided was that my role is to bear witness for my people. Period. If white people get something out of what I’m writing, that’s great, but I don’t write for white people. Shout out to my white readers: We love you, we appreciate you, but it’s not for you. I write for my people.

Hampton: Along with the audiences you’re writing for, there’s also the question of who’s editing you, and very rarely is it somebody who looks like you. And so not only are you trying to adapt your writing for the audience; you’re also trying to adapt your writing and your identity for your editor, to make them understand.

Within media, we’ve recently seen a widespread internal reckoning around race, with several high-profile editor departures at places including Bon Appétit and the New York Times op-ed page. How have you all seen that reckoning play out where your work?

Haines: We became the first newsroom in the midst of what is going on right now to establish Juneteenth as a company holiday, which is something I’d pushed for. That was important to me as one of our few Black employees, but the 19th is only about 140-ish days old—we’re trying to create the newsroom that a lot of us wish we’d had. It would be one thing if [the higher ups] saying, “Oh yeah, we’ll make Juneteenth a company holiday,” was going to be the extent of their effort. But I have the good fortune of working with and for white women who were thinking about these issues long before George Floyd ever became a hashtag. I would hate to be in a newsroom where I was trying to confront issues of inequality and systemic racism in my work only to have to also confront it in the newsroom. That’s a lot.

Cobb: Condé Nast is also recognizing Juneteenth as a company holiday. In one way, it comports with a concern that I’ve had for a long time, which is that it’s bizarre that Black people celebrate emancipation in this country or that the idea of celebrating Juneteenth was sequestered to Black people and specifically to Texans, and now in recent years, more broadly to other African Americans. But emancipation didn’t say anything about us. It said a great deal about white people. If we were looking at someone who was an arsonist who said, “I’ve burned down these communities,” and then that person swore off of arson, should the communities really celebrate that? Maybe that person can privately commemorate it and say, “I’ve gone five years without setting anything on fire.” So recognizing Juneteenth has to be paired with a more sophisticated understanding of what this country is and what it has been.

Wallace: Newsrooms and other companies recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday sits in my mind the same way the idea of representation sits in my mind. I often get asked to talk about the importance of representation. And that word always hits me wrong maybe because it feels adjacent to a kind of tokenism. I feel like there’s a difference between representation and having one person need to represent all this stuff. Oftentimes, when I’ve been one of the few Black people in the newsroom, I have felt the pressure to do that. To me, Juneteenth feels symbolic in a way that I look at when Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a holiday, and here we are in 2020.

Haines: Somebody in this country was killed, who we now celebrate.

Wallace: Exactly. If people think that that’s going to make me be like, “Well, now our newsrooms are in good shape. Thank you for a Friday off,” then as my mother used to say, they have another think coming. To me, it has much more to do with: Can we change the culture, the way things are shaped? And I think the size of that change possibly eludes a lot of people’s thinking.

Cobb: It’s also just, on the level of the workplace, there’s this other dynamic: After everything started jumping off, there was this rush to find the nearest Black person who could explain this for you. And nobody wants that. I’ve told people again and again, do not do this, especially don’t do this with your employees. Because if you’re talking to a Black person about this, very often the calculation they’re making when someone poses that question is, how much truth can they tolerate? If I tell you all the truth, you’re going to be angry at me for upsetting you. If you had to walk around thinking about just how far off the mark this society is and the ways in which even this company or you personally have been implicated in it, then that then becomes something that may impair my own future here or my own career ascent. And so it comes with a side helping of race interpreter work that nobody really wants to do. And we find ourselves positioned to do it again and again.

Hampton: There was something I had been thinking about recently, as someone who’s pretty new to journalism, which is the resentment that’s bred when you’re forced to teach people at a time when you’re theoretically supposed to be learning, when you’re being forced to explain to senior editors why a piece was bad and why Black people on Twitter came for them. Recently, my brother was almost hit in the eye with a pepper pellet at a protest, and I posted it on Twitter, and an editor messaged me on Monday like, I’ve been thinking about how there’s no separation of work and life for you. I appreciated it, but I also had a second thought of, it took me being here for two years for this to happen? I was like, I’ve written about this for two years, I talk about this consistently, I appreciate that this made you think about this, but I don’t know what to do with this either.

Haines: “Where have you been?” is what I often find myself saying to folks who are coming to me right now and saying, “How can I support you? I really didn’t know. I’m sorry that I didn’t see this before.” Well, I’m sorry too. What are we going to do about it? We are not the help. Can we encourage them to keep going and learn on their own? Sure. Did you just order that copy of White Fragility, or did you actually open it? You actually going to start reading it? Oh, and by the way, are you going to take this past the book club? What are you willing to do right now to prove that this is your country too?

Samuels: I think that’s what a lot of Black journalists and Black people are getting right now is that, “I’m sorry. How can we support you?” But then it ends at that. People are coming out of the woodwork when this all happened. People I hadn’t talked to since high school were coming out to say, “I’m sorry. How can I help you?” And it’s like, “This has been going on since before George Floyd.” Right now, we’re having the conversation at the Texas Tribune about whether we should capitalize the B in Black. [Editor’s note: Slate also recently changed its policy to capitalize the B in Black.]

Haines: We’re having that conversation as well.

Samuels: A concern I brought up with the newsroom was that I worry we’re going to have these passive gestures without any real dedication to diversity. We had one diversity training a couple years ago. That was really it. But then you start to think about, OK, in newsrooms, who are the gatekeepers? Who are the people writing these stories? Who are the people editing the stories? I feel like these gestures of, “I’m sorry. How can we take care of you? Blah, blah, blah,” they’re great and they’re cute. But at the end of the day, it is not even close to what “allies” need to be doing to support Black journalists in the newsroom.

Haines: And not only that, but just because Black journalists are not in the streets does not mean they are not pissed. And I think that’s something that white mainstream newsrooms need to understand. When they ask how they can be supportive or what they can do, they should be prepared for the answer, because the answer is, pay me, hire and promote more people who look like me, and don’t stop covering this when the protests stop.

Hampton: It feels like one of the stopgaps editors often use to deal with the lack of diversity in a newsroom, especially in moments like these, is to reach out to freelancers. And Carvell, I think you have the longest career as a freelancer here. I’m curious as to what the asks look like in moments like these and how you feel about them.

Wallace: I’ve been telling a lot of people no. The asks, if I’m being really honest, are kind of infuriating. And I know it’s happening to me and other freelancers—people just showing up and expecting you to write something in the next 23 hours for $300. And you’re just like, literally where were you a month ago? I was there, I was writing, I had bylines. But there’s been this uptick, this flurry of outreach from people who clearly weren’t familiar with my work in any serious way. You could just tell by the way they were asking me and what they were asking me to write about and what they were offering me in return for that. It was frustrating, to put it lightly. Then I got a few emails like, Oh, can you recommend someone else? And I’m like no. I’ve already given too much time to this already. I heard from another writer friend of mine that someone tried to get them to write about Juneteenth. Emailed them the day before at 3 p.m. and were like, “Can you write about the history of Juneteenth by tomorrow at noon for $300?” It’s this, I haven’t done my homework, I haven’t done the assignment, I haven’t done the reading. Now I just need to find the nearest Black person I can find on Twitter and get them to bail me out.

Samuels: One of the things about Black people being called up to write about Juneteenth or called up to write about the Floyd case is when there are job openings and opportunities at newsrooms and there becomes a question of diversity, of course people want a “diverse hire,” even though I don’t know what a diverse hire is. Does that mean you want more women, more Black people, more Indigenous people? What is it you want? And then people are asked to go through their Rolodex trying to find good people who they feel would be a good fit for the job. And then those candidates often get passed over for someone who is not a person of color, or is a lot younger, because newsrooms want to go the cheaper route.

Hampton: Some have framed the reckoning around race in newsrooms as a generational divide—like young activist journalists coming in and shaking shit up. I think we have a pretty decent mix of ages here, so I’m curious how you all feel about that frame.

Haines: What you trying to say?

Hampton: Nothing at all.

Wallace: Who’s who here? Who’s the old people? Who’s the young people?

Haines: Elder Haines, could you please respond? I actually had this sweatshirt when Shirley Chisholm ran, by the way, just so you know.

Hampton: After the blow-up at the New York Times opinion page over Tom Cotton’s op-ed, [NYT columnist] Bari Weiss tweeted, “The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country.” And in the frame for Ben Smith’s New York Times piece, it was like these young journalists who have been radicalized by Ferguson now want to change everything, and now they finally can as they age into power structures. That frame irritated me because I feel like Black journalists have been fighting for this forever.

Wallace: The whole time. Listen, journalists were 23 in 1965. Journalists were 23 in 1971. Journalists for the Pittsburgh Courier were 21, 22, 23. This is not generational. This is not age. This is people continually trying to fight the same battle over and over and over again because you keep getting in the way.

Haines: We are on a continuum here. And this is a shared struggle. Yes, when I look at the “young wokes” who are shaking the table, I see myself at their age fighting the same fights, just as the people who’ve mentored me saw me as somebody who was fighting the same fights that they had to fight.

Wallace: I’m curious to hear any Black folks make the argument that this is a generational thing. Years ago when I was first starting out, I wrote this piece about hipsterism for Vice. And I ended up having all these conversations with all these Black folks in my life about the way hipsterism deals with the past ironically and playfully. And I was talking this piece out with a Black friend and he said, “Well, we don’t have the same relationship with the past and our parents’ music that maybe white folks do.” To them, it’s this old thing that’s funny. It’d be funny if I repurposed it, it’d be funny if I wore these glasses or this sweater. For us, we look at that past and we’re like, this was the spiritual driver of our peoples, of our parents’ and our grandparents’ and our ancestors’ fight for freedom. So we don’t look at the past and say that this is some other generation, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I would hope that we look at the previous generation as people who were engaged in the same spiritual fight that we’re engaged in, and it is our turn to fight it.

Haines: And also, look at how many Black journalists, period, of all ages, regardless of their career experience, signed onto the #IStandWithAlexis hashtag. Alexis Johnson is a young Black woman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [who was banned from covering protests after one of her tweets went viral]. She has the backing of Black journalists across this country, because they see in her a shared struggle.

Hampton: There’s a way in which Black struggle gets relegated to the youth in an infantilizing way. White people often don’t acknowledge that there are people who are the same age as them who may not have stayed in journalism as long as they have, or even stayed in that specific newsroom as long as they have, because of the abuse. And so they can just write it off as a bunch of twentysomethings coming in and wanting change.

Haines: Or because the push for change looks different. Just because it looks different, please don’t think that your colleague of 15 years is not pissed.

Update, June 23, 2020: This piece was updated to clarify Carvell Wallace’s age.