To Build an Anti-Racist Media, Look to BIPOC Communities

As companies launch resources and diversity initiatives to reckon with workplace racism, they risk “trying to suck up all the air by creating their own thing instead of supporting what is already there.”

In 2019, when I decided to take my writing career seriously, I also decided that building community would be important for my growth as a writer. I knew it would be necessary to join communities with writers and journalists across beats, demographics, locations, and more so I could gain access to a wide range of information and perspectives. I also knew it would be important for me, a Black woman, to connect with other media workers of color, because working in media looks different for everyone based on many factors — race and ethnicity being some of them. 

A year later, in the middle of a continued global reckoning on race, I am thankful I tapped into spaces where Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) media workers come together to commiserate, share resources, and celebrate each other’s wins. As brand-sponsored databases of BIPOC creatives and corporate diversity committees proliferate, I am also hopeful that the media industry will read the room and make structural change in the industry, instead of continuing to leave the real work of determining how to forge ahead to us. 

BIPOC organizing in news, publishing, and media is not new; coming together for mutual support and advancement is how we have survived in the United States. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) was founded in 1975, Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) in 1981, Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) in 1983, and National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) in 1984. These groups host conventions where their members can connect, provide relief to members impacted by crises (like COVID-19), host training events, provide fellowships and grants so members can pursue professional projects and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in media. The internet and social media have further transformed what this organizing looks like. There are now myriad Slacks, Facebook binders, GroupMes, Twitter accounts, and digital or in-person communities for writers, newsroom journalists, or media workers of color to join to find support, education, community, and job opportunities. 

One group is the Journalists of Color (JOC) Slack, founded by Aaron Williams and Julia B. Chan in 2015. At the time, Williams and Chan worked at Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting and were each other’s support system for professional projects, things they experienced as BIPOC in the newsroom, and more. Though Chan and Williams say they were lucky to have each other, Chan knew that “we can’t be running off to cafes and bathrooms and taking walks” every time something happened—coping mechanisms BIPOC media workers know all too well. Together, they started the JOC Slack with the goal of making the support they lent each other sustainable and scalable. 

Today, the community has a code of conduct, an administrative team, and a membership of more than two thousand journalists of color sharing everything from gardening and finance tips to salary information and job opportunities. “When journalists of color talk to each other and share salary information and train each other up on negotiation and are able to lift up salaries across different BIPOC groups in journalism, that’s a win for the industry,” says Chan. One reason the JOC Slack is useful to its members, Williams says, is because in the Slack, members are “speaking with hiring managers, and now there’s a direct pipeline or at least a conversation happening between these people. We’re removing the middleman.”

Chan wonders if brands that are creating resources from scratch have considered working with communities, nonprofits, or other entities that have already been doing the work in their field instead. One such organization is Permission To Write (PTW), founded in 2017, whose mission is to cultivate and amplify the voices of Black writers and writers of color. They provide space for writers to publish their work in the PTW blog and literary magazine, as well as helping writers develop their craft through workshops, meetups, and masterclasses. For founder Ashley Coleman, PTW is about creating communities of color that are strong on their own because then it “becomes easier to go play with others.” Coleman is not interested in being the only person of color at the table; she wants to create power in numbers at prestige publications and publishing houses to make real change, without discounting the value of spaces, communities, and publications or outlets that are owned and operated by BIPOC. 

Coleman notes, however, that “we have to find a way to get to the bag to really fund our things and make them as successful as they can be.” Coleman believes this is an area where white media workers and other “allies” can step up by “investing in things that already exist, stepping aside when it makes sense, and hiring BIPOC vendors,” among other actions. She is not interested in performative allyship, like brands creating databases for BIPOC media workers and creatives, diversity and inclusion panels or committees, and increased efforts to hire BIPOC freelancers without changing the racial makeup of staff at an organization. For Coleman, it is important that folks working to be anti-racist support resources and initiatives that have been created and sustained by BIPOC, rather than “trying to suck up all the air by creating their own thing instead of supporting what is already there.”

Publications and communities developed or led by women and nonbinary people of color have been important for travel writer Bani Amor’s career. Women of color editors gave Amor a shot and space to be themself without having to negotiate or compromise their voice to get published. Amor is less interested in being in databases set up by brands or publications that have led to “content mill, underpaid work,” and more interested in engaging through binders or utilizing resources like Writers of Color, a directory and Twitter account that retweets opportunities with pay rates included. These tools enable Amor to actively formulate pitches “rather than being an anonymous name…in a database.” 

Amor wants people with power, money, and opportunities to let go of the mindset that they are helping BIPOC media workers by publishing them, hiring them, reaching out to them, or paying them. In addition to being patronizing and preserving unequal power dynamics, this attitude does not hold water when one reflects on the fact that people of color, especially Black people, drive cultural trends and conversations in the US. Beyond support, Amor stressed the need for “equal opportunities for jobs” for BIPOC media workers. Hiring BIPOC freelancers is great, but ultimately only a Band-Aid on the media industry’s diversity problem if publications’ mastheads remain all or mostly white. Rather than paying lip service to diversity in writing, white people must step back to give roles to BIPOC and other marginalized groups in the name of structural change. Amor notes that BIPOC writers “need space and care. Our work needs care, and not just to be published no matter the cost.” 

BIPOC media workers know how to tell our own stories, and are fluent in the language of our oppressors, too. In this moment and beyond, collecting BIPOC information in a spreadsheet and hiring BIPOC freelancers is not enough; it is the bare minimum. Bringing on BIPOC freelancers in roles that lack job security and benefits does not structurally change your organization. Press statements and commitments to “be better” without tangible plans of how to get to “better” do more harm than good: they leave unaddressed what our experience is like once we are in the door; whether we are being fairly and appropriately compensated for our work, especially in comparison to our white, male colleagues; and whether we hold positions of power that enable us to make decisions, control content, and determine the voice of our vertical or publication. It is only by addressing the concerns of BIPOC and other marginalized groups that the media industry’s response to this moment can bring about real change.