Al Jazeera Journalism Review

University students celebrate their graduation. Reducing barriers to diversity in journalism schools is key to ensuring the profession prioritises balance and truth in storytelling. [Andreas Rentz/Getty Images]

‘You must know how to haggle!’ - racism in journalism starts in the classroom 

Even though I didn’t choose to, I quickly became that one ‘annoying’ journalist of colour who had to keep mentioning racism in my journalism school. It was humiliating and exhausting, to the point of nearly quitting 

 

I have always perceived myself as an inquisitive storyteller, so the idea of becoming a journalist - with a particular interest in investigations - was natural for me.

Enrolling at one of northern Europe’s renowned journalism schools to study investigative journalism two years ago, seemed like a dream come true. It was in many ways, but it came at a cost. 

Now, many months after graduating, I still feel haunted by the treatment I received during my investigative journalism course. Racism exists everywhere, even in journalism schools. 

On multiple occasions I and a handful of my fellow journalists of colour had to endure various micro-aggressions and blatant racism from our lecturers, all of whom were white Europeans. From being picked on in the classroom because of our skin colour and our country of origins to being censored and failing modules when we addressed the issue of race and white privilege. 

In a lecture hall of 30-plus investigative journalists, a renowned investigative journalist - a middle aged white man - pointed towards me and uttered the following words: “You! You must know how to haggle!”

On one occasion, the speaker mimicked his Pakistani colleague’s South Asian accent and giggled when he recalled one of his collaborations with him

 

He then followed this up with the standard question: “Where are you from? India? Pakistan, Bangladesh?”, he blurted on the podium. I am from none of these countries. I replied awkwardly: “I’m British.” He gestured a wave - no. He was referring to my family origins. I was baffled, not at all by his question but by the silence of the university lecturers in the room. 

But also by his apparent ignorance. This was a veteran investigative journalist. I was amazed he couldn’t perceive any problem with his line of questioning.

From that point onwards, things went downhill. The same investigative journalist also had two Armenian students perform a role play about “Turks killing Armenians”. On another occasion he mimicked his Pakistani colleague’s South Asian accent and giggled when he recalled one of his collaborations with him.

Even though I didn’t choose to, I quickly became that one annoying journalist of colour that had to keep on addressing racism in the class. And every time, my lecturers replied: “We will reflect upon this.” I have no idea if any reflection ever took place.  

The visiting investigative journalist later apologised but denied being derogatory towards his colleague. But the whole experience made me question my place in journalism as a person of colour. Was this something I was just going to have to get used to? Did I actually want to have to do that?

There’s no room for ignorance in journalism 

I knew something was terribly wrong with my journalism school when I and other colleagues started to fail assignments whenever we addressed the issue of race and ethnicity. The journalism school denied any such discrimination after the head of the journalism school conducted an investigation. 

Other non-White students and even a professor of colour privately confided that they, too, had experienced similar treatments at the hands of their universities when the topic of race or ethnicity came up - even when it was just part of the work and research we were undertaking.

On one occasion, my supervisor failed me on my final journalistic pitch to investigate police stopping and searching young persons of colour in a nearby town. I wanted to investigate whether there was indeed any abuse of power. I was told that I couldn’t “write a story about feeling sorry for young persons of colour”. Her opinion was that the police had a right to frisk since young persons of colour were part of organised crimes. I wondered that a professor of investigative journalism wasn’t more inquisitive about such a nuanced issue. 

One of the key roles of a journalist is to be cautious with our own bias and prejudice so that we can tell stories truthfully

 

Journalism in the Western world has made a decent amount of progress in regard to gender equality and yet it is somehow still very homogenous. 

The demographics within journalism as a whole still lack true representation of minority voices and faces. Indeed, across almost every role - anchors, presenters, correspondents, reporters and investigative journalists - this is the case. 

One way this can start to change is if more students of colour attend journalism schools. But for that to happen, all the barriers need to be lifted - including putting a stop to all the micro-aggressions that too many in positions of authority in our universities find all too easy to sweep under the carpet. 

“Ignorance is bliss”. We’ve all heard this before. But if you are a journalist - especially an investigative journalist - there is no place for ignorance. Not even in journalism schools. 

One of the key roles of a journalist is to be cautious with our own bias and prejudice so that we can tell stories truthfully. Therefore, it is not acceptable to allow lack of basic cultural awareness and understanding on race to be perceived as naivety. It’s not. 

Azraa Muthy is a photographer and multi-lingual journalist based in the UK

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

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