The morning after Trump’s election, journalists everywhere wondered how they would report on Trump’s America. Journalists of color wondered how they would survive it.
Steven Thrasher, who is black and gay, considered the years of violent, horrific vitriol he’d received from white supremacists. Thrasher, a writer-at-large for the Guardian who covers race in America, is among the 10 most abused writers in the website’s history (seven others are people of color), a study by the publication recently found.
Now he worried his racist harassers wouldn't just live behind keyboards anymore. “They’re going to the White House,” he remembered thinking. "They’re going to control all the levers of the federal government and state governments and Congress. And that’s frightening."
The anxiety left him unable eat or sleep—he says he felt as if he was grieving someone’s death. Yet he knew he had to write. "Hold tight to the ones you love living in black and brown and yellow and native skin,” he opened in a column on November 9, since shared 28,000 times. “We are going to be living as strangers in our land.”
Journalists of color know all too well what that feels like. Trump’s hostility toward both people of color and the press means we are uniquely targeted in personal, frightening ways. After the election, hundreds of the president-elect's supporters sent me hate messages, threatening to deport or hurt me. That’s before the exhaustion of reporting daily on leaders who are making their hatred of us into policy. And when people of color make up just 17% of news employees and 13% of supervisors—as layoffs continue to thin headcounts across the board—there’s a sense that we’re in for the fight of our lives.
Are we safe? Are we supported? Are we enough to defend minorities from hate over the next four years? Journalists of color have been desperately trying to improve media’s coverage of racism and white supremacy for years and it still refuses to learn. Just take the media’s continued dance around the naming of Neo-Nazis—or the post-election wave of pieces portraying them as fashion icons. Depending on who you read, white supremacists are “dapper," a stylish new “think-tank," or possibly “hipsters."
Ira Madison III, a culture writer and host at MTV News, was one of the first to point out the trend on Twitter. “There’s this glamorization of this new sexy white man who is a horrible racist and white supremacist,” he tells me. “Journalism loves doing that…almost like a weird form of cultural tourism. But these ways are not equipped for dealing with white supremacists. They are not equipped for treating the alt-right like they’re a real threat.”
Instead, Madison suggests, journalists should write about white nationalists the way they write about ISIS—in other words, a group that poses an existential danger to Americans, and must be opposed at all costs. For that to happen, we must overturn the traditional media consensus that the perspective of straight, white males should be considered neutral.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Caille Millner is one of the journalists of color challenging the status quo. “We are taught we have to maintain a kind of neutrality which is at odds with how the world is,” she told me. “I feel we’re going to see more journalists of color questioning that, since the deck is clearly stacked in favor of one side. How can you remain neutral about something that’s clearly destructive to you and people you love?”
The week after the election, Millner decided to push her newsroom to take a stance on the term “alt-right,” in light of threats by Trump and his supporters against journalists of color. “I said, ‘We need a company position on this’…because remaining neutral is A, not fair to the staff, and B, not fair to the readers.”
But deciding whether to speak out—especially on issues involving race—is an uneasy dilemma for journalists of color, cautions Millner, especially since it’s likely they’ll be one of just a few in their newsrooms. “It’s a matter of how you handle it: Do you take on the role of spokesperson occasionally, or do you do only do it when you think it’s important, or do you try to avoid it?” she says. “It’s a second part of the job.”
Tanzina Vega can relate. As CNN’s sole race and inequality reporter, and before that the race and ethnicity reporter at the New York Times, she often feels cast as the newsroom “race whisperer,” she says. “The burden put on the few journalists of color out there is there’s this pressure that we speak for people of color. If we had more diversity in newsrooms it would mean less pressure on one person to get it right."
Vega’s data-driven reporting on social justice issues sets her apart at CNN, but it’s also made her into a lightning rod for threats and hate messages, which only intensified after the election. “I think this is the first time in my career that I’ve ever worried for either my safety or my ability to do my job,” she tells me. “People say, ‘Well, just turn it off.’ We can’t turn it off; we work in the news. We don’t have the luxury to do that.”
It’s what Thrasher describes as a psychological “tax” that journalists of color — along with women, queer, and/or disabled journalists—are forced to pay. “It is possible, if you’re a white male sports writer, that you can go on writing about your teams and nothing’s really different for you,” he says. But the rest of us have to live with heavy worry for ourselves, our loved ones, and the vulnerable people in our lives.
That’s why journalists of color need support now more than ever: from management, editors, readers, friends. We need opportunities, jobs, platforms. Because what happens when the next layoff hits? When the next violent message arrives? Or a publication decides it needs to make room for pro-Trump voices? Thrasher sums it up: “As journalists, we’re defending our right to exist.”
Our task now is not just to report, but to create a world where we can tell our own stories on our own terms. It means that under Trump, we have to rethink our structures, and our own roles. “The hope is in future journalists of color, and not in traditional media outlets that we have now,” Madison says. "In the next four years people don't wanna just read bullshit anymore. They don’t want people not being themselves."
But first we have to survive, and that means taking care of each other. Millner tells me that her role is to “provide [people] with warmth and hope and acknowledgement…How can I tell stories as early as possible in order to achieve those objectives?”
Sometimes it’s hard to know the way, and that’s okay. A month after the election, Thrasher continues to mourn—and write. “I’m still in a state of anxiety and grief,” he says. “But I’m realizing I need to at least believe there’ll be a tomorrow."