Our stories need to be told – life as a black female journalist starting out

  • Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Four young black women discuss online trolling, professional barriers and developing a thick skin in their chosen industry

From left: Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Emmanuella Kwenortey, Isabel Togoh and Aletha Adu are all recipients of the Guardian’s Scott Trust bursary.
Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Journalism is notorious for its lack of diversity, and recent figures have shown that progress on increasing the number of black and minority ethnic journalists continues to be far too slow. At the same time, women are still under-represented in senior positions, and the Guardian’s recent and ongoing series The Web We Want highlighted some of the abuse facing black contributors and women contributors. Here, four young, black female journalists – all recipients of the Guardian’s Scott Trust bursary – discuss what it’s like to be starting their careers in this environment.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff: Have any of you got particular experiences of online abuse that spring to mind?
CBC: So, you’ve all had only positive experiences?
Isabel Togoh: So far. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not yet writing regularly.
Aletha Adu: I think it might be to do with the articles we write. At the moment I am not writing anything that is directly race-related or that tackles any racial issues, so I do not think people will find a need to racially abuse me. But when you [directed to Brinkhurst-Cuff] write articles for the Guardian that tackle racial issues, you get people that are like, “Ugh, shut up!” or who feel as though they’re tired of hearing our thoughts and feelings. That’s definitely a shame.
CBC: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had all sorts of things written at the bottom of my articles and articles I’ve edited by black women. Recently on gal-dem, a magazine written by women of colour that I help to edit, I’ve seen some horrifically racist things. Personally I’ve been racially abused, undermined, told I’m stupid and ignorant. But, weirdly, because my name – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff – sounds like a posh white man’s name, sometimes they attack me by saying, “Who does this posh guy think he is, commenting on the working-class struggle?” It’s just my parents’ surnames put together – chill! And I’m a woman!
Emmanuella Kwenortey: Racist or anti-feminist comments are nearly always underneath articles that discuss these subjects. It’s one of the reasons I work forSkin Deep magazine: it’s a place where race and culture can be discussed at length without asinine attacks. It’s no secret that hate comments stop prospective journalists of colour from talking about issues they really care about. But when we do, there’s a fear that we’ll be labelled as the journalist-who-only-talks-about-race – a sort of one-trick pony. But we can discuss the topic through a non-white lens, and it’s one of the ways we stand out.
CBC: We’ve been doing a series on skin-lightening on gal-dem and that provoked some very angry reactions.
AA: Yeah, I saw this one in the comments section on gal-dem. They talked about monkeys and apes, and said: “Then go buy fucking African products to make your skin darker ... Go back to Africa and build your grass fucking hut and shut the fuck up about the civilised, white, western world.”
On Mail Online you see a racist comment, and it will have 122 likes, and three dislikes
EK: Here’s another. The commenter said: “No amount of skin-whitener can fix Naomi Mbonga’s [referring to Naomi Campbell] face. I recommend an axe.”
CBC: Does it not scare you that there are people who think like this walking around?
EK: It doesn’t scare or surprise me.
CBC: Really?
EK: It doesn’t scare me because I don’t feel isolated. I live in London, it’s incredibly ethnically diverse. At the same time, growing up in the capital did lull me into a false understanding of the UK’s ethnic make-up. Going to university outside the city helped me realise, again, that the UK is predominantly white and London anomalous in regards to ethnic plurality.
IT: Whenever I read Mail Online, I’ll make a point to click on a Lupita Nyong’o or Beyoncé article just to see what the commenters are saying. You see a racist comment, and it will have 122 likes, and three dislikes. I can’t think of a particularly vitriolic example, but they will question their talent or the extent to which they deserve their success. I think we should tackle this head on. Sometimes if we get angry online, we’re accused of being as bad as the trolls and racists. But to me, it’s not about meeting fire with fire, it’s about saying: “My voice is absolutely valid.”
AA: Yes, exactly! But I think we need to explore and make use of the many different ways we can make ourselves heard. Particularly because black females are stereotyped as being “loud”, “aggressive” and “brash”. We need to keep writing about issues we feel passionate about.
CBC: It’s just so hard, though. Sometimes I feel like, why should I have to tackle these racists online again and again and again? I’ve been doing it since I was 14! I used to go on to these National Front forums on Bebo and have raging arguments with these men – or boys, who knows – to try to convince them that their views about black people were wrong. It’s tiring.
IT: It is exhausting, and not everyone is equipped to – or wants to – fight back.
CBC: Why do you think it’s so bad online?
EK: People are much braver online than in the flesh. I always wonder, when I see the comments: would you say this to my face?
AA: Well, they would not need to thanks to social media. People do not have to have discussions or arguments with people face to face, they will just let it all out on the first thing they see, whether it is an article or a music video.
CBC: When you guys were growing up, didn’t you experience overt racism?
All: Yes.
EK: I remember a girl saying: “You’re dirty.” I was seven. Four years later, this girl got really into hip-hop, really into grime, started to cane row her hair. I remember looking at her thinking, “You have got to be kidding me.” It was just another example of someone loving black culture but not black people. Such a tired cliche.
CBC: In my school in London there were a lot of black kids, and only two white kids in my class. When we painted our noses for red nose day, a white kid said: “You can’t do that, your skin is too dark to do that,” and everyone called him out as being racist. But when I moved to Scotland, where it was super-white, I had to explain, even to my close friends, why it was not OK to use the word “Paki”. I was called a “black bin bag” and the N-word on a couple of occasions, too.
IT: I was five when I moved to Kent. The racism was implicit; a kind of aggressive curiosity. Occasionally, there were disparaging comments, like in year four, I had cornrows in my hair, and this boy told me I looked like the footballer, [Nwankwo] Kanu.
CBC: I had exactly the same insult! I had exactly the same insult and I took out my cornrows because of it!
IT: But at the time, he was probably the most prominent black person they knew, so they banded us together. It has affected us to the point where we still remember it, today.
CBC: Yeah – and I’d never wear my hair like that again.
EK: But just as people say racist things in “real life” as well as online, I think it is wrong to focus only on what commenters say about articles without looking at the problems in the media industry itself. City University recently published data on the ethnicity of journalists within the UK: 94% are white, even though only 87% of the UK workforce overall is white; 40% of journalists are based in London, but London is more non-white British than it is white British. The discrepancies are clear.
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For full article, please see: The Guardian