It’s great you’re concerned about making your organisation’s work more accessible to communities of colour, or that you want to commission or hire people from more varied backgrounds. We’re bursting at the seams with evidence to show how publishing and media industries need to take action on this.
Perhaps “diversity” is your pet project. You’ve spent years trying to get it on the agenda. Or maybe it’s one of your job targets – will you miss out on a promotion if you don’t commission two people of colour a month? Or have you just noticed the active, engaged community we have at Media Diversified that could be mined for some fresh new ideas?
Whatever the reason, I get it, you’re there and you’re ready to DIVERSIFY.
Now before you do anything else, send that email to trash my friend. I have a question for you.
Could you do your job for free?
Yeah, neither can we.
Of course we’re passionate, and we care, but a day of small favours is another day we don’t get paid for our labour.
But it’s not just about one-offs and individuals. Let’s just step up a level here. Do you think it’s in keeping with the values of diversity that you’re championing internally if you’re actually just farming the work of it out to an organisation run by people of colour without feeling any need to compensate them for their work?
I hope the answer is “oh shit”.
So what can you do?
First, stop continuing to commission white, often male, writers to address issues that directly affect people of colour while excluding writers of colour from the conversation.
When writers, experts and other voices of colour are included, these all too frequently come in the form of requests for uncompensated labour: asking for extensive input and critique — essentially, consulting services — with no financial or other compensation. In many cases even “exposure” is denied, as no guarantee is given that providers of input and labour will be credited or mentioned by name.
This phenomenon extends to media professionals of colour at all levels of the industry. Earlier this month, Buzzfeed executive editor Saeed Jones tweeted:
If an executive editor for one of global media’s best-known platforms is being asked to act as an unpaid consultant for “gatekeepers” — that is, influential industry professionals, who as wielders of such influence presumably have recourse to the funds needed (and much more besides) to adequately compensate the consultants, editors, fact-checkers, and similar contractors and employees they already hire — it suggests that writers and other expert voices of colour are being treated as free labour.
Such a course of action is, at the very least, extremely poor practice. We regularly communicate with each other regarding our experiences, whether to share stories of positive work experiences or to help colleagues avoid negative ones. When a platform seeks to use writers of colour for uncompensated, unacknowledged labour, this information will be shared among those writers’ contacts, who will then share it with their networks, and so on (particularly easy with the instantaneous communication tools of the digital age). Within a matter of hours, a platform can gain a worldwide reputation for not valuing the work of writers of colour.
It also sends the message that only white writers or organisations merit compensation for their work.
‘Racism is why people of colour are assumed inherently incapable, unable to do anything constructive without the guiding hand of whiteness. It’s why we’re seldom trusted to be the leaders of anything.’ ~ Shane Thomas
While media platforms that approach writers of colour for free labour may also approach white writers with similar requests, this is far more common among non-white writers — possibly because many of the white writers known to those platforms are already paid staff or freelancers.
So why are we expected to do our jobs without getting paid? Because make no mistake – the correspondence, consulting, networking, project management, writing and more that goes into what we’re being asked to do are all part of our jobs.
It isn’t our credentials. It’s true that some of writers of colour have fewer credentials than some white writers, just as some white writers have fewer credentials than some writers of colour. But if the senior staff of Media Diversified, not to mention an executive editor at BuzzFeed, are subject to these expectations, our professional statuses can’t really be the problem.
It’s because our labour isn’t seen as “real” work deserving of compensation. Not due to the nature of the work itself; if people in the mainstream media thought such work wasn’t worth paying for, they’d cut their own salaries first. We’re carrying out the same types of tasks as our white colleagues in the mainstream media, except they deserve to be paid for their work and we, as writers of colour, apparently don’t. There’s a word for that, which starts with R and ends with -acism.
So to any mainstream media professionals reading this: before you send that email asking us or other writers of colour to do your work for free, consider what you’d really be saying. Consider, too, that it’s hardly in keeping with the values of “diversity” your organisation claims to champion, and that your current mindset will probably torch your big diversity project’s chances of success. On top of all this, white-run/owned/staffed organisations selling “diversity” may just end up doing more damage than good both in the public eye and to your project. Trust us, we’ve seen it happen.
Instead, extend the same courtesy to us as you would to any other colleagues, with the logistics for hiring us put into place. Provide your manager or funders with the evidence of how hiring us can benefit your organisation. Make the business case. Make the audience case. Make the ethical case. Ask for the resources you need to compensate us for our services – the way you would for other (white) professionals. Stop treating us as assets and start treating us as equals.
Lastly please do read this troubling piece: The only people who aren’t penalized for promoting diversity at work are white men.
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Henna Zamurd-Butt is the operations manager and features editor for Media Diversifiedd and a freelance media and communications consultant and masters candidate at the London School of Economics studying Politics and Communication. She also co-runs sunbakes, producing paleo baked goods retailing across London. Henna was formerly a news editor at user-generated press agency Newzulu. In a previous life she was a restaurateur, starting, running and eventually selling two restaurants serving American-inspired cuisine using local and ethical produce. She has a degree in History and Politics from SOAS; her first masters was in Global Politics from Royal Holloway. Henna has a strong interest in socially innovative business models and is a fellow of the social enterprise programme On Purpose. Tweet @hennabutt
Kelly Kanayama is the Administrative Manager/Editorial Assistant at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics at the University of Dundee. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and xoJane. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk. Her favourite comics include Judge Dredd, Preacher, (almost) anything by Grant Morrison, and Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.
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