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Nicole Brumley
Special to the RJRC

May 1, 2018

(Courtesy World Trends in Freedom of Expression, UNESCO via Creative Commons)

As a student journalist, I’ve been afforded the protection of speaking to a mostly liberal audience through campus newspapers. But, as a black female journalist, I know this protection will crumble when my work is showcased in larger publications. Having an opinion on social media while being visibly racialized opens the floodgates for abusive trolls. I know deep in my bones, however, that using my voice as a young black woman to talk about difficult issues and tell difficult stories is important.

A 2018 report by Amnesty International referred to Twitter as a “toxic” place for women. The study found that Twitter inadequately enforces policies when women report violence and abuse on their platform. Various journalists and writers reported receiving threats and targeted racism.

According to Amnesty International’s online poll, of the respondents who experienced abuse or harassment on social media, 29 per cent in the United States said they experienced threats of physical or sexual violence. Around half of the women who responded, 53 per cent in the U.S. and 47 per cent in the United Kingdom, said the abuse included sexist and misogynistic comments.

While the reality of online hate is a nagging concern, my commitment to highlighting controversial issues about race, culture and religion is unwavering. I have written about my own experiences with racism, black Somali women taking a stand again negative media representation, and Muslim women tackling social justice issues. I understand why racialized female journalists sometimes need to take a step back from social media when their personal safety and well-being is under attack online. But when it’s my turn – and I have every reason to think my turn will come – I hope I will be resilient in the face of pressure intended to silence my voice. A recent workshop organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre gave me some tools for doing this.

The April 3rd workshop, which organizers called “Entitled to Your Opinion, ” included a discussion of the effects of online abuse and a session that focused on ways to maintain your well-being when dealing with hate. Dr. Diana Brecher, a Ryerson adjunct faculty member and positive psychology expert, explained that coping training does not involve accepting harassment or giving up the fight to counter it. What it does offer is instruction on how to practice meditation and conscious positive thinking so that you can remain grounded and thrive, even when dealing with online hate.

Noor Javed, a Toronto Star reporter, talked about the backlash she experienced as a result of a story she wrote 10 years ago about polygamy in Toronto’s Muslim community. She reported about imams who officiated the marriages and also practiced polygamy, and the impact it had on women who were first and second wives.

Social media platforms weren’t as active at the time, Javed said, but there was considerable backlash from members of the Muslim community who criticized her on blogs and online forums, and even launched an email campaign against her. The story resurfaced recently, she said, because it is being shared online by right-wing Muslim groups.

And once again she is being “hated” because of it, only this time it’s on Facebook and Twitter where the story has been shared.

“It made me think ‘would I have written that story today?’” said Javed. “In today’s anti-Muslim political climate, I probably wouldn’t have.”

It was disheartening to hear first-hand how online hate and racism can influence the kinds of stories journalists report on. I realized how the intensity of online hate differs for various racialized women: Javed’s experience with online hate as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, will undoubtedly differ from mine as black woman. But it’s also important to remember who benefits when these stories are told. Javed’s experience was case in point: She said that when her story first appeared, it started a much needed conversation about polygamy in the Muslim community and many Muslim women were happy to have a place to discuss their views on the matter.

Javed told workshop participants she has dealt with hate by occasionally taking some time offline. She also finds solace in the support she receives from her colleagues who understand the toll that comes with being publicly hated, threatened and verbally abused.

We also see publications like the Toronto Star taking action by disabling its comment section online – a move some argued posed a limit to reader engagement. I think the Star did the right thing: newsrooms cannot stand idly by while their journalists face a barrage of online abuse. Space for informed public debate is diminished when ignorance and hate prevails. Javed said the paper has also been understanding about giving reporters time off when they are feeling overwhelmed by online hate and harassment.

During her presentation to the 25 or so students attending the workshop Javed recalled being told by another journalist that “if you want to stay in journalism as a brown Muslim woman who wears a hijab, you will need to have thick skin.” As a black, female journalist, I hope that I will not only develop a thick skin, but have the necessary support and personal resiliency to tell difficult stories, and voice opinions some people just don’t want to hear.

Nicole Brumley is in her final year of studies at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. She has worked as the Communities Editor at the Eyeopener Newspaper. Nicole is also a reporter for RUtv News and a photographer.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel. Photo: Madeleine Binning.

BY MADDIE BINNING
Staff Reporter

Young journalists – and even industry veterans – can feel uncomfortable reporting controversial stories on topics like race, gender and LGBT issues. Some may even shy away from reporting on these topics to avoid the social media blowback that could follow.

But feeling uncomfortable while reporting on some communities and situations is part of being a good journalist, said Toronto Star investigative reporter Jim at the Ryerson Research Centre’s (RJRC) recent panel, “Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable.” 

“If as a journalist you’re feeling comfortable all the time, you’re not doing good journalism,” said Rankin. “You should be able to step outside of your comfort zone.”

The first RJRC event this fall, the panel attracted about 100 journalism students, faculty members and members of the public to the Rogers Communication Centre at Ryerson University. The discussion, featuring Rankin, award-winning author Kamal Al-Solaylee and Angelyn Francis, associate editor for The Huffington Post, focused on how journalists can deal with discomfort while reporting on controversial issues and the importance of covering difficult topics.

The key to covering such stories is taking the time to get to know sources and neighbourhoods, Rankin said.

“People generally are generous and they want to share their stories,” he said. “And there’s nothing that beats getting out into the communities that you are writing about.”

Beginning in 2002, Rankin led a team of Toronto Star reporters in investigating police carding in Toronto. His award-winning coverage showed that random street checks targeted a disproportionate number of black and brown men in the city. Subsequent reporting on the issue led him to the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood in 2012, an area with a significant black population and a heavy police presence. During the panel, Rankin explained that reporting on the carding story from that area of Toronto involved visiting community hubs and acting as a “fly on the wall.”

“If you go into the community, spend time there, gain trust, don’t go in with your cameras blazing. Take time to get to know people – that’s the way that you establish relationships,” he advised.

He said that it can be difficult for reporters to know they’re on the right track when reporting on unfamiliar groups or places and suggested it helps to have a contact inside the community, even if the source won’t be directly quoted in the story.

“Go find a ‘rabbi,’” said Rankin. “It’s someone who knows everything about the thing you’re about to write about. Sit down with them and say, ‘Tell me everything I need to know.’”

These community insiders can also be used to test whether a story is accurate and to follow up on stories later, he said.

“Don’t just leave a story that’s an important story and walk away,” he advised.

Al-Solaylee, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that he travelled to 10 countries to write his recently published book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).

“Being in the world that you wish to write about, that you wish to cover, is, to me, the most valuable thing,” said Al-Solaylee.

He said that one challenge he faced while researching his book was writing about people that he often had “nothing in common” with. Because, as he explained, he was interviewing construction workers, temporary workers and domestic workers from a place of “privilege” as a university professor, it was even more important to him to see their experiences firsthand.

“Let [sources] decide where and when they want to meet and if you’re flexible, that really helps,” he advised, noting that many people were eager to talk to him but also anxious about it. “I meet a lot of people at their comfort zone instead of asking them to come to me.”

Francis, a recent graduate from the RSJ and currently a freelance journalist, stressed that that it is important to tell difficult stories.

“Because of the racial tensions in the United States, Canadians are too quick to write off the fact that racism exists in Canada,” said Francis, who was involved with multiple student groups such as the Racialised Students’ Collective during her time at Ryerson.

“Most of the stories that I write about race pertain to Canada, so [racism] definitely does happen here,” she said. “Just don’t let those stories pass you by and say that, ‘Oh, that’s not necessarily something that’s happening here.’”

She also urged journalists to do their homework and thoroughly research the topics they cover.

“It’s definitely important for us as journalists to learn the skills of interviewing, to learn the skills of how to tell a good story and how to think critically,” said Francis, “but you need to have a little bit of background in what you want to write critically about.”

Watch the full panel below:

BY: ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff Reporter

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders.

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders.

When Kamal Al-Solaylee saw a group of Filipina maids enjoying a picnic in a Hong Kong park during their time off work one Sunday afternoon in 2011, the concept for his next book began to form. That idea solidified when, back home and riding the subway in Toronto, he again saw a large group of Filipina workers talking together and realized that both groups, though an ocean apart, shared two things in common: their work and their skin colour.

“I started thinking about the connection between skin colour and work,” explained Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “I decided to try to write a book about skin colour, but it’s not really about skin colour. It’s about where skin colour becomes the gateway into something else.”

Al-Solaylee discussed his latest book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders last week at an RJRC-hosted Q&A session.

Brown explores the complexities and shared experiences of people with brown skin from around the world. Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries and four continents over two years to talk with people from the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the United States and Canada about their experiences living as brown-skinned people in the world today. The book examines issues such as immigration, work conditions, economic marginalization, racism, Islamophobia, colourism and self-perception, all the while asking what experiences unite people from vastly different countries, cultures and backgrounds who all share one common trait: their brown skin.

“I wanted to show how similar all of these experiences are,” Al-Solaylee said during the Q&A, “and that’s why it was important for me to go to all of these different countries and try to find out how the same scenario unfolds in different countries.”

He found that brown-skinned people – particularly immigrants – often end up as transient labourers stuck in precarious jobs.

“We have brought in people to do work that we don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “What I find is that there is this mass population of brown people in the service industry, whether they’re in kitchens, supermarkets, driving cabs or cleaning…The one thing that unites all of them is cheap labour”

This is true throughout the world, Al-Solaylee explained. He visited a school in Manila that trains students in housekeeping and the culinary arts so that they can work abroad. He talked with Filipina domestic workers about dealing with racism and segregation in Hong Kong (a country where foreign domestic workers make up five per cent of the population). And he met with foreign construction workers in Qatar, where, on average, one migrant worker per dies per day building the country’s infrastructure.

Al-Solaylee and Saunders discussed how these labour disparities are also found in Canada.

“We bring in a population (of new Canadians) that tend to have university degrees or are professionals, but we end up sacrificing them,” said Saunders, who wrote Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, both of which explore immigration issues in Canada and elsewhere.

“You are what Canadians assume is the default model,” Saunders said to Al-Solaylee, “which is that it’s okay that the people who clean our floors, drive taxis and so on are economically marginalized because our grandparents all did when they were immigrants and everybody slowly rose up the hierarchy. But I worry, with precarious employment, that maybe this is not working the way it used to.”

Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen and grew up in Cairo and Beirut before pursuing an education and journalism career in the United Kingdom and Canada. He wrote his first book, the award-winning Intolerable, about his decision to leave his family in the Middle East to seek greater freedom and safety as a gay man in the West.

Al-Solaylee said that writing the book was easy compared to the challenge of finding people who would talk to him, particularly in developing countries.

“You arrive somewhere after people have promised to help you and then they disappear, or when you arrive you realize that they aren’t that much help at all,” he said.

He said he ended up relying on NGOs to introduce him to potential interviewees.

“When you meet just one generous person in every destination who is willing to open doors for you, that’s the most important thing,” he explained.

Nonetheless, he still had difficulty finding people in Qatar willing to talk on-record about the country’s treatment of migrant construction workers, and was unable to find any dermatologists in Canada willing to talk about selling skin-lightening creams and treatments.

In addition to recounting the experiences of brown-skinned people from around the globe, Al-Solaylee also tells his own story in Brown, and discusses identity and intersectionality between race and sexuality. His book begins with a memory of himself as a 10-year-old boy in early 1970s Cairo, excited to watch a premier of the British musical Oliver! on TV. But while watching the show, he noticed that the young, white-skinned actor did not look like him, and felt shame over being brown. He noticed that all of the ads and shows on Egyptian television that always used light-skinned actors and began to wish that he, too, had lighter coloured skin.

“I have an awareness of how darker or lighter my skin is, and sometimes it has an impact on my self-confidence, because the lighter it is, the more confident I feel,” Al-Solaylee said. He was not alone in such experiences of colourism. While talking outside to an Indian woman in Trinidad, he noticed that they both gravitated to a table with the largest canopy so that they would stay out of the sun and not become “darker.”

He also discussed his experience feeling invisible as a person of colour in Toronto’s gay community, but he said that finding a Latino gay bar in the city also gave him a new sense of community.

“It was the one place on Church Street where I felt completely at home because there were about 100 brown people around me and I was just one of them,” he explained.

Al-Solaylee said that he was particularly upset over the shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier this month and how the news media identified the victims. The nightclub, Pulse, was having a Latin night, and the majority of the 49 people killed were Latin, Hispanic and black, but the media has not identified this as an attack against people of colour as well as an attack against LGBT people, he said.

Racism, prejudice and “othering” is also an experience that unites people with brown skin, Al-Solaylee said.

“If I was just walking down the street late at night…nobody would know me as a professor or that I wrote a couple of books or any of that stuff,” he noted. “The first thing you would see is the skin colour and the otherness.”