Through My Eyes: In a white-dominated field, white students should apply themselves more to change

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By Camilla Bains

When I decided to pursue journalism at Ryerson, I expected to be surrounded by like-minded people. I thought of journalism as a progressive field of study—the perfect line of work where I could advocate for change in society. Journalism is known for being an industry that holds people and institutions accountable, one that calls out injustices and urges people to do better. I thought journalism was where I would finally not be the only one advocating for morality and calling attention to injustices, as I always had to throughout my four years in high school. Unfortunately, I was wrong. 

I entered the journalism program in 2018 and as a racialized woman soon discovered it to be a white-dominated environment where accountability and action regarding racism only went so far. I was quickly faced with white peers’ performative activism in real life and on social media.

I’ve had friends of mine in journalism say they feel “uncomfortable” at the thought of discussing pertinent racial issues due to their privilege in being white. Perhaps they should instead consider how that statement alone not only reflects but adds to their position of power. For that very same reason they highlighted–white privilege–should they not instead use that privilege for good by boosting the voices of racialized people? Ignoring racism only contributes to it greatly. They instead used “white privilege” as a shield or a reason to continue to not address certain issues, which only contributes to this power imbalance. 

I’ve seen many of the same people who have expressed racist and oppressive sentiments in real life posting various shows of support on their Instagram stories.

A white friend argued with me regarding how a professor using the n-word didn’t deserve to be fired despite the fact that this is what BIPOC students had called for. They failed to see any of the microaggressions they subjected one of their only BIPOC friends to and the pain it inflicted. Shockingly, that same friend proceeded to become upset when they were told they “could never understand what it feels like to experience racism.” 

After telling a white friend about having to stand up to racist people at my place of work, they responded by saying my “ancestors would be proud of me.” My ancestors? I would hope the people of today would be proud of me—racism is not only a thing of the past. 

I’ve had my white peers take my intellectual property when discussing journalistic ventures and attempt to make it their own, while simultaneously criticizing me for “making everything about race.” I’ve had white friends insert themselves into discussions of racism, to add that they felt victimized because racialized people can “play the race card.” I can assure you that there is no such thing as a “race card.” 

Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, there has been a steady and consistent rise in my social media feeds of videos and graphics calling for attention to racial injustices and broader inequalities around the world. I’ve seen many of the same people who have expressed racist and oppressive sentiments in real life posting various shows of support on their Instagram stories. These are among the same people I’ve heard defend the use of racial slurs, including the n-word.

If you really want to support me and other racialized people, stand up to people in your life who say or perpetuate racist ideas–even if they’re your own friends

Posting an Instagram graphic can certainly bring attention to an issue, but let’s not get things twisted: that is not the end of how people should be practicing anti-racism. Posting graphic depictions and videos of Black men being killed by police does little more than traumatizing the racialized people who happen to follow you. 

This culture of inaction is evident not just outside the classroom but within it as well. In journalism and politics classes, students are frequently made to “debate” topics like defunding the police or when to remain objective in reporting. For some of my mainly white peers, they’re often simply theoretical debates, but for myself and other racialized students, we find ourselves defending our fundamental rights and having to justify our experiences with racism. 

A second-year journalism class at Ryerson aims to teach about diversity with a strong emphasis on racial inequality and best practices for journalists covering issues of race. When I took the course, the white professor acknowledged the irony of their position in teaching racialized journalists about diversity, but nevertheless stressed the importance of the course’s subject matter to our careers as reporters. 

The course, however, is not mandatory for journalism students. Despite the clear stakes, the class was not taken seriously by many students. My peers constantly said the course was a waste of time, that it was a “bird” course and that they didn’t have to show up since attendance wasn’t taken. Sure, maybe it was a waste of time for those who were aware of best practices when reporting or simply knew not to be racist—but it’s curious why so many of those students who talked ill of the course are among the same who think that social justice ends on their social media feeds. At the Ryerson School of Journalism, there are few classes addressing equity and even fewer taught by racialized professors. 

It’s easy to repost a viral graphic, but it’s much harder to call out your own friends. In my experience, no white peer of mine, in class or otherwise, has done so. I’ve received messages and been in discussions with peers telling me they are aware of the racist things classmates and friends have said. I can’t help but ask myself: “why are you telling me that?” I already know what has happened; I’ve already been impacted by people’s bigotry and indifference. If you really want to support me and other racialized people, stand up to people in your life who say or perpetuate racist ideas–even if they’re your own friends. Boost the voices of racialized people when they voice their thoughts or are put in the position of defending themselves. People with privilege too often pat themselves on the back, congratulating themselves for doing something—the bare minimum. 

I saw a tweet from a classmate that I hadn’t even heard of before, saying that sports had done more for “minorities” than “woke j-school people” ever could, after young racialized women in the journalism program addressed his microaggressions. 

Not only was there no direct apology to the racialized women he owed one to, but the white peers who largely remain unaffected by his racist sentiments were the ones accepting his apology. 

This disheartening sentiment not only reflects the opinion of one young journalist but reflects the state of Canadian media at large. There is a fundamental lack of support and solidarity with racialized folks who are largely underrepresented in the industry. Hiring processes have failed to keep up with Canada’s changing racial demographics in both content and staff, according to a study by J-Source

It’s imperative in a field like journalism that the young journalists of today are equipped with the understanding and knowledge to seek out covering sensitive and important topics.

Racialized journalists still have to fight to make their way into newsrooms and work twice as hard to be taken seriously by their peers. This toxic culture and cycle of attacking BIPOC students addressing pertinent issues needs to stop in order for us to not only tolerate but uplift and boost the voices of racialized journalists. 

It’s been difficult to discern who my friends are in this program, but I know that a friend would never insinuate that I’m overly focused on racial issues and a friend would never defend a racist person. 

I’ve had people tell me, “I’m just not really into social justice,” or the common, “I’m not into politics.” Neither am I; it’s not a trend, it’s not a fad, it’s not something I’m just “into.” People who are already in places of power should feel an obligation to not only repost an Instagram graphic but also be ready and willing to do the work required in real life when face to face with racism, even if that face is your own friend’s.

As Angela Davis said, it will never be enough to not be racist, people must be actively anti-racist. It’s imperative in a field like journalism that the young journalists of today are equipped with the understanding and knowledge to seek out covering sensitive and important topics. One day soon we will be the ones in newsrooms deciding what stories get told and will play an important part in forming public perceptions of communities that deserve to have their voices heard.  

Camilla Bains is a third-year student at Ryerson’s School of Journalism

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to attribute the paraphrased quote “it will never be enough to not be racist, people must be actively anti-racist” to Angela Davis. The Eyeopener regrets this error.

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