What I’m about to talk about may seem like a niche topic. Odd even, when the discussion on diversity around the newsroom is still being spoken of, as well as a matter of further representation for marginalised groups across the media. Women of colour look like we’re moving up in 2019.
Whether it’s Maya Jama’s countless number of campaigns, Tolani Shoneye’s trailer writing for Netflix’s Top Boy, the ever-growing Black Girl Festival, the Merky imprint under Penguin, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khanand’s latest viral poetry collection — the multitude of their BAME contemporaries in literature are not slowing down. I could write an essay filled with uncommon sounding names, that didn’t expect to be on best-seller’s lists but who now make up the zeitgeist. Yet what I want to talk about are the kinds of stories women of colour are expected to tell.
It’s no surprise for black and brown women, that our race usually takes part in many of our conversations and works, especially if we also happen to be writers. Anaïs Nin once said that to write is ‘to taste life twice’, so when your lived experiences are shaped differently to your friends or the infrastructures that are arguably not usually built to keep you in mind, your race is usually not the elephant in the room; instead, it’s asked to be slap, bang, in the middle of the page.
As someone who has been a writer since what feels like the womb (and a woman of colour most definitely since then too) it doesn’t take long to guess what I’ve been asked to speak on the most.
“This is a super nuanced conversation [when it comes to examining what women of colour writers are being asked to produce] because stories for women of colour have to have a space to exist somewhere,” says Head of Editorial of gal-dem, award-winning writer and editor of Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. “It’s why gal-dem exists, a safe space where women of colour can explore, where you can empathise with a black writer for example, on a story like yours.
“But on the other hand, editors need to think out of the box for women of colour instead of the boundaries of their race. To challenge them to write about things they want to talk about.”
As Brinkhurst-Cuff establishes, this topic on broadening what women of colour writers are commissioned for is complicated. Brinkhurst-Cuff identifies that “90% of my work is race related — which is fine because I happen to enjoy it.” But what about the women of colour who don’t wish to talk about their race?
For award-winning writer and co-contributor to It’s Not About The Burqa, Salma Haidrani, “it’s a joy to discuss race, faith and communities of colour”, however she says “I do find that women of colour or Muslim women like myself can often be expected to write predominantly on issues affecting women of colour/Muslim women. I fear that for many women of colour making their first foray into journalism, they might be expected or tasked with writing these topics alone, even if they have no interest in these”.
And these topics are rarely lighthearted. Writers of colour are sometimes plagued with the task of educating while unravelling why, for example, a racist attack has happened. Or what the tangible consequences of Donald Trump’s tweets can do. We’re tasked to undo the racial prejudice against us, through our literary tools, when sometimes all we want to write about is a book. Where we travelled to last summer. Our favourite strawberry jam.
Yet the stories that are coming out of the hands of women of colour and being picked up by editors are highly traumatic. As the personal essay is a great step into journalism and writing, it’s a key traditional route for young black and brown women with no connections in publishing. “The personal essay makes sense for early career journalists,” says Opinions Editor at gal-dem and journalist for The Guardian and Observer, Micha Frazer-Carroll. “It’s an experience [women of colour] have to write about and can be done with less research, but a lot of the stories are linked to trauma and can be taxing to put out into the world.”
As the world votes for more right-wing governments in addition to the rise of Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-blackness and movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter continue to thaw, women of colour are unearthing personal anecdotes in order to be recognised, picked up and frankly, paid. I’ve noticed in my eight years of journalism, which stories are bound to get commissioned — while the stories that allow me to be human but leave my race unrecognisable on the page, are left to the side.
Every woman of colour and writer I spoke to for this piece, said their race-related (or personal wounds, depending on how you want to see it) were usually the first to be accepted by publishing houses and editors — which is fine, when that’s what the aim of the story is — but it’s not all they have to give or write about. And let’s face it, being brown and a woman right now is trending and ‘cool’. Inclusive Fenty Beauty is rumoured to be worth over $1 billion. Nike have created a hijab. Rarely will you now see an ad in the UK without at least one person of colour.
“It’s also problematic if stories are only being picked up because of their readability at the moment,” explains Frazer-Carroll. The writer and editor goes on to point out that visibility for minorities and women through journalism also has to happen behind the scenes. “If it’s a person of colour writing about the topic, and there are white editors in-house who are outsourcing freelancers whose name and picture is on the byline, these writers can make a publication that isn’t diverse, look diverse”.
More so from personal experience, as a woman of colour who’s also a freelance writer, if you’re having to unfurl a lot of trauma, for example, a racist incident, in order to get your bread and butter, it can also be burdensome and a triggering experience to firstly have to justify why this matters to a white editor when pitching the story. You then have to flag which parts are necessary to keep, as someone who lacks that perspective may find it difficult to shape the story authentically instead of purely for the white gaze.
Writers of colour are sometimes plagued with the task of educating while unravelling why, for example, a racist attack has happened. Or what the tangible consequences of Donald Trump’s tweets can do. We’re tasked to undo the racial prejudice against us, through our literary tools, when sometimes all we want to write about is a book. Where we travelled to last summer. Our favourite strawberry jam.
On the other hand, when an editor is only commissioning you for race-related writing, it can feel like you’re a “rent-a-gob. Dial-up when they need a person of colour,” says Frazer-Carroll. “Sometimes, it doesn’t feel clear cut, am I being exploited or am I doing it to myself?” she asks, echoing what many women of colour writers have felt before.
Whereas editor and journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff states that an editor’s job is to expand what they know. “For example, you can ask women of colour to profile and interview those who aren’t the same race as them, on any topic.”
This depth of talent is sometimes lost when it comes to freelance creatives who are black or brown women and non-binary people of colour. “We’re just as capable of writing about far-ranging topics, be it art, films, fashion etc so it can be frustrating at the onset of your career if this isn’t recognised and there’s not enough opportunities available to pen pieces on these,” says Haidrani. “To any women of colour aspiring journalists in this predicament, don’t limit yourself. Your writing doesn’t have to touch on race or faith to be within your reach”.
So how do we move forward in this conversation on diversity, women of colour and their writing? Is it really as simple as hiring more voices? We have to remember that people of colour as a whole only make up 11.6% of wider publishing. The answer heard time and time again seems to largely boil down to not seeing us all as a monolith. To not tokenize women of colour and our writing, so our stories are not interchangeable.
I think this is also solved by recognising our experiences as women of colour and seeing that there are also other parts of our lives that don’t include being ‘marginalised’, (unless we’re saying so). If you want stories from writers who also happen to have a different skin tone, religious background, sexuality and beliefs to you, it’s integral for editors and literary gatekeepers to ask us to also write about our joys. Maybe start asking us to write that book review. A piece on what we think about the future of artificial intelligence. To imagine children’s books as there’s still only 2% of us in the market dreaming these up every year. To sum it up: ask us to write more about things that you want a ‘standard’, ‘normalised’, view on — we will probably give you more.
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