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Letter from the Diversity Officer: Existence is resistance

'Journalism is my activism. Contrary to recent narratives, journalism is not incompatible with the quest for justice. In fact, storytelling serves as a platform for it'

From State Press

"From The State Press." Illustration published on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019.

I am a proud first generation Egyptian-American Muslim woman. I am also a proud journalist. I will not let anyone invalidate my lived experience, my pain and everything I have fought for and will continue to fight for. 

For BIPOC journalists, existing in this field is an act of resistance in itself. We have changed this industry from within — pushing back against this notion of objectivity that has taught us our identities are biased, that our identities are political, that our identities hinder our reporting. 

People with the most privilege in our society, and I mean able-bodied, cisgender, straight, white men, are seen as the blank slate. That should never have been the case. 

When newsrooms send reporters from marginalized communities to cover stories about those same communities, they are actually equipped to tell stories as fairly and accurately as possible — through their lived experiences. 

Journalism is my activism. Contrary to recent narratives, journalism is not incompatible with the quest for justice. In fact, storytelling serves as a platform for it. 

The sole reason I entered this field was because I needed to take a stand for people who look like me, my family and my community. After all, I grew up in a brown, Muslim immigrant household post 9/11, so I am no stranger to hatred and Islamophobia. On the contrary, my entire life has been shaped by it. 

Journalism is powerful in its direct influence on public policy and opinion, and what has been put out in the media for so long has bolstered this violent depiction of my communities. 

There is nothing that has inspired me more than those who work to actively change these narratives every day by seeking the voices that have historically gone ignored and misrepresented. 

I will not stand for reductive discourse that openly disrespects and dismisses the work of BIPOC in journalism. It is a slap in the face to BIPOC journalists when they are accused of not caring for their communities when they made a vow as public servants to tell their stories the right way. 

There has been harm done to marginalized communities because of this industry’s racist history and outdated values, but you cannot place that entire burden on BIPOC journalists. Institutional change doesn't happen overnight, and slow progress is still progress. 

BIPOC journalists are already carrying the blame that should have been placed on white journalists for not putting them in important positions.

That all being said, much of the work journalists of color do to better this field goes unnoticed, and if I’m going to be honest — I’d go as far as saying there are many white people who still legitimately undermine and devalue the extra labor of BIPOC. Who ends up doing the hours of translating and consulting for white reporters and editors at zero cost?

I fought back against an older white copy editor to include a section on white privilege in a story about race categories on the census. The editor’s reasoning was that he was wary of how it would affect the objectivity of my work, but I stood my ground because I cannot ignore a blatant fact in order to comfort and appease white audiences. 

I spent this summer covering national immigration issues, and every single time I drafted a story, another older white male editor would ask me to reach out to groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform to “get the other side.” 

First of all, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified FAIR as a hate group. In what world would I offer them my time, and a valid voice in my piece? My work is to deliver the news while uplifting marginalized voices, and I stood my ground time and time again against that request. You can expose injustices in this country without equating the voice of the oppressed to the oppressor. 

Once I was interviewing a president of a mosque in Phoenix — conversations on and off the record in English and Arabic — listening to him tell me about how major news outlets in the area only turned to him when they needed a Muslim to condemn a random attack on the other side of the world. 

He said they never stop by the mosque to tell the stories of the Muslim community here, and he trusted me with that responsibility because of who I am. 

My own mother was against my career path for so long because she was worried for my safety. “How would sources react to a reporter in a hijab?” she asked.

I have publicly called out and taken a stand against my own predominantly-white journalism school — while being fully aware of the repercussions — if it meant that my voice would advocate for BIPOC students at the Cronkite School. 

I genuinely believe in the power of student newsrooms. We have the ability to change the course of this industry and reject outdated values while upholding the core ethics that make journalism what it is. 

I am fortunate to work as diversity officer and have my voice valued by the rest of the staff, whether it comes to our coverage or internal diversity initiatives like the source audit or the diversity council. 

I speak on behalf of myself and other marginalized students in our newsroom when I say that while we cannot fix systemic issues in our newsroom overnight, we are moving in the right direction to instill those changes. Just because they have not been made public does not mean they’re not happening.

I also want to make it clear that we cannot treat marginalized communities as monoliths. There is individual thought within every community and organization and it is a false claim to act as if there isn't. 

We understand where certain demands are coming from, but not conceding immediately does not mean we are against our very own communities and places of pain. It means we are acting independently and thinking critically.

My personal experiences as a reporter have taught me that my identities are here not to hinder me, but to empower me. I have been able to connect with my sources on a level others often cannot. My sources have been able to see in me someone they can trust to tell their stories, and that is something I will hold onto with great pride. 

Trust BIPOC journalists, don’t discredit them.

Support BIPOC journalists, don't attack them.

Uplift BIPOC journalists, don’t dismiss them. 

- Farah Eltohamy, diversity officer

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