Being the only Black journalist at the station
For CWA Canada
When you’re the only Black person at your station, your work comes with an often-underestimated set of challenges that can have a direct impact on your career.
I’ve been a journalist with Radio-Canada in Vancouver for over 10 years. This profession was not an option for me back in Belgium, where I grew up. And while Canada afforded me this opportunity, it also exposed a host of issues for me, especially surrounding identity.
A special kind of multiculturalism
When I moved to Vancouver, seeing other Black people on the street was a rare occurrence. So much so that when two Black people passed each other, they’d feel the need to say hello and smile. As if they were reassuring each other that they weren’t alone.
When I started working at my dream job, I was so excited at first that I barely gave any thought to the fact that none of my colleagues looked like me. Besides, I was used to being the only Black person in the room.
While Vancouver is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the country, its Black population at the time was smaller than it is today. In the newsroom, people of colour were fairly well represented, but their complexions and backgrounds were different from mine.
For years, I’d talk to my sisters about it. We’d take comfort in the fact that at least in Canada, I could work in my field. I had, after all, earned a journalism degree in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.
After my university studies, it was almost impossible to find a job at a newspaper or radio station, let alone a TV station. I recall hardly ever seeing Black anchors on Belgian television when I was growing up. There was one Black anchor who covered sports on weekends on a commercial broadcasting station, and another on the public network who reported on African issues, but you had to stay up late to catch it.
Although I was grateful for the career opportunity, I sometimes felt alone. This issue was bigger than just my TV station. In the first few years, I would only see one other Black reporter at press conferences, an English-speaking colleague who wrote for a newspaper. Somehow, we didn’t exchange many words, but we did say hello by nodding to each other discreetly.
Representing an entire community
I quickly noticed that I’d been assigned a certain status: I’d inadvertently become the voice of my people. While shooting or doing community events, people would tell me, over and over, “We’re proud to have you representing us.” My sister and brother-in-law, whose social circle was mainly African, would pass on what people in the community were saying. Everyone was proud. The more often I heard these words, the more pressure I felt.
Any time I did a story, I knew people were listening to me and watching me with special attention. I couldn’t let my audience down. I’d chosen this line of work to follow in my father’s footsteps, but I had had no idea that, one day, a whole community would be following me.
Beyond the identity challenge, being the only Black journalist comes with the tacit responsibility of covering any story that has to do with Black people. When Black History Month rolls around, people turn to you when they want to talk about an event or ask for contacts. I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes wondered, “Do my colleagues spend any time with, or even know, any people of colour besides the people they interview at work?”
As much as I like the fact that my stories reflect Canadian diversity, I wish everyone else would adopt this approach and, as idealistic as it may sound, they’d do so naturally. That everyone would strive for balance, equity and cultural representation.
More visible diversity
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Radio-Canada’s Vancouver newsroom hired a number of Black journalists, most of whom I’d see through a tiny videoconferencing screen. I practically had an identity crisis last October when I found myself in a small area with four other Black women. It was such an unusual sight that I had to say something about it.
We also have two new biracial staff members — a host and an administrative assistant who is of Congolese descent, like me. I feel like I’m dreaming. What happened? Even the CBC side has Black employees: I see at least three at the front desk. You also see more Black people on the streets of Vancouver. It’s reached the point where people don’t feel the need to nod at each other anymore.
(Noémie Moukanda is a member of CWA Canada Local 30213 – the Canadian Media Guild.)
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