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As a Black freelancer, why I am only allowed to write about racial issues?

Illustration by

Jon McCormack

Words by

Nyima Jobe

October 15, 2021

I began my freelance journey in May of this year and didn't expect that now I would have a total of nine published articles. It's been a life-changing journey and I have learnt a lot about myself but I have also learnt a lot about the freelancing community.

I am proud of my progress and I am continually learning about the freelance life. But when I sit back and observe my journey, I have noticed a continuous trend. Whenever I pitch pieces about racial injustices, they almost always get accepted, whereas when I pitch pieces about political trends or literally any other topic, they are more than likely to be passed. At first, I interpreted this as just part of the pitching process for early stage writers. But by the fifth article I released all my commissioned pieces were either about Black cultural issues or racism in our society. I then wondered if I was being restricted and if I was on my way to be labelled a “Black journalist”.

In the past, influential black creatives have had to break through glass ceilings to gain the same respect as their white counterparts. Respected creators like Spike Lee, one of the greatest directors of this past generation, has always been known as a “Black director”, not just the outstanding director he is.

In many ways, this shows that no matter how far you have come in your career you will always be described as a Black person doing their job instead of being recognised as a creative individual. It’s harder for society to accept Black people for just having an exceptional talent, because our background or heritage is always the topic of conversation. Ultimately, it gives the impression that its shocking to see a Black person do so well in something or its astounding for them to have progressed that far.

With my freelance journey, I am privileged to be able to use my passion for writing to be able to speak about social inequalities that affect my community. I was honoured that my first published piece was commissioned by Black Ballad Magazine. This was an honour as they are one of the few established newspapers in the UK that speak about issues Black people face, specifically Black women, their stories are also from a unique angle and its main stories are ones you will never find on the mainstream news. In this sense, I feel my article for them was a statement of empowerment as I was contributing to a black-owned magazine that is playing a pivotal role in getting marginalised stories exposure in a white-dominated industry. 

Once I started getting commissions from mainstream newspapers, I expected that they would be accommodating to some of my pitches which were stemming from the alarming climate crisis we are facing or general political issues. However to my surprise none of these pitches were accepted. I then saw a journo request for an article to be written about climate change under the condition that it had to be written through the lens of a Black person. 

This was when I understood what was happening with my pitches, the angle I was coming from wasn't entertaining or desirable enough to the editor as it was just a general piece about climate change excluding racial viewpoints. Henry Bonsu, a journalist who previously worked at the BBC stated that Black journalists are often positioned in the mainstream press as a subject of debate rather than a participant in serious news reporting. This perfectly captures what I have been experiencing. Commisioning editors often want experiences from you as a Black person instead of letting your ability shine through the topic you chose to write about.

To change the trend, I have observed, editors need to change their habits when doing pitch call outs or just in general when accepting a freelancer’s pitch. Instead of thinking about what racial lens the topic can be written about, they should appreciate the idea put before them in the pitch and work with the freelancer to create the perfect piece based on talent rather than off of the person themselves. Black freelancers have so much more to offer than just trauma and experiences in the past.

The stories about Black culture in mainstream media are more than likely to be from a negative point of view and it's rarely an uplifting theme. I stress the importance of Black media and spreading positivity throughout these outlets. Black media can’t put me in a restrictive box as I am generating positivity for me and the black readers. I also find I have more freedom of speech, which is ultimately what journalism is about. Additionally, management at the top needs to be more diverse in order for there to be a better understanding or approach to topics freelancers bring forward when they pitch. If the topic is about race then it's important mainstream media allow the authenticity to be showcased without altering it to suit their comfort zones, that is not being sensitive to the matter and it changes that person’s views.

As I continue my freelance journey, I hope to see more editors become more welcoming to black freelancers who want to write about general topics without placing them in a box so hastily as a person who only writes about race. Through this, diversity will increase in the journalism industry and gradually people will be given more equal opportunities based on their skills and ability.

Freelancing is wonderful and I am proud of all the topics I continue to write about and I am excited to continue my journey as a journalist who has thoughts about life and everything involved in it.


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