July 24, 2021

The readers’ editor on… showing that black writers can write about far more than race

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Reading Festival of Crime Writing, Town Hall, Reading, Berkshire, Britain - Sep 2009By Chris Elliott From The Guardian

So often the ‘go to’ people are white, have been to the same schools, the same universities. The media seem only ever to ask black people to write about race Reading Festival of Crime Writing, Town Hall, Reading, Berkshire, Britain – Sep 2009
With little fuss but a lot of planning, for 24 hours between midnight on Thursday and midnight on Friday 31 October the Guardian ran a – nearly – all-black comment section in print and online. It was timed to coincide with the last day of Black History Month, an annual event since 1987 in the UK to mark the presence of black people in Britain, and brought a black face to every one of the comment pages.

In print there was Gary Younge on the US midterm elections; Hugh Muir on politics and leadership; Dreda Say Mitchell on undercover police and crime writing; Claire Hynes talking about class, state schools and equality; and Chibundu Onuzo on Nigeria and the kidnapped schoolgirls.

Online there was Minna Salami on the west’s lack of women political leaders; Lola Okolosie on Gillian Wearing’s statue of an ordinary family; and Trevor Williams, chief economist at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, on the end of quantitative easing. Guardian Australia used four indigenous writers including Larissa Behrendt, while Guardian US featured Zach Stafford, Steve W Thrasher and Tarikuwa Lemma.

Editors decided not to promote the exercise heavily beforehand: alive to the charge of tokenism, they wanted readers to approach the articles without a sense of exceptionalism. “The ultimate aim is to show that black people can write about anything,” said Joseph Harker, an assistant comment editor, who worked with Maya Wolfe-Robinson to bring together all the writers in that 24-hour period.

The readers’ editor has received complaints in the past that the Guardian does not have enough writers from ethnic minority backgrounds, whether on staff or as contributors. In terms of recruitment, the percentage of staff from an ethnic minority background has risen from 10% last year to 11% in 2014. However, that is still below the average for current Guardian News and Media employees, which stands at 14%. In the UK as a whole the average of working-age ethnic minorities stands at 12% according to the 2011 census. The London average is a lot higher, at over 30%.

The advent, in 2006, of the Comment is Free website, where we now publish between 25 and 30 columns a day, was an important move towards increasing the diversity of voices at the Guardian. However, editors know they should always be doing more.

Harker said: “We have to get over the fact that in so many cases the voice of authority is white, and if you look across the board there are still very few black faces. So often the ‘go to’ people are white, have been to the same schools, the same universities. The media seem only ever to ask black people to write about race.”

The most difficult decision when planning the spreads was whether to make it black as in African or Caribbean heritage, or as in the wider sense of non-whites, ie all ethnic minorities. Because Black History Month has traditionally been about people such as Mary Seacole and Martin Luther King – a result of its US origins – the editors decided to concentrate on people of African and Caribbean heritage. However, there is one writer from an Asian background, Aditya Chakrabortty, who wrote about black and Asian identity.

Harker said that it required extra effort to find all the writers they needed: “But it was worth it. I think it is very important to stick with writers and put in the effort to help them learn what to pitch and how to write,” he said.

Does he not worry that the exercise will still be dismissed as tokenism? “Just the exercise of getting people to write about these issues is worth it of itself. Hopefully it will widen the pool, giving more ‘go to’ writers on a range of subjects. I hope it will be seen as an exercise in Guardian values, and it is the first time a British newspaper has done it.”

I agree that the low-key approach was essential to its success; the editors and writers didn’t want this to be flagged as a “special edition”, they want readers to feel these faces are just part of the natural community of Guardian voices.
IMAGE: Novelist and broadcaster Dreda Say Mitchell wrote about the undercover cop Bob Lambert. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine / Rex Features
For more on this story go to: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/02/guardian-readers-editor-black-writers-write-about-anything

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