Embrace them both. You don't have much of a choice.
There are two sides to everything. Take fame, for example. Everyone may believe they want the glamour and perceived exclusivity that comes with celebrity, but forget that it comes at a price. That price is privacy, as public obsession turns you into public property whenever you exit your house. Most writers aren’t celebrities, but that plateau is attainable, as their opinions and the public’s reaction to them can catapult them to stardom. Regardless, whether they’re successful or largely ignored, black writers are forced to deal with those two aforementioned sides—a double-edged sword which keeps careers a constant struggle uphill.
The power of the black writer resides in a special perspective. Because I fall into this category, a triumph I can attest to is the unique angle my experiences have afforded me, something that strengthens everything I write. For example, as a proud graduate of a historically black college, I can write in great detail about the black college experience, one I protect fiercely because it’s my opinion that only those who share it are the most qualified to speak about it. It’s a topic I’ll continue to cover passionately because those four years have given me insight on the topic, an insight not everyone has. It’s an intangible that makes me stand out, and the ability to touch on subjects which others cannot is an attribute that brings value to African-Americans who write, whether it be their passion, profession, or both.
For black writers, our experiences can serve as an advantage, as they pepper our work with a distinct point of view that adds an extra layer of depth
Black writers often find themselves playing the role of Michael Jordan with the game on the line when it comes to matters of writing about race. While I don’t believe that every outsider to the African-American community is completely ignorant of its plight and, therefore, unqualified to discuss it, I do feel that it makes the most sense to give that platform to someone on the inside. This is why, as a black man with an outlet for my thoughts, I feel a degree of responsibility to write about race. I feel obligated to write about harassment at the hands of police and institutional racism because I’ve witnessed and experienced both. I feel obligated to write about the killings of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis because I could’ve met the same fate.They’re no longer here to speak for themselves, and while I can’t speak for them, I can use my voice to speak up for them. But just as I feel obligated to address instances of racism, other writers feel burdened by it.
Though there are black writers able to provide elaborate, intricate commentary on racism, it doesn’t mean all of them want to when presented the opportunity. Cord Jefferson’s recent Medium piece about the "racism beat,"spoke to the frustration of having to continuously write about the subject. This was triggered by a website asking Jefferson to offer his thoughts on Robert Copeland, the former police chief of Wolfeboro, N.H. who stepped down after defiantly standing by his use of "fucking nigger" in reference President Obama. Jefferson explained that he turned the opportunity down because he didn’t want to write something "too redundant to bear," or provide any more "sad and obvious words [heaped] onto so many other nearly identical words written down before." Though I don’t share Jefferson’s view of futility, I understand that his stance has been shaped by weariness. The beat that he’s chosen to carry like a cross has beaten him down.
What’s so maddening is life’s constant message that one of your biggest selling points also works against you
At the root of Jefferson’s inner-turmoil is a conscience left fatigued from "[feeling] compelled on a consistent basis to defend your claim to dignity." What’s more, he further expounds on why, in his opinion, writing about race frequently is an uneasy dedication: "If you’re a person of color, the racism beat is also a professional commitment to defending your right and the right of people like you to be treated with consideration to an audience filled with readers champing at the bit to call you nothing but a nigger playing the race card." While I agree that choosing to write about race often is a commitment that can yield explosive and frustrating results, I disagree with the assertion that opting to do it means a "steady mind is not guaranteed." Our conflicting points of view illustrate the difficulty that black writers face, as the awareness we share that makes us exceptional in some ways can also leave us mentally taxed from the demand of using it. The internal war renders some of us downright alienated.
Adding to that alienation is literally looking around offices and realizing that you’re one of few—if not the only—person like you present. The case of newsroom diversity (or lack thereof) isn’t a new topic, but it remains evergreen for a reason. Shani O. Hilton’s Medium piece about the difficulty of assembling a diverse newsroom highlighted the fact that hiring managers often get the concept of diversity flat out wrong. "‘Diversity’ doesn’t stop at hiring one person who represents each so-called different viewpoint, be it race or gender or sexual orientation or political leaning," Hilton wrote. "Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing." It’s a feeling I’m familiar with and have addressed before—that feeling of being the lone black kid in the class during Black History Month discussions; that feeling of having to speak up during those discussions because everyone defers to you. No office should be set up to slap you in the face with the reminder that you’re literally a minority, but, depending on the organization you work for, it’s a harsh reality.
Journalism isn’t a profession like sports where the best are normally recognized as such due to performance alone
So why are these newsrooms so vanilla? Well, as Hilton explained, it’s because the people doing the hiring—to no fault of their own—often target what they identify with: young white men. Hilton said members of this group are "‘given a shot,’ often ahead of the young journos of color and even great reporters who aren’t on anyone’s radar, because they project a competence and confidence that the white guys doing the hiring saw in themselves when they first got started." She adds that it’s the "Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox" in action which leaves black journalists constantly overlooked by people tasked with filling positions they’re, at the very least, qualified for: "Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement."
The reason it seems like bullshit is because, as Hilton adds, "it isn’t in [our] DNA." This isn’t because we’ve been bred to be stubborn and unresponsive to change, it’s because we’ve had that paradox of working twice as hard to break even burned into our brains by parents, as well as teachers and professors who cared enough to echo it. (I heard it plenty of times at that little HBCU in D.C. that I attended.) But journalism isn’t a profession like sports where the best are normally recognized as such due to performance alone, and, therefore, exalted. In this game, it’s all about who you know, and many talented black writers are left overlooked, alienated and frustrated as a result.
Black children are taught since birth that they’ll face obstacles no matter what they choose to do. For black writers, our experiences can serve as an advantage, as they pepper our work with a distinct point of view that adds an extra layer of depth. But the same thing that makes us atypical can also work against us. Journalism is no different than many other careers in that blacks find themselves forced to overextend themselves to not only get ahead, but simply keep the playing field level. Science is even finally acknowledging the double standard that’s become a way of life for us. But what’s so maddening is life’s constant message that one of your biggest selling points also works against you. Still, if you're a young black writer, you shouldn't let this unnerve you. It's both a gift and a curse. We should embrace them both.
Julian Kimble fights against the curse of the gifted everyday. Follow him on Twitter here.