From the outside looking in, it may seem like Black freelancers are thriving. Our ideas are being heard. We’re building relationships with editors. And publications of all kinds are eager for our stories.
But behind the scenes, we’re exhausted and anxious. Will our voices still matter after the protests abate? Are we being tokenized? How can we deliver our best work while we are so emotionally and mentally depleted by the pandemic and the turmoil, not to mention the cumulative toll of racism?
Still, I’m encouraged that during this reckoning, allies are stepping up, “doing the work” to educate themselves, and actively seeking ways to do better for Black neighbors, friends, and coworkers.
Here’s how you can show up as an ally for Black freelancers now and well after the protests end.
Stand in solidarity with Black writers and editors against racist publications and practices
Decision-makers in publishing are 78% white, according to multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books. And census data reveals that, compared to the population, authors and writers are disproportionately white, while Black folks are underrepresented. But white dominance in media may be coming to an end. Thank the rash of call-outs, exposés, resignations, administrative leaves, and solidarity resignations at major publications.
Though the press tends to focus on staff turmoil, freelancers have a critical role to play. When Meg Butler, a former Fodor’s editor, outed the 71-year-old travel advisory for racist internal policies, writers of all races joined her in solidarity by signing petitions and pulling pitches.
I pulled a story that Fodor’s had just assigned me. Tonya Abari, a Nashville-based writer and editor with a forthcoming piece in The Freelancer, did the same. “I’m now making sure to be diligent with research,” she wrote in an email about places she plans to pitch in the near future. “I refuse to be someone’s performative diversity pawn.”
Going forward, allies will have to be intentional about the publications they work with. This requires a little background research—sleuthing online for signs of trouble—plus asking some tough questions:
- Does this publication amplify marginalized voices and stories in positive ways?
- Is their tone paternalistic?
- Does their coverage reinforce stereotypes or does it challenge them?
The reality of white supremacy in journalism means that it is probably impossible for any of us to avoid writing for problematic publications altogether. Many marginalized writers, including me, simply don’t have the network or wealth to be able to turn down work indefinitely. But if you can afford to snub a publication that deserves snubbing, do it and spread the word.
Fight inequities with communication, transparency and action
Even better than any of us boycotting, white allies, is you talking to editors you have relationships with about what they’re doing to challenge racism endemic to their own newsrooms.
There is also a real opportunity for allies to show up for us by being transparent about who they work for and how much they’re paid. The latter is gaining traction among authors, who are exposing racial disparities in the publishing world by posting their book advances under the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag.
In the freelance community, many people have published editorial contacts in private Facebook groups or offered them up to Black writers on Instagram. That’s a good first step, but Nashville author and journalist Andrea Williams suggested this power-up: “Definitely if you have connections, do an intro. Don’t even just pass along the editor email address but do an actual intro. I wouldn’t mind sending along clips to a fellow writer just so that they felt more comfortable recommending me.”
Other writers are refraining from pitching altogether in order to clear a path for Black writers.
“I wanted to do everything in my power to build onto the momentum for change, for a social revolution,” Michelle Yang, a writer and mental health advocate in Seattle, wrote in an email. “Pitching any stories at this moment in history did not feel right. I wanted to help extend the news cycle on the protests as much as possible, so any short-term unrelated pitches felt like distractions. This is a time for Black writers to shine, to begin to make up for lost time.”
Ask yourself: Is this story mine to tell?
The recent American Dirt controversy and Alison Roman debacle have reignited the discussion about cultural appropriation and given new life to #OwnVoices, a movement YA author Corinne Duyvis started in 2015. The premise: Avoid writing characters and stories that are outside of your own lived experience with marginalization.
“I’ve been having so many different discussions this week about just really revisiting this ideology that we have in the writing profession that we can tell every story,” said activist and cultural critic Shanon Lee in a phone interview. “[E]very story is not our story to tell. So sometimes it is going to take getting out of the way.”
This is particularly salient as editors scramble to secure Black Lives Matter-related content in a crazy-tight news cycle. Amid the scramble, they may overlook the question of who should write the stories they’re assigning. This puts the onus on freelancers to make better choices for themselves, something that runs counter to freelance hustle culture of take whatever assignments you can get.
To make #OwnVoices part of your process, Canadian social worker and writer Krystal Kavita Jagoo suggests reflecting on these questions when pitching stories or accepting assignments:
- Have I lived the marginalization I intend to write about?
- Do I have “the lens to guard against reinforcing the problematic status quo” in my depictions of characters and sources?
- Is there an opportunity here to support a marginalized writer in telling their story instead of trying to tell it myself?
Recently, Williams was able to break into Vulture with a piece about racism and country music because a local white journalist embraced this sort of thinking.
“[She] reached out to me and was like, ‘I was actually going to write a piece on this [but after reading your work I realize] I am woefully unqualified to do so, so let me kick this to you,'” Williams said. “Now I have a connection with that editor.”
Across my writers groups, people of all backgrounds are gifting story ideas to each other under hashtags like #StealThisPitch or #TakeTheLead. In the short-term, this may feel like giving up valuable opportunities. But long-term, these behaviors can help shape a better freelance culture for everyone.
“If we genuinely want a more just, equitable society, it will mean stepping away from opportunities we would have taken without a second thought before, putting in effort to connect marginalized [folks] instead, and probably getting our privileged feelings hurt along the way, as we recognize how we failed to do better in the past,” wrote Jagoo in an email.
It’s okay to start small. In addition to supporting Black people by donating to activist organizations or pushing for police reform, connect with Black freelancers in your community and see how you can help make their lives better.
“We all have a sphere of influence, however small it may be,” Williams said. “There’s work that we could do, right where we stand to affect actual change.”
Photo credit: Dusan Stankovic