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A Campus Newspaper Acknowledges Its Anti-Blackness. What Next?

The Ubyssey’s first Black woman editor wants to move beyond just ticking off checkboxes.

Mashal Butt 15 Jun 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Mashal Butt is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. She is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @mashalbuttt.

Last year, when my journey towards becoming a journalist began, I was excited to put what I was learning into practice from the get-go.

But after learning about the Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s campus newspaper, and meeting the editorial team during their visit to the journalism school, I hesitated to get involved.

As a woman hailing from South Asia, that hesitation stemmed from the fear I’d have to justify my ideas to an editorial team that didn’t appear to reflect a wide range of historical and cultural experience.

Danni Olusanya, the newly elected culture editor at the Ubyssey, is looking to change that.

In the 102 years of the Ubyssey’s existence, Olusanya is the first Black woman to hold an editor’s post and only the second Black person on the editorial team, according to the campus newspaper.

Eager to have journalism experience, she’s been writing for the Ubyssey since her very first year at UBC.

In her recent editorial for the student newspaper, Olusanya talks about the struggle of being the only Black person in most rooms and the exhaustion of having to advocate for her voice repeatedly.

“Sometimes it can feel like we are constantly having to fight a losing battle. Not just to have our struggles recognized, but to be taken seriously as people,” writes Olusanya, who’s also a fifth-year history major with minors in gender, race, sexuality and social justice.

Olusanya is determined to create a space supportive of voices from multiple intersections, so that contributors can focus on writing and informing rather than spending time advocating for their ideas.

Her approach to journalism is simple: be aware of your blind spots and support others in accurately reporting on issues they care about.

The Tyee spoke to Olusanya about her ambitions at the paper and what diversity, openness and inclusion mean to her. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to journalism?

Olusanya: I wanted to be a journalist since I was a little kid. I would read the paper every single day on the way to school. That was just how I got my knowledge. And I thought it was one of the best, most accessible ways to disseminate knowledge.

In your editorial for the Ubyssey, you shared your experience of being cut off and handed a business card by an editor you admired at the paper when you started. Now that you’re an editor, how does that experience translate for you today?

That immediately affected me in how I approached the Ubyssey as a whole. It took me a while to get my confidence back. It did stop me from wanting to put myself out there and pitch. But now as an editor, I take a lot of cues from my previous editors. I try to focus on the workplace atmosphere at the paper. I am definitely trying to be more approachable and having that understanding that not everybody is going to come in as a ready-made journalist.

What are your thoughts about having representation and making people, who are just starting, feel welcome to get involved with the paper?

I think that’s very important. As an organization, we have tried to represent different voices. But it’s also making sure that the writers are not western centric. We need to understand that people are coming from all over the world at UBC, and their experiences are just as valid and just as accurate as ours. Making sure everybody and all of their intersectionalities are represented is essential.

As women, we are often told to be almost apologetic about our achievements. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are also told to be thankful for whatever they’re given. How do you fight this culture?

I took a course last year called “Thinking while Black,” where we got to meet amazing Black writers and discuss their books. Every now and then someone would say “you must be so lucky!” And every single time I made sure to correct them and say, “Not lucky. This has happened. It’s been long overdue, and it’s amazing.” I’m not going to say I’m lucky or thank people for it. We are not going to be thankful for being given a chance.

We are going to appreciate the fact that we’re in the room, but we’re not going to necessarily bend over backwards just to make everybody happy. And that’s something that I try to extend on even now. Also, imposter syndrome is a huge part of having any position but, reassuring yourself helps break that narrative.

BIPOC often tend to get stuck, either voluntary or involuntary, with writing about their communities and its struggles. What do you think are the pros and cons of this?

I definitely must speak about one particular experience. I went to a performance of a Black artist, Bobby McFerrin, at the Chan Centre, hoping to do a review. I was not thinking about it as a race thing. But I had to turn it into a race thing. [In the review, Olusanya describes how the 10-time Grammy Award-winner was “treated as an object to be laughed at and mistreated” during this performance.]

It was uncomfortable to have this Black man performing this caricature of Blackness, and then looking around the entire audience and seeing that I was the only Black face. I can’t even go and write a basic review about how a capella is dying without it turning into a race thing.

So, the pro is being able to say that UBC as a whole struggles with Blackness and lacks infrastructure to support Black people on campus. And the con is that I’m not able to do my basic job. I’m reviewing the music, the ambience and now I’m also facing microaggressions on top of that. That adds an extra layer of difficulty to the job.

We are living at a time where we see chants of diversity all around us. In your experience, what does diversity truly mean?

I think diversity can be a buzzword. It’s the appropriate way to say, “We need to try harder to get more people of colour.” However, the problem with just saying that is it becomes ticking off checkboxes rather than actually thinking about the people and their intersections. Because it’s not just enough to bring in a Black person and say “OK, now we’ve had a Black woman on our editorial team, things are going to change.”

The people who are brought in, they need the infrastructure to support them. They need to make sure that they are having equity rather than equality. That they have a voice. That they are not the only one in the room, because then that’s an extra layer of advocacy they have to do before they can actually do their job properly. So, it’s making sure that there is systemic change. It is asking, “How have we allowed systemic racism to serve in our own community?” and then fixing it from the inside permanently.

I’m curious as to how you navigate this tension of having great mentors and hard work being put into anti-racist policy, but also realizing that there are systemic, structural forces bigger than any one person that keep certain groups of people out of relatively progressive campus newsrooms. How do you navigate this?

For me it’s being informed about what systemic racism or systemic discrimination looks like, because racism is only one piece of the pie. We’ve also got homophobia, transphobia and other forms of violent discrimination that permeate. That’s kind of where my mind comes in, becoming informed on what the structure looks like and whether the UBC culture is being represented in a way that students can identify with. Because being a Black woman who has experienced discrimination of all different kinds does not exempt me from my own bias and my own privilege. We have to make sure that we are aware of our blind spots.

How can the work and reform being done at a campus newspaper like the Ubyssey affect structural inequities in the larger media landscape, which is often complicit in amplifying dominant narratives and maintaining the status quo?

Student journalism is important, but we don’t just treat ourselves as a student paper. We don’t let ourselves slack just because we are students. We try and pull out the highest quality of journalism constantly. That means that we are rigorous and dedicated to the truth. By treating ourselves as a formalized newspaper, we are hoping that it has an effect on the media as a whole, where the work we do can help start important conversations that otherwise would be absent.

What kinds of stories does the Ubyssey needs to cover more? And why?

It’s really interesting because last month was Asian Heritage Month. This month we’ve seen Black Lives Matter protests, there is Pride, and it’s also national Indigenous month. So, making sure who is covering what and how we’re covering it. For me, it’s about highlighting the marginalized communities, especially in the light of COVID-19. I really want to focus on the student experience and how is that translating. And that means we need to make sure that we’re really reporting on this moment and documenting this moment at UBC as a hyperlocal space as much as we possibly can, so when the future generations look back, they don’t only see people dying in the news. They see and experience how people were feeling on campus when they were going through university in such an unprecedented moment.

What goals and ideas do you have set for the culture beat at the paper?

Definitely focusing more on the minority groups. But minority not just when it comes to race but intersectionalities too. I really want to create a team of diverse writers who are able to accurately bring some of that information to the table and make sure that their community is represented. And it’s not enough just to have a token Indigenous writer, or a token Black writer.

I want to create a network where people feel “I am an Indigenous student, or a Black student, or a Christian, or a trans student, or non-binary, and I have something to say.” Even if it’s just one piece that they want to work on, I want to create a space where they feel that they will have the tools to report on things they care about and represent their community. That is what I’m looking to do.

Given everything that’s happening right now, what conversations do we as journalists need to be having with ourselves and our audience?

I’ve noticed that when things start to go awry [with COVID-19 or an economic crisis], the first people to go are the journalists of colour. They are the last ones in and the first ones out. We need to have a discussion about why that keeps happening.

Whose voice are you really valuing with this? Because if you’re throwing out your arts section, your culture section, your Indigenous writers writing about Indigenous communities, or writers writing about brown communities, trans communities, why are you doing that? Who is the person that you’re picturing when you’re reading the piece? Because I think a lot of the time it will be one type of person, and that person will be the baseline viewer who is not necessarily tainted by the experiences of racism, transphobia or homophobia.

We also need to talk about who is rising to the rank of editor, who is freelancing, who is getting unpaid internships, who gets the big story. I think we just need to have an open conversation as a community of journalists because we have a lot of power to sway public opinion and we need to be mindful of that.

With the audience, we need to basically say, “As journalists, we have blind spots.” I think it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of people to admit to themselves that journalists do have blind spots and journalists do have weaknesses as individuals. Because as objective as we try to be, there will be some subjectivity. Owning up to these gaps is important.

Lastly, what advice do you have for young student journalists?

Persevere. Sometimes experiences can be upsetting and that’s totally OK. But don’t quit because you have one bad experience. Keep going back, as long as it’s not toxic to your mental health and your state of well-being. Ideally, you will be able to break through and if not, find somebody who can advocate for you, talk to you about how to move forward and make sure that you’re being able to write. And as journalists, stay informed. Make sure you’re coming to the table prepared and understanding what’s going on and not having to be explained to.  [Tyee]

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