Microaggressions and Mistaken Identities: My Experience as a Black Man Working in the Mainstream Media

Microaggressions and Mistaken Identities: My Experience as a Black Man Working in the Mainstream Media

As someone who worked at The Guardian for two years, I wasn't surprised to see them mix up Kano and Wiley in the latest unforgivable case of mistaken identity.

August 13th 2020

Last month, Owen Jones and The Guardian were forced into apology after the former’s column featured another case of mistaken identity. This time out, the newspaper had used a picture of Kano, instead of fellow East London MC Wiley, in an article discussing the latter's abhorent racist tweets.

This latest unforgivable mistake has yet again led to many questions about how something like this could happen at a national newspaper, which presumably has at least some level of procedure and standards before pieces are pushed live. While their own explanation has provided more clarity on how confusing one grime MC for another on a very sensitive issue came to happen, surely – amongst The Guardian's 1000+ employees – someone was there to call out such blatant cultural ignorance?

As someone who worked at The Guardian for two years between 2015 and 2017, the mistake came as no surprise to me.

While you’d be totally correct to position The Guardian as an organisation that sits on what many would consider the ‘correct’ side of the argument when it comes to race issue and social injustice, they still have huge strides to make in terms of having a representative and culturally sensitive workforce.

They simply do not have enough black staff, which would go some way to ensuring cases of mistaken identity no longer happen.

“I was immediately struck by the lack of diversity – the biggest giveaway was the level of acknowledgement I was getting from the few other black people I saw.”

On my first day at The Guardian in 2015, I was immediately struck by the lack of diversity. The biggest giveaway as I walked the corridors for the first time, was the level of acknowledgement I was getting from the few other black people I happened to see. I can’t say I was surprised and in the run up to my start date, I had done some research and learnt that The Guardian were taking steps to improve the level of diversity within the organisation. I was encouraged by the fact that workplace leaders spoke openly about the need for systemic change within The Guardian, and the wider industry.

If anything, it was simply a huge relief to be working alongside people who I felt had progressive values similar to my own.

What followed was an overwhelmingly positive experience for the next year and a half. I was being paid to work at an organisation that aligned so closely with my own values, I got to travel, I enjoyed doing my job and I loved my colleagues. I had even been promoted in record time. However, at the start of 2017 something changed.

At an awards evening in a swanky Park Lane hotel, I was sitting next to the only black client I knew of. It had crossed my mind that I had been asked to “host” him that evening due only to the colour of our skin. In truth, it was a relief to be sat next to another black man amongst an almost totally white audience and we actually had a great time – until the music came on and my boss leaned across the table to say to him, “you must be great at dancing too, given that Johnny is?” – my client immediately turned to me and asked, “does she usually say stuff like that? You know, racist stuff?”

Truth be told, I had never heard her say anything of the sort and told him that. We agreed to put it down as a one-off blunder.

A week later we were back in the office and planning a client event of our own. A discussion was started as to what food we should order. Pizzas were decided on. Our next problem was deciding on the size of the pizzas. A colleague of mine asked, “11 inches… how big is that?”, to which my boss immediately exclaimed, “Johnny knows!” in front of what felt like the whole office. She was immediately called out by colleagues for her comment being racist. Her response was that “it is a compliment.”

“The comments continued, ranging from doubts over me passing a CRB check to questioning which races I could pass as due to my “ambiguous” skin tone.”

Over the next few months, although not frequent, the comments continued, ranging from doubts over me passing a CRB check to questioning which races I could pass as due to my “ambiguous” skin tone. My desire to speak to someone at The Guardian about this was growing but I had a problem: there was no one black at a senior level that I could speak to. Debates raged in WhatsApp groups as to what I should do. I did nothing because I was terrified of not being heard.

Things eventually came to a head, ironically, at a diversity conference in Scotland. Having been targeted by right wing trolls on Twitter after tweeting some of the surprisingly progressive conference literature, my boss asked me to explain one of the tweets. It read, “enjoy raising your mulatto baby alone”. I explained that the troll was implying that due to my boss’s liberal views, she would have a child with a black man and he would take off, leaving her to raise the mixed-race baby on her own.

She looked confused so I went a step further, explaining that the idea of a fleeing black father is a prevalent stereotype. Her response was that this wasn’t a stereotype and that I was projecting my own experience onto this tweet (for the record, I was raised by my black mother after my white father passed away when I was seven-years-old).

Being very shocked and a little upset, I returned to my hotel room to call a friend for some support before returning to the conference. When I got back to the conference my boss was holding court with about 10 delegates and as I entered the room she called me over claiming I was “just the person she needed”.

I was worried. She turned to me and said, “I was just explaining how there is almost no prejudice in London anymore”. I explained to the bemused looking delegates that this wasn’t the case. My boss corrected herself and explained that what she actually meant was that “there is no prejudice against black people in London anymore”.

When I returned to London I started looking for a new job and within a matter of weeks had handed my notice in. At this point I finally felt like I had the courage to say something and very little to lose given that I was already leaving. I booked in a meeting with the head of my department and explained the various incidents almost exactly as I have in this piece. His response was…”are you sure this has anything to do with race?”

“These were microaggressions that the white heads of department simply would not understand. They were right.”

I left The Guardian about a week later and the whole thing was swept under the carpet with a minor reprimand handed to my ex-boss. No apology from The Guardian, no apology from my boss, no acknowledgment from anyone. During the course of 2017 I spoke to several other black members of staff at The Guardian and one thing was almost universally agreed – I only had something to lose by speaking up about what was happening, and nothing to gain. These were microaggressions that the white heads of department simply would not understand. They were right.

Given my experience at The Guardian – an organisation that is genuinely built on progressive values – we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that blackness is still heavily under-represented in other sports media, and that prejudice still fills the airwaves on mainstream platforms on a very regular basis.

According to research from BCOMS – a group that champions black professionals in sports media – just two black and ethnic minority journalists covered Euro 2016 across 51 roles, only eight of 456 roles covering sport in 2016 went to black journalists, and there has never been a black sports editor at a UK national newspaper.

I’ve worked at VERSUS in a position of leadership for almost a year now and while we’re open to admitting we need more full-time black and ethnic minority staff – of our four full-time employees, I’m the only one who’s non-white – our culture and content strategy is powered by principles of diversity and inclusivity. It’s why we’ll always platform young creative talent where we can, and why we’ll always write about stories and issues we believe in.

We need more representation at every major media organisation in this country. Until black and ethnic minority voices are better represented within those organisations, their output will never change.