Until only a few weeks ago, Sunny Dhillon was a reporter with The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. Since 2010, he’d worked out of the Vancouver office; in October, shortly after a civic election, he quit. He explained why in a piece for Medium, Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away: in an article about the new city council—composed mostly of white women—Dhillon wanted to focus on the lack of diversity (Vancouver is 45 percent Asian) but his bureau chief overruled him. The essay, on the challenges he and other journalists of color experience in predominantly white newsrooms, went viral online, and Dhillon received hundreds of responses.
CJR spoke with Dhillon about the feedback to the essay, what he plans to do next, and what advice he would give to someone else in the same position. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. (I worked for The Globe and Mail as a summer staffer in 2016.)
What has the reaction been like within and outside of the media industry?
I’ve heard from a lot of journalists of color, saying that experiences such as mine are very common, both in this country and outside it, in journalism and beyond. I did publish a follow-up piece of some of the responses I received from other journalists of color. Those journalists spoke of being told when and how they could talk about racism, feeling like their concerns about race weren’t being heard, or leaving jobs for reasons that were similar to the reasons why I left mine.
It’s clear this is a widespread issue. How many journalists of color need to share the same stories before we do something meaningful about it? What’s the number that we need to hit?
It seems like there could have been dozens, if not hundreds, of reactions that you could have posted in that follow-up.
There’s a lot of it that I couldn’t share because people didn’t want it shared (in a public forum). But they did want to tell me their stories and discuss some of the frustration and real difficulties that they’ve encountered.
Some of the messages that have come in privately include those from J-school students who are just starting out and have already run into some of these challenges, people who are in the early years of their career, or mid-career and might have left jobs for reasons that are similar to the reason why I left. There are veterans who have really been at or near the top of their newsroom and are still running into the same hurdles I described.
The answers have been from all over different career points and ethnic backgrounds.
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I don’t know if that is comforting or really depressing.
It’s absolutely both. I certainly didn’t think I was alone in this. I know enough journalists of color, I’ve read enough about the issue to know that this is not just me.
At the same time, when the responses started coming in, seeing how many other people felt the same way, there was a level of comfort to it, but then there was also just a point where it’s just kind of infuriating—the situations that people are put into and the decisions they sometimes have to make.
It’s hard to just describe my emotions to the to the responses that came in. It brought up so many different feelings.
Was there anything about the responses that surprised you in terms of in detail, candor or even in terms of how far back this problem has existed in Canada and in newsrooms elsewhere?
Just how how long it seems like these same issues have been raised without really any fixes. I’ve heard from from journalists who’ve been in the industry for decades and have spoken to facing these same challenges decades ago. There were times when it seemed like we had more momentum in terms of diversifying newsrooms and having more people of color involved in decision-making and in prominent roles.
The push for diversity in Canadian journalism specifically has been a very slow one. But at the same time, it is kind of surprising when you hear the first-hand accounts from people on these same struggles for so long and to know there hasn’t been progress at the rate that people of color have wanted to see.
By all accounts, you did everything right. You got to the major national newspaper, worked in a big city that is seen internationally as being really inclusive and diverse, gained lots of experience. But your piece indicated that all of that still might not provide enough standing to say “We really need to cover this and this is really important,” and have your editor listen to you.
You fight and you fight to raise these other perspectives, to draw attention to blind spots, but how many times are you prepared to do it, and lose, and feel like you’re not being taken seriously? How many times do you want to flag something of concern for an editor or an reporter and not see it changed? Or how many times can you ask what your publication is doing about diversity and make suggestions and not get responses that you consider satisfactory?
Like I say in the piece, how many battles do you have in you? That is the situation that many journalists have color face and it seems to play into why some journalists of color choose to just leave the business or leave a job altogether.
A lot of people are interested in hearing whether you’re looking into jobs in other newsrooms; if you’ve been asked to help start something new, specifically for minority communities; or if you’re looking at other opportunities that are not in journalism or media.
Honestly, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I think what I’m going to do is take a bit of time to figure out what I want to pursue. I know what issues are important to me. I’m going to try and sort out the best way to get at them. There have been some news outlets that have reached out and people who reached out with freelance opportunities or want me to participate in talks with groups they’re members of.
It all played out very suddenly—my decision to leave and then my decision to publish the post. I didn’t leave with a grand plan of what would come next.
Have you heard from anybody who is currently working at The Globe and Mail, or who used to work there, about what your post said?
Formally, I haven’t heard anything from the Globe. I write in the piece that I’m not very optimistic about the push for diversity and Canadian journalism. It seems like we’ve been talking about the solutions for a very long time and they’re incredibly obvious, but we don’t we don’t seem to be getting there. I don’t know if the Globe is meaningfully considering the point that I’ve raised or if they haven’t given the issue a second thought.
After I resigned, the union that represents Globe employees put out a bulletin and called on management to provide an update on recommendations the diversity committee made in 2015. The union said one of the 10 recommendations that the committee made had been acted on, and management needed to be held to account on the other nine. It also said the company’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion is “vague.”
If someone were in a similar position to yours, what advice would you give about what it’s like to take this kind of jump?
I’ve thought about that and I don’t have a great answer. It’s clear to me, from journalists I’ve heard from and from other things that I’ve read, journalists of color quite often can feel isolated and they’re not supported, heard, or understood.
It’s a really personal thing to know when you’re at the end of your rope. For some people, they might never feel that way. For other people, it might be quicker or it might hit at the same point of their career as me. It’s a bit hard to tailor advice. But I would suggest speaking with other journalists of color about their experiences and perhaps trying as a group to raise any collective issues that you see within your newsroom. Consider whether there are ways to speak and be heard.