I am no longer employed at USA TODAY, a company that was my work home for almost eight years.
Over eight years, I rose from a social media editor to a writer to a columnist and finally the Sports Media Group’s Race and Inclusion editor. I was committed to USA TODAY and my subsection, For The Win, dedicating nights and weekends to building traffic, breaking stories and pushing for equitable coverage of marginalized communities. The job was the most fulfilling adventure of my life and my team at For The Win remain like family.
On Monday night, I sent a tweet responding to the fact that mass shooters are most likely to be white men. It was a dashed off over-generalization, tweeted after pictures of the shooter being taken into custody surfaced online. It was a careless error of judgement, sent at a heated time, that doesn’t represent my commitment to racial equality. I regret sending it. I apologized and deleted the tweet.
By Tuesday morning, after the shooter was identified as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, several high profile alt-right Twitter accounts picked up the tweet as an example of anti-white bias and racism against whites.
You can guess what happens next.
There was social media outrage, threats and harassment towards me, and by the end of the day, USA TODAY had relieved me of my position as a Race and Inclusion editor.
I wish I were more surprised by it, but I’m not. Some part of me has been waiting for this to happen because I can’t do the work I do and write the columns I write without invoking the ire and anger of alt-right Twitter. There is always the threat that tweets which challenge white supremacy will be weaponized by bad faith actors. I had always hoped that when that moment inevitably came, USA TODAY would stand by me and my track record of speaking the truth about systemic racism.
That, obviously, did not happen.
In the email announcing that I had been fired, USA TODAY’s standards and ethics editor said I had been previously disciplined for a similar situation, but did not offer specifics. In my recollection, there are only two other tweets I’ve sent that USA TODAY found problematic. In one tweet, from roughly 2017, I called out a reporter’s white privilege. In another, from 2018, I pushed back against a USA TODAY Sports column, because the piece dismissed the human rights violations in Qatar as “a little on the repressive side.”
My previous tweets were flagged not for inaccuracy or for political bias, but for publicly naming whiteness as a defining problem. That is something USA TODAY, and many other newsrooms across the country, can not tolerate.
Like many BIPOC writers in newsrooms I’ve also dealt with the constant micro-aggressions and outright racist remarks from the majority white staff.
On two separate occasions, I was asked to edit a piece on young black golfers, but warned not to use language that would alienate white audiences. In my first meeting with a new manager in the Sports Media Group, he interrupted as I was informing him about my qualifications and asked, “Actually, can you tell me where you’re originally from?”
There’s also the USA TODAY Sports editor, who, upon learning his daughter was going to marry an Indian man, only spoke to me to ask questions about what it was like to be Indian, never about my actual beat as an NHL writer. Then there’s the standards and ethics meeting I attended, where an editor argued it was OK to deadname transgender people.
I could go on. Over almost 8 years, plenty of incidents have piled up.
None of this will be unfamiliar to other BIPOC reporters in newsrooms. The things I experienced are all too common, and reporters of color have to simply bear it as the cost of doing their jobs. I have stayed as long as I did because of the incredible team I work with at For The Win. Our small subsection has always backed me up and allowed me to push for real inclusion.
During my time at For The Win, my most important work focused on tackling systemic racism and sexism within sports, going up against the NHL, Barstool Sports, and most recently, Oral Roberts University’s anti-LGBTQ+ policy.
I’ve often written that, in sports, the burden of speaking out against racism, sexism and homophobia often falls on the shoulders of marginalized players. Within USA TODAY, most of this work is also done by racialized reporters. In my case, I rarely, if ever, had the support of USA TODAY’s top editors. When the fall out from each column left me vulnerable to social media attacks and harassment, USA TODAY never offered public, institutional support.
As a columnist and editor, I’ve had to walk the fine line of advocating for diverse and better stories, while also realizing that the comfort of our white audiences needed to be kept top of mind. On social media, that is what I failed at. There is nothing so offensive to some readers as calling out white supremacy, or, as the backlash over this Oral Roberts University column shows, taking a difficult stand for true equality and inclusion.
Sadly, none of this is new.
This is not about bias, or keeping personal opinions off of Twitter. It’s about challenging whiteness and being punished for it. As a columnist and Race and Inclusion editor with our Sports Media Group, it was my job to push for anti-racism and inclusion in our stories and with our staff. That work can not be done without calling out existing power relations, often in a public forum.
USA TODAY, like so many other newsrooms, has been vocal about trumpeting its commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion. And yet, doing the actual work of diversity, equality and inclusion necessitates engaging with complicated structural issues that should make white audiences uncomfortable. In this case, after I made one mistake, the company contradicted their commitment to DEI and wilted upon criticism.
Meanwhile, white USA TODAY reporters have been able to minimize racialized people in print, our white Editor-In-Chief was thoughtless about black face, and a senior politics editor (also white) showed disregard for journalistic ethics by hosting a tax payer funded reception for Trump appointees. All kept their jobs. Going outside of USA TODAY, there’s an even longer list of high-profile white journalists who stayed in their positions after accusations of sexual assault, using the n-word, and editorial negligence.
Sending one wrong tweet that ended up in the hands of Sean Hannity on Fox News though, was enough for this publication to turn tail.
So many newsrooms claim to value diverse voices, yet when it comes to backing them up, or looking deeper into how white supremacy permeates their own newsrooms, they quickly retreat.
We’re never going to see real change in newsrooms unless editors allow for their writers, and BIPOC writers specifically, to freely critique white structural relations. The fact that many newsrooms still view that as “bias” is a saddening and dispiriting fact.
Like many places, USA TODAY values “equality and inclusion,” but only as long as it knows its rightful place, which is subservient to white authority.