‘You’re isolated’: Black representation still lacking in many workplaces, including Canadian media

Following the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, some would say the world has changed in many ways.

However, in some industries, including Canadian media, there is still a lack of diversity.

Three of the most prominent Black voices within Canadian media today are on the forefront of that change.

Kayla Gray of TSN, Jessica Smith of CTV Your Morning, and Joelle Tomlinson of CTV Morning Live Calgary all share the same feelings when it comes to the lack of Black representation on-screen — frustrated and forgotten.

They all agree that before the spring of 2020, Black faces, voices and stories were rare in Canadian media.

“In the news space, there were a few giants, and I’m thinking like, Dwight Drummond, Tracy Moore, Marci Ien,” said Gray in an interview with CTV Atlantic’s Lataevia Beezer.” When I reflected on what the sports industry looked like, and that’s where I wanted to be, and I just did not see Black women in the space specifically.”

“Kind of getting into it and growing up, there wasn’t really a ton, so I figured I’m going to get into this thing and see how it goes,” said Smith. “If there isn’t a lane for me, I will do my best to create one.”

Tomlinson says, when she entered the news industry, it was obvious she looked different from most of her colleagues, and says she didn’t feel represented.

“I think at that point, it was almost a blissful ignorance, and as I got older, certain things started happening where I did wonder about my culture, and I wondered where we were,” she said.

George Floyd’s death while in police custody shocked the world and brought systemic Black racism into focus, leading to Black Lives Matter marches around the world and calls for change beyond Black communities.

However, two years later, study by KPMG shows that 52 per cent of Black Canadians feel nothing has changed when it comes to job prospects, leaving many still feeling unrepresented, underutilized, and unheard.

“It felt like our magic wasn’t being put on full display,” said Grey. “I think I’m just frustrated for those that were in this space, couldn’t show up as themselves, and that not being because they were scared, but more so as a means of survival.”

Tomlinson said she has seen some changes in the last few years, but adds there is still a long way to go when it comes to seeing equal representation across the board.

In 2009, singer India Arie appeared in her official music video for “I am not my hair”– a sentiment that hits home with all three women.

As of 2021 research study sponsored by Dove found that one in two Black girls will experience hair discrimination.

“Yeah, and Google better fix that because if you Googled “unprofessional (hair),” it’s Black hair types that are the first that come up, and that’s heartbreaking,” Gray said.

“I think all hair is professional,” said Smith. “From the onset of the news in general, you’ve seen this kind of ‘set mould’ for what a news anchor, whether it’s male or female, is supposed to look like. Curls are like snowflakes, you know. They’re all very unique.”

Tomlinson said she also struggled with her hair until she hit her late 20s.

“It took until about my late 20s to really start embracing my curls and seeing them as, yes, acceptable. Yes, professional. And if people were offended by it, where does that come from, because that’s just an idea that people have that only one look equates success or intelligence, or someone worth listening to.”

Since 1996, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) has helped open spaces for Black journalists in Canada’s newsrooms.

Brian Daly is the Atlantic director of the CABJ. He is one of many advocating for diversity in the media.

“Working in the industry, you’re sometimes isolated,” said Daly. “I worked in the industry for 25 years. I rarely had Black colleagues, even though I worked in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, which are cities that have large Black populations. That’s because of the underrepresentation.”

“So, you’re isolated. You’re working on a day-to-day basis without the support of your people. So, the CABJ, we do our best to fill that gap.”

Daly said sometimes it can be as simple as a phone call.

“And we can speak in a very honest and vulnerable way as Black Canadians because we share some of the same experiences,” said Daly.

Daly said the CABJ also advocates to journalism schools throughout Canada.

“To make sure that you’re recruiting people of colour, Black people in the case of the CABJ, into journalism schools where the underrepresentation is quite stark and in some cases has actually gotten worse since the 90s,” he said.

The world still has a long way to go to get to “the promised land,” heralded by Martin Luther King — a time when you do not have to march for your dignity.

However, the future is beginning to look brighter.

“I’m excited to see the change coming and I think there’s a lot to be said about this next generation of leaders that have kind of a handle on inclusivity,” said Tomlinson.

“I am not the first and I hope that I am definitely not the last because I think it is a collective that we have to kind of see this thing change across the board, where it just becomes normal,” said Smith.

“You know, you turn on your TV, regardless of who you’re watching or where you’re watching from, that you see yourself represented.”

“Ultimately, my goal moving forward is to make sure I’m not the last in whatever I do,” said Grey. “It’s not just important for like, our age group, but our kids. To see that in this space… they can show up in different roles and be incredibly impactful on storytelling.”

When describing the future in one or two words, all three ladies, as well as CTV Atlantic’s Lataevia Beezer, remain optimistic.

“Happy, but I’m not satisfied,” Gray said.

“Hope,” Smith said.

“Hopeful and empowered,” said Tomlinson.

“Belief,” said Beezer.

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