Sunday November 20, 2016

Why Canadian media need to talk more about race

A Syrian refugee waits to shake hands with the Prime Minister on Canada Day, 2016. Journalist Anita Li argues Canadians have a smug attitude about multiculturalism in Canada, and says the media help maintain it by not speaking openly and frankly about race.

A Syrian refugee waits to shake hands with the Prime Minister on Canada Day, 2016. Journalist Anita Li argues Canadians have a smug attitude about multiculturalism in Canada, and says the media help maintain it by not speaking openly and frankly about race. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Listen 8:44

You don't have to watch for long to recognize how frankly and frequently race is discussed in American politics.

Just take a glance at any of these videos:   

It's a far cry from how Canadians, and Canadian media, talk about race.

But in an interview with The 180's Jim Brown, freelance journalist Anita Li argues Canadian journalists need to talk about race more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why do Canadian media have something to learn from American reporting on race and diversity? 

I think Canadians are a little too reticent to speak openly about race. We kind of have this smug exceptionalist attitude that we are a multiculturalist utopia where everybody gets along. Obviously we don't have as much racial strife as America, but we still have issues of racism. And the notion that everybody gets along and that it's all kumbaya all the time is not accurate. 

You also argue that when the media does talk about race in Canada, it's overly simplistic. Can you give us an example of what you're talking about? 

So the kind of coverage I see is either celebratory or full of outrage. It sees people of colour and other marginalized group in binary ways. So it's either a "this hate crime happened, and let's report on that" or on the flip side "there's this amazing cultural celebration [and let's report on that]." So there is no nuance, no discussion in the spaces in between which is how you humanize marginalized communities. We experience the same things as the mainstream white populations do and it's important to reflect that in media coverage. 

You've worked for a number of Canadian outlets, including the CBC. What did those experiences teach you about diversity and race in Canadian media?

I think Canadian media has good intentions, even CBC has a mandate towards multiculturalism, but sometimes they don't know how to go about it. I think in American media, I mentioned in my Walrus piece, they are occasionally reckless, but also on the flip side more innovative. I've had the opportunity to cover, for example, crowdfunding sites that are solely targeted towards certain minority groups, which seems niche and granular, but the article I wrote performed very well. It resonated a lot with people, and my experience in Canadian media is that if I were to pitch that, my editors and upper management would be reluctant to assign that. 

Anita Li

Journalist Anita Li wants Canadian media talk more about race. (provided )

That surprises me because it seems like that's exactly the kind of story that editors are asking for. 

I can't speak to your experience, but in my experience I had a much harder time. I just noticed also that huge stories, or movements like Black Lives Matter took a much longer time for Canadian media to pick up even though Black Lives Matter has a chapter that opened up, I think, in 2014. The issue just really wasn't in the press and it's something that America picked up quicker and for obvious reasons, but these issues matter in Canada too. I just don't think we talk about them as much. 

It's pretty tough to argue that the result of [American media] coverage is resulting in some model of harmony in the U.S. So how can you argue that media in this country has anything to learn from America? 

Coverage of race is not going to immediately solve what's going on in the U.S. But the America that voted for Trump also voted for Obama, so just because people are not openly expressing their views on race doesn't mean they don't feel it. Right now, it looks really off-putting and it seems like people are being really aggressive to each other, but I think what's going to result from this is a greater understanding. 

Do you think part of the problem could be that Canadians, not just journalists, are more hesitant to talk about things openly as Americans are, and that the media just reflects that reality? 

I couldn't speculate on that, but part of our job is to reflect what's going in reality, but I also think that part of our job is to surface things that are under reported, surface things that people are not necessarily aware of. So we shouldn't just sit there and say "this is what's happening" — I feel like that's an echo chamber. Our job is to dig deep.