'Journalism while brown': Why Sunny Dhillon quit The Globe and Mail

Reporter Sunny Dhillon explains why he left his job at The Globe and Mail, and the challenges that people of colour often face in Canadian newsrooms.

'To be a journalist of colour can be to walk a tightrope,' Dhillon wrote in Medium post

Reporter Sunny Dhillon has left his job at The Globe and Mail. (Submitted by Sunny Dhillon)
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Sunny Dhillon has quit The Globe and Mail — and he's not going quietly.

The reporter wrote a piece for the website Medium about his departure, titled Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away. In the article, he described feeling that his perspective as a journalist of colour didn't matter to his editors.

As It Happens requested comment from The Globe and Mail, but did not receive a response.

Dhillon spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his departure and the challenges of being a person of colour in a Canadian newsroom. Here is part of their conversation.

Sunny, in your piece you wrote for Medium, you say: "How many battles do you have in you?" You're talking about yourself. What kinds of battles are you talking about?

I write in the piece about how being a journalist of colour can be like walking a tightrope, and how you're constantly weighing on which issues of race you should weigh in on, which ones you should not, and what do you pretend you didn't see or hear — and when you can't do that, what do you cowardly chuckle along with?

There is this constant struggle to try and assess which battles you take on and which ones you might win and which ones you're very likely to lose.

You say that this all crystallized for you last week. The date was Oct. 22. You were reporting on the aftermath of municipal election results in British Columbia. What happened?

I was assigned a story on the election of the new Vancouver City Council, which is almost entirely white. That's in a city with a population of Asian descent coming up on half, and certainly all the discussion in the newsroom ... was on the council's ethnic makeup.

And then very late in the day, I felt we were making a choice to downplay the angle of race.

Well, in your piece it suggests it is more than just trying to downplay. It was a change of assignment.

Yes. Essentially the bureau chief had told me I should focus more on the fact that eight of the 10 elected councillors were women, and less on the issue of race.

Vancouver Mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart with his wife after his victory speech at the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver on Oct 20, 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

We should point out that it wasn't your idea to do the story about lack of diversity in council. That was an assignment you had earlier.

Exactly. I didn't pitch that story. It was assigned to me after the bureau's morning meeting.

We know that in a daily newsroom where you're just putting things out very, very quickly, you had hours to do this story. Maybe there was just a communication problem?

I think, to me, it was clear what we were doing ... It just wasn't a choice that I agreed with. In terms of whether it was a communication problem or what have you, I don't know as much as I'd like, on exactly what went into that decision. I wasn't really apprised of it.

Among the councils in Metro Vancouver without a visible minority are the Township of Langley, West Vancouver, the district and city of North Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam. (Composite)

You just cleared out your desk at that point?

I left the newsroom that day. That was on Monday. And then, for the next 24 hours or so, I had thought a lot about it and I had a long conversation with my wife and other people I trust. And I went back on the Tuesday, and I cleaned out my desk.

What did it feel like to walk out?

It's nerve wracking. It's a hard position to get to as a journalist of colour, to get a job at a prominent publication, particularly in print, in this country. And so it's not a decision to be made lightly.

You wrote in this article: "What I brought to the newsroom did not matter."

Yes, that was the feeling that I had. I think other journalists of colour … have these experiences and these insights that we bring to the table, but we don't feel seen or heard, or understood. And that can be a real struggle.

I think sometimes there's a tendency to talk about this issue as though, "Well, how are we going to fix it? It's very complicated." But I think it's actually very simple: you hire more people of colour.- Sunny Dhillon

What are you hearing from other journalists of colour about your experience at the Globe?

Since I published the piece on Monday, I've heard from dozens of journalists of colour ... the vast majority of whom work in this country. They've shared those same experiences of not feeling as though they're represented, and not feeling as though their voices are valued — and yes, some people have left jobs over it.

Some people have talked about the feeling as though they're constantly failing other people of colour, because they don't see a way to get at the issues that they consider to be of importance.

You've worked as a journalist for 10 years and you write in this piece that there are solutions that are pretty obvious. What are they?

I think sometimes there's a tendency to talk about this issue as though, "Well, how are we going to fix it? It's very complicated." But I think it's actually very simple: you hire more people of colour.

You hear their voices, and trust them, and empower them to report on what they see as important, and elevate them to positions of power or prominence so there are people of colour higher up in the chain who can champion those stories and help with their framing.

But what do you think's lost with your departure? At some level, are you thinking, "Maybe I should stay and fight the good fight?" And that if you leave, then you're just one fewer person of colour in your newsroom?

Yeah. I mean, as far as the piece discusses, that was the struggle: if you leave, you can feel like you're letting other people of colour down, and that's one less voice to fight for the issues that you view as important.

Ultimately, I felt as though I wasn't really providing that much help anyway, and that my efforts had been sort of futile. And so it was probably time to go. But I didn't make that decision lightly.

What are you going to do now?

I had written the piece as sort of saying goodbye to journalism, but I've had a lot of people reach out since then to express interest in having me write for them. And so I'm really just trying to figure out the best way forward.

And to speak on this issue and to speak for people who perhaps feel as though they can't really speak as loudly themselves as they'd like to.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Q&A edited for length and clarity. Segment produced by Kate Swoger.

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