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Chandra Thomas Whitfield has made a name for herself as a freelance multimedia journalist, a rare achievement in the journalism industry. It also garners some strange looks and inappropriate questions about how she supports herself, despite having won multiple awards and accolades for her work.
Whitfield described one situation when she went in for a job interview at a publication where the interviewer asked her what her husband did for work, implying that a freelancer’s income couldn’t pay all the bills.
“I tell people, ‘This is not a hobby,’” she said. “Like, who asks someone what their husband does in a job interview? It was all about his perception of what I was doing and it came off to him that my career is just a little hobby and my husband is taking care of me.”
That’s a bold assumption to make about Whitfield. Her work has appeared in some of the biggest publications in the country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Ebony, Essence and The Huffington Post. In 2016 alone she won five writing awards, including a Clarion Award from The Association for Women in Communications. Last year, Whitfield completed her fellowship at the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting, during which she partnered with In These Times Magazine on a podcast. The special, 12-part series “In the Gap” featured personal stories from guests discussing how the gender pay gap, pay discrimination and systemic inequality affects the lives and livelihoods of Black women in the American workforce.
For Whitfield, she says being a freelance journalist allows her the freedom to write the stories she most cares about. She’s also deeply passionate about how Black stories are told by non-Black reporters and racial inequity in newsrooms.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get interested in journalism? What was your introduction to the industry?
I actually decided to become a journalist in 11th grade. I jokingly say I was forced to become a journalist because my English teacher suggested to my mom that I join the school newspaper after she saw my writing and thought it was really good. Of course, as a quintessential stubborn teenager, I was very opposed to the idea. The main reason I didn’t want to do it is because I was going to be the only underclassman, the newspaper was actually a senior class. You’re in high school, you want to be with your friends. My teacher and my mom basically ganged up on me and said ‘Look, we’re making you do it.’ I still talk to that teacher through her daughter.
Interestingly, her daughter was a journalist. Her daughter came to speak to our class and here she was, a Black woman standing up in front of our class telling us about how she’s a journalist. And I said, ‘Oh, this is really interesting.’ Ultimately, I did get into the class—not by my own desire—and ended up enjoying it. The teacher of the class recommended a high school journalism workshop that still exists through Dow Jones. I was selected for the program and got an opportunity to study journalism for two weeks at an HBCU, Clark Atlanta University, which is where I ended up attending.
And that was it. I was like, this is awesome. I love to talk, I love questions, I like writing, I like people. This is it. That program, honestly, really did make a difference. That’s why I’m a huge supporter of diversity programs in any industry, because they do make a difference. It’s like a bridge, it’s showing you, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ In many cases, it’s run by people who look like you, so it gives you that connection. That’s how I got into it and pretty much have been a journalist ever since.
How important is it for young adults to see people who look like them in the industries they’re interested in pursuing?
It’s hugely important, it really is. It’s especially important because people don’t understand that, you know, you’re born into this world and you’re trying to understand it. If you only see people who don’t look like you doing something, it feels like it’s not for you, it’s for a certain type of people. So I don’t undercut the fact that a Black woman journalist came and spoke to my class in 11th grade and I could visualize someone who looked like me, who came from areas that I come from and was able to say, I’m doing this. And that particular journalist, I tell her all the time, she inspired me. She used to work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I would read her articles. They were the articles that nobody was doing because she had this perspective and she also had connections.
It’s about representation, but representation can be symbolic. You don’t just need people doing it, you need people who make decisions. You actually need people who can hire and fire. People who decide what goes on TV and what doesn’t, what goes in a magazine and doesn’t. You need people in power as well. Television news in particular will have wonderful, talented people in front of you. But I used to be a producer and I would tell people, I write what they say. They would read, ‘Welcome to fill-in-the-blank show, I’m fill-in-the-blank.’ I think anchors obviously have influence and power, but a lot of people don’t realize that the executive manager is the one that makes those decisions. We need people who actually influence the culture, influence who gets in the door.
I benefited from people being in power being able to see things in me that maybe other people weren’t able to see. Obviously not every person that has hired me was a person of color, but it was somebody who was able to see potential in me. And sometimes for a lot of people, they can’t make that connection unless the person looks like them. In this phase of my career, I’m really focused on waving the red flag to people and trying to bring to their attention the blind spots that they do have and advocate for change. We’ve waited and it hasn’t happened. Clearly waiting for people to just notice doesn’t work.
How can publications better cover Black stories and communities?
I think it starts with bringing in the right people, but we also need to challenge the people who aren’t in the demographic to just change their scope, their mindset and work harder. And stop that with the ‘we can’t find this certain type of reporter.’ Yes, you can. If you want to. But I feel like we should be growing empathy. You know, it shouldn’t be that someone has to be disabled or has to be Black. Bring in people, but also challenge yourself to not have to rely on that.
I don’t personally mind people coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ I would say I prefer that someone asked me than go out there and make a mistake and embarrass me as part of the organization. But some people feel like that’s an extra job they’re not getting paid for, to be the disability representative or the Black representative. I would say, ask the person if they mind, but be sensitive to the fact that some people may not want to do it. But I can tell you that a lot of people in my community have that moment when you see the commercial, when you see the article, it’s like, ‘what were you thinking?’ Seriously, I can’t find a logical reason for you to have done this. How do you not find that insulting? It’s because they didn’t have diversity in the room.
Have you ever experienced racism or implicit bias in the workplace from colleagues, higher-ups or sources?
I was unexpectedly and abruptly laid off from an award-winning job. I was named journalist of the year in ’07 by two journalism organizations in Atlanta. And then in ’08 I was unemployed. And I always say, not the trajectory you expect after being named journalist of the year by the Atlanta Press Club and the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists. But that’s what catapulted me into freelancing, so I was away from all newsrooms after that. I will say being away from it is kind of like being in any not so great situation, you need to be away from it to digest what actually happened in all of those cases.
I’m from the South and I feel like we sometimes minimize racism to burning crosses, and ‘n-words’ and all this overt stuff. No one was overtly, like, ‘We don’t want you here, Black woman,’ or anything like that. I think that it’s really the otherness that goes on more than anything. We’re all together as a staff, but there’s like this otherness that goes on and you don’t necessarily pick up on it immediately. After doing my podcast ‘In The Gap,’ I started thinking back on how I was not considered for certain opportunities. I also thought about situations where my judgement, my decisions, my desires were questioned where other peoples’ weren’t. I would say it’s just really a general lack of value for what you’re doing. I learned through doing that podcast that women and people of color, we are actually socialized against [advocating for ourselves] because we have been taught that we don’t matter. Most of the Black journalists I know are subconsciously told, ‘Just be happy to be here because you don’t necessarily add value to the situation.’
Anything else we didn’t talk about that you want to discuss?
I will say that the biggest thing that I hope 2020 taught us is that there are huge blind spots. There are huge gaps in information, gaps of consciousness, gaps of realization. I can just say for people I know, 2020 was—it was laughable that some people were having revelations. It was like a comedy routine. It was like someone coming up and saying, ‘Guess what, the sky is blue!’ People live in different realities. I want people to sit down and talk to people who are different from you. Please do that. Ask them what their day is like, what are the challenges they face, what are the experiences they have. We often feel like, ‘If I don’t have this problem, it doesn’t exist.’ Acknowledge your blind spots and start making active change. It’s not enough to say, ‘I don’t do this.’ If you’re not changing it, then you are part of the problem. if you’re not hiring diverse people and you’re looking around your newsroom or your job, and you only see people that like you, you have been a part of it because you’re not necessarily picking up on it. You’re not necessarily seeing a problem with it or even noticing it.
I would say 2021 should be the restart. All of us [need to] look at what we don’t know about and educate ourselves. Understand that you have a blind spot. It’s probably a fact. So what are you doing about your blind spot and what are you doing to better understand someone who is not just like you? That’s for all people, all of us can do that. And if we did that and just took action, a lot of these things would change. It wouldn’t end, but it will change. It will be better.
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