Canadian Media Is White AF — I Want A Mentor Who Has Felt That

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
Over a socially distant coffee this summer, my friend Soo Kim and I chatted about the reckoning that’s erupted in journalism — the dual crises of pandemic and anti-Black police brutality laying bare the struggles BIPOC journalists face in covering these events in white-dominated newsrooms, where sometimes just bringing up race is equated to advocacy. 
We were sick of being told “it’s not about race,” that we lack objectivity, that a story simply doesn’t have an audience. Sick of being paid less and asked to do more. 
I wondered what it would have been like to have a POC mentor to consult when an editor insisted it was okay to call me “the brown one” or when another told me he wasn’t interested in “hot takes,” assuming that was all I had to offer, when we spoke about a job opportunity over coffee. 
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I asked Soo if she's ever had a POC mentor. A generation ahead of me, her answer was all too expected: “Nope.”
The more people I asked, the more I realized most women of colour in media don’t have a mentor who knows what it’s like to experience the world and workplace in a body like theirs. Being a WOC in journalism means two things: You try to excel to the point that people don’t think you need their support, and in all that toiling, you forget that you deserve it. 
“People think you have your shit together,” Soo said. 
I laughed — hard. But then I looked at her: Soo is one of the most together people I know. We met four years ago when she took over the food section at Chatelaine, where I was an associate editor. She was downright intimidating — so sure, so talented, so precise with her words and in her work. It never occurred to me that she would want — or need — a mentor. 

Being a WOC in journalism means two things: You try to excel to the point that people don’t think you need their support, and in all that toiling, you forget that you deserve it.

The reality is everyone needs a mentor. The benefits of having one are clear: They give advice on navigating workplace dynamics, help you develop concrete skills, and provide a road map on how to carve out a career path. They are not your manager; they’re someone invested in your future, not your company’s. Given all that WOC experience in the workplace — systemic racism that suppresses wages and keeps them from being promoted, everyday microaggressions and then being gaslit that none of that is actually happening — we probably need mentors even more. In media, there’s also the dual burden of not only representing a community in your role, but also having a hand in shaping the broader culture. If I’m not reflecting what Canada actually looks like through my storytelling, I feel like I’m letting down the communities I entered this field to try and serve. 
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The concept of support has eluded me most of my life. I’m the kid of two immigrant parents. I never expected them to do the cross-cultural work of helping me navigate a system they didn’t grow up in — I never even thought to ask. No one looked over my grad-school applications, or counselled me on what my professional future could look like. My parents encouraged me to be excellent, but I needed someone to tell me about the barriers I would face to prepare me for a world that would try to limit me. 
I worked really hard, but I didn’t dare to have ambition — I just wanted to stay employed in a field where I was told to be grateful to have a job at all. I leap-frogged between contracts. I didn’t have anyone to throw me a line or even make an introduction, so I applied cold. I dealt with editors assigning racist tropes as stories, being mistaken for two other brown women at a newspaper, called “insubordinate” by an editor for pursuing a story two others told me to chase, and was repeatedly advised that there was no audience for my ideas. So, I tried to fit in, warping my pitches to appeal to what Canadian media often means when they say "audience" — middle-aged, moneyed, white. 
Sometimes I consulted my thesis supervisor from journalism school, Mary Lynn Young, who is a wonderfully supportive white woman who literally co-wrote a book that addresses the structural failings of the media, including when it comes to gender, race, and colonial narratives. But I mostly felt like I was bugging her. The reality was that I didn’t know how to receive support. 
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Thankfully by the time I decided to leave my first and only real staff job at a magazine to freelance, I realized that mentors want to help. Mary Lynn confirmed I wasn’t being overly sensitive — that media organizations were not built for people like me to thrive in. 
It wasn’t a coincidence that white journalists around me were catapulted to new titles and salaries while my responsibilities grew but my title and pay did not. That others spent hours with editors on their copy, but mine was good enough so didn’t need that attention. That I was encouraged to write about race, but there were no senior BIPOC editors who could actually push me on my thinking. I realized no one was going to help me to go from being good to being excellent. I had to leave the toxicity of institutional journalism to give myself a shot. 
This isn’t uncommon. Many BIPOC journalists feel like they can’t keep up with being twice as good while receiving little acknowledgement or, having story ideas rebuffed, all while being called on to join diversity and inclusion committees, or write about race in moments of high tension because their “voice is so important” while getting no support for taking on the extra labour. 
After years of feeling like I wasn’t being seen, when I left my magazine job to freelance, I was surprised to find people were eager to work with me. A few short months later, I was interviewing for managing editor roles. But this isn’t a story about triumph in face of adversity. Whatever success I achieved, I have resentment to work through. This is a story about how long it took me to realize that meritocracy in journalism is absolute bullshit. 
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I don’t want those coming up behind me to have to learn these hard lessons on their own. Along with Natasha Grzincic and Anita Li, I co-founded Journalists of Colour in 2018. It is a place where we can openly talk about these challenges, share job opportunities, and strategize about career paths. Today, the organization has over 700 members across the country. There are also like-minded groups doing mentorship work, like the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Didihood, a group for South Asian women creatives. 

I want a WOC mentor who not only sees the practical and structural barriers, but has also felt them.

The question I’m now facing with increased urgency as I enter this hazy “mid-career” phase is no longer, How do I survive? It’s, How do I let myself want more and maybe even dream a little? It’s taken me until my mid-30s to understand I’m allowed to ask for help in figuring that out. I want a WOC mentor who not only sees the practical and structural barriers, but has also felt them. I want someone to tell me about the possibilities my career holds knowing full well the roadblocks ahead of me. 
On a particularly melancholy evening, I tweeted out this plea, knowing others would relate but hoping someone would answer it. It both touched and hurt me that it resonated with so many. The next morning, I received a text from my friend, collaborator, and sometimes-editor Natasha offering her mentorship. My response: approximate one million crying emojis. I still feel a bit guilty for taking her up on her offer, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that nothing beats the feeling of helping another WOC thrive. 

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