Content warning: this newsletter contains references to Islamophobia, violence and white supremacist terrorism.
In January 2017, when a 27-year-old white man entered the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City and killed six worshippers (and seriously injured five others), I was the senior editor at a large Canadian women’s magazine, and I felt a responsibility to cover the story. Initially, I wanted to commission a reported feature about the rise of Islamophobia in Canada, but I knew that likely wouldn’t fly at this fairly conservative publication. (And, to be fair, at that time.) So instead, I proposed a feature about what it was like to be Muslim in Canada at that moment. My editor-in-chief liked the idea, so I approached three Muslim women, all writers, from across the country and asked them to contribute short personal essays answering that question. I was really proud of the resulting package, which was scheduled to run in the May 2017 issue.
Then, two days before we were supposed to send the issue to the printer, one of the higher ups at the company that owned the magazine told us we couldn’t run the story. Her reasoning was that it didn’t align with the overall vision for the magazine and wouldn’t resonate with our readers, the assumption being, of course, they were white and wouldn’t care about Muslim women’s experiences. We were barely given an opportunity to argue our case. Instead, the next day, with 24 hours before the issue was supposed to go to press, she confirmed that we'd have to fill those four pages with something else, which if you haven’t worked at a magazine, is an astounding ask at that point in the process. We were shocked, furious—insert your negative adjective here. But I wasn’t actually surprised.
By that point, I had been a lifestyle journalist for a decade and had long ago lost count of the times I’d been told, explicitly or implicitly, that the audience I was serving was white, and my job was to centre their experiences in my work. I had always found that insulting. Did those editors and executives really believe that their audiences didn’t include racialized people, as if we aren’t interested in recipes, home décor, fashion, health, art, culture? Did they also believe that their supposedly white audience didn’t care about anyone who wasn’t white? The answer to both these questions was probably yes, and honestly, this attitude is still prevalent throughout Canadian media today—which says a lot more about who’s making editorial decisions than about who’s consuming our content, FYI. Still, I’d never had an executive so unabashedly communicate their disdain for racialized people, and neither my EIC, another senior staffer or myself knew what to do next. Within weeks, the decision was taken out of our hands when the company laid off most of the magazine’s staff. (The story did eventually get published, I guess because the optics of killing it finally sunk in, though the introduction I wrote was replaced with one that I found condescending and othering.)
Getting laid off from that job was a blessing in disguise for a number of reasons, not least because it forced me to start seeking out job opportunities that better aligned with my values. But I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been thinking about that time in my career a lot this week.
That’s because on Sunday, a 20-year-old white man deliberately rammed his pickup truck into a Pakistani-Canadian family out for an evening walk in their London, Ont. neighbourhood. Salman Afzaal, a 46-year-old physiotherapist, his wife Madiha Salman, a 44-year-old PhD student, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and Salman's 74-year-old mother all died at the scene. The couple’s nine-year-old son, Fayez, was seriously injured and is still in hospital. Take that in: a polite, smart, shy third-grader is the only surviving member of his immediate family. He will have to go through the rest of his life without his mom, dad, big sister and grandma, because a racist white man hates Muslim people and felt empowered to do something about it. (London police told reporters "there is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate,” and some of the early details about the killer hint at radicalization, especially the ways he used the aesthetic of militias, from the body armour he was wearing to his 2016 Dodge Ram, which has “tinted windows and a bull bar modification, like a police car,” according to the Toronto Star. )
It was infuriating how quickly (mostly white) Canadians began expressing their sorrow by claiming they couldn’t believe something like this could happen here, that this isn’t who ‘we’ are, or that this isn’t their Canada. Respectfully, this is exactly who we are.
Police-reported hate crimes have spiked in Canada, according to data released by Statistics Canada in March, especially against Muslims (up 9%) and Arabs and West Asians (up 32%). (Keep in mind that hate crimes tend to be under-reported, so the real numbers are likely higher.)
Our politicians regularly engage in Islamophobia. In 2017, several Bloc Québécois MPs and every single conservative MP but one voted against M-103, which asked Canadian parliament to condemn Islamophobia, start collecting data on hate crimes and investigate how to reduce racism and religious discrimination against Muslims. (The motion passed 201-91.) The nay votes included several of the politicians who are currently calling for the end of hate, like Erin O’Toole, who as recently as last year campaigned for Conservative party leadership using the Trump-lite slogan of “taking back Canada.” From who, Erin? And how? Canada literally occupies stolen land. This week, Ontario’s government blocked a similar motion to M-103. And, as my friend Shireen Ahmed pointed out in an op-ed for TRT World this week, “Prime Minister Trudeau may have condemned this specific act, [but] he also did not oppose Bill 21 in Quebec, which would prohibit public servants from wearing religious symbols or clothing such as hijabs, turbans or kippahs.”
"It's difficult to hear someone like Erin O'Toole say that Islamophobia has no place in this country when he voted against M-103. I might get in trouble for speaking about politics, but I cannot remove my identity. " - this is very brave insight from @Ginella_M. https://t.co/UEbj8aRIdP— ahmarskhan (@AhmarSKhan) June 9, 2021
We’ve also recently been inundated with proof that Canada is extremely racist just, you know, in general. A recent survey found that more than half of this country’s Asian population have experienced discrimination in the past year. It is by now well-established that racialized people are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19andleast likely to be able to access a vaccine. Oh right, and not even two weeks ago, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of 215 Indigenous children, some as young as three years old, on the grounds of a former B.C. residential school, corroborating something that Indigenous people in Canada have been saying for decades: the children who were stolen from their families and forced to attend these institutions were not just horrifically abused, thousands were killed or disappeared. When that happened, the schools often wouldn’t even acknowledge their deaths; in the rare cases they did, they usually refused to return these children’s bodies to their families. This isn’t just a historical harm, btw—the Canadian government is right now waging expensive legal battles against residential school survivors who are seeking entirely deserved compensation.
So, no, expressing surprise that racist violence occurs doesn’t actually make any racialized person feel better; it just tells us that you think these tragedies are outliers, rare incidents that no one could have anticipated, instead of the perfectly predictable consequence of a white supremacist society that decides, day after day, that it won’t do what is necessary to change.
But when I say this is who ‘we’ are, I especially mean Canadian media. That executive who didn’t think our audience included or cared about Muslims is far from alone. I’ve never worked at a publication where I’ve had access to real data on the racial breakdown of subscribers, web visitors or the people who pick up copies on the newsstand, and yet the teams I worked on always assumed our reader was white. You can tell by who gets featured, who is approached as an expert source, what the stock photography looks like—and, most importantly, how stories are framed.
When I interned at Chatelaine, the ‘typical’ reader was exemplified by an actual woman: a “white, blonde, pretty working mother, in her late-30s, who lives with her husband and two children, on a combined family income of about $80,000, in a suburb north-east of Toronto,” according to a Globe and Mail article from around that time. Her name was Robin and her likes and dislikes, not to mention what she’d be familiar with and what she’d need an explanation for, factored heavily into editorial decisions. Sure, the editors weren’t making a magazine specifically for Robin, but they did centre people like her: white, middle-class, born and raised in Canada. I know this was a consumer profile that was part of a market segmentation strategy, but it was also a self-fulfilling prophecy. By targeting white women, Chatelaine ensured that the magazine would be most attractive to that demographic. So, if its readership was mostly white, which, let's be honest, it probably was, that was a business decision, not an accident.
I don’t know if any publications still have their own versions of Robin, but I do know that many continue to centre whiteness, even as we become more invested in covering social justice. I know I still do that, sometimes; I’m still unlearning the impulse to explain terms or issues that I think will be unfamiliar to white readers.
.@CBCNews EP Laura Green told staff to avoid using "Palestine" even in personal exchange so to avoid mentioning it in coverage, in script drafts and communications.— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) May 27, 2021
Newsroom anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in a nutshell - erasing an entire people.https://t.co/vgJTGC4Q3r pic.twitter.com/gJRTvN2Gsr
Then there’s the wider issue of objectivity. Newsroom leaders have long questioned whether racialized and otherwise marginalized writers could accurately and fairly cover our communities. No one ever asks white journalists if they can put aside their race (and class) solidarity, but for us, lived experience has overwhelmingly been considered a liability, not a form of expertise. Imagine if car enthusiasts or baseball fans were told they couldn’t cover those industries objectively because they were too familiar with them? It’s ridiculous, but that’s exactly what many editors have told us, and frankly are still telling us.
Just last month, Canadian journalists, many of them racialized, were censured for signing a letter calling for fairer and more nuanced coverage of Israel and Palestine. Some were barred from covering the story in a misguided attempt to maintain ‘objectivity,’ while the CBC circulated an internal memo reminding staff not to use the word Palestine even “colloquially, in [their] own exchanges.” But as journalists, our job is to tell the truth, which means exposing how race, gender, sexuality, ability, and yes, religion, affect the way people experience the world. I know when I initially wrote about Israel and Palestine a few weeks ago, I tried to stress that it wasn’t about religion as much as it was about land, which is true. But it is also true that the people who are overwhelmingly suffering in Palestine are Muslim, and it’s difficult not to wonder whether their religion impacts not just the way Canadian media represents them, but whether journalists here can even see their humanity. Because if our mainstream publications prevaricate on even naming Palestine, how likely are they to describe what Israel is doing to Palestinians as apartheid? Not at all likely, even though the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have all characterized Israel’s actions as such.
This is so important. When Canada celebrates a close friendship with Israel as it commits crimes of apartheid, and then condemns expressions of solidarity with Palestinians like BDS, we can see how anti-Muslim and anti-Arab violence is embedded in Canada’s foreign policy. https://t.co/vsrCTArqqN— Michael Bueckert (@mbueckert) June 9, 2021
And make no mistake, there is a connection between the way media outlets covered Palestine and this terror attack. As Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, pointed out on Twitter, “when Canada celebrates a close friendship with Israel as it commits crimes of apartheid, and then condemns expressions of solidarity with Palestinians... we can see how anti-Muslim and anti-Arab violence is embedded in Canada’s foreign policy.” Well, when Canadian media refuses to acknowledge the truth of what Palestinians are experiencing, or even that Palestine exists, it is allowing that anti-Muslim, anti-Arab violence to flourish unchecked, and contributing to a society that undervalues Muslim lives in general.
Last summer, journalist Candis Callison spoke to CBC’s The Sunday Edition about her book, Reckoning: Journalism's Limits and Possibilities, and the notion of objectivity in journalism. “Journalism contributes to social orders by often repeating dominant narratives or dominant points of view, and that's one of the ways in which [it] can also cause harm,” she said.
That’s exactly what we saw this week.
One last thought: maybe there’s another way to interpret the phrase “this is who we are,” this time in a way that prizes Salman, Madiha, Yumna, Fayez and grandma’s lives, sees them as true Canadians and mourns for them as if they were ours. Because they are.
You can donate toward Fayez’s needs and a Sadaqah Jariya project for his family through two fundraisers, one via LaunchGood, the other via GoFundMe. You can also sign the National Council of Canadian Muslim’s petition calling for federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments across the country to participate in a National Action Summit on Islamophobia.
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Los Angeles magazine’s profile of journalist/Twitter super-user Yashar Ali. Some parts are weird (why so sympathetic toward Alison Roman?!) and I still don't really understand what his story is, but I also read the whole thing.
This really thoughtful book review/essay about the tangled ways that immigrants see themselves in relation to their homelands.
The Cut’s recent profile of a woman who escaped a cult that was—wait for it—run by her mother.
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