I have never claimed to write “objectively.”
That doesn’t mean I write things I believe to be untrue or that are factually wrong, but I am always openly writing from the standpoint of a Black woman.
White people, however, believe and are taught that their practices are in fact objective, and that they neutrally present two sides.
But in reality many of the ways of writing that are the accepted and normal way of reporting are rooted in inherently biased perspectives. Perspectives that assume that Black people speaking about racism are making wild claims that need to be very carefully validated. Perspectives that treat racism as abnormal and surprising, and not ingrained in institutions and social structures. Perspectives that assume that police and crowns and company owners are themselves objective and always tell the truth. Perspectives that see the white gaze and the white lens as “neutral” and “normal” and Black assessments as biased.
And this is why writers like myself, Desmond Cole, Vicky Mochama, or Malayna Williams, are constantly accused of bias when we write stories engaged in Black critiques, but the practices or people we are critiquing never face those same accusations (white journalists can be accused of plagiarism multiple times and still not be consistently questioned!).
Black representation in the media isn’t just about adding more Black faces; it’s also in being open to Black critiques of what is “normal” and “accepted.”
Two recent examples in local news coverage illustrate the point.
1. The Randy Riley trial
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how reporting on Abdoul Abdi’s clothing in the middle of an article about his deportation case implicitly drew upon anti-Black imagery and stereotypes.
As I recognized in that article, anti-Black imagery is subconsciously ingrained in us from birth. Pointing out how anti-Black racism is perpetuated is not about singling out particular individuals as “a racist,” as though they are deliberately or maliciously engaging in these narratives.
The images and assumptions around Black bodies are so normalized that the practices that sustain it are invisible. This is why it is important to point out and intervene in how anti-Black narratives around criminalization take place in the media: many of the basic practices of journalism that go unexamined and that are handed down in journalism schools and on the job reinforce damaging perceptions of Black people.
In the previous article, I quoted Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, a lawyer, law professor, and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School who teaches courses that examine the law from a Sociological perspective. Al-Hassani explained the way language and imagery used in court coverage determine the way the public sees Black bodies on trial:
Trials have been described by some Sociologists as “degradation ceremonies” that aim to degrade the person in court for an act that is deemed offensive to society, hence the terms “offence,” “offender,” etc. The person has offended social values and is therefore put in the spotlight and is subject to the law. These degradation ceremonies or trials can draw widespread attention from the media for various reasons…
…The media tends to draw on racial and gender elements by focusing on garb and demeanour in court. Descriptions of the person on trial play a great role in determining social reactions. If the person on trial is portrayed as tearful and remorseful, they’re more likely to receive some sympathy. If they are portrayed as cold and non-emotional, they are more likely to be condemned. Posture, movement (or stillness), words (or silence), clothing, etc. are descriptives commonly used.
In that article about clothing, I asked the question, “What colour goes best with a skin that marks you as already guilty?”
Today, I follow that question up with, “What expression is acceptable when you have a skin that marks you as a criminal?”
I attended court for much of last week during the trial of Randy Riley for the murder of Chad Smith. I taught Riley for a year while he was completing his adult high school diploma. I obviously know him personally, and I recognize that this places me in a different position and gives me a different perspective from journalists who are encountering him for the first time on trial.
I am usually reluctant to write about ongoing cases. Court is such a painful place. The families and friends of the victim have to go in every day and sit through public displays and descriptions of their loved one. In the same courtroom, they also sit with the family and friends of the accused, who have someone they love on trial for their life. It’s awful for everyone, and there’s no way to write about what happens in court that doesn’t also continue the trauma.
So I thought a great deal about writing this article, and how this article will also shape the narrative around the case.
Chad Smith is a murder victim, and I am very aware of how writing about this trial can shift focus from the terrible tragedy is family is experiencing. But I am also aware that the journalists who are present in court and cover cases for the public often create singular narratives not only around the case, but additionally, when the defendant is Black, around broader narratives of guilt, race, and criminalization.
Because defence lawyers do not usually speak to the media, and crown prosecutors do, the very nature of court reporting tends to be slanted towards the crown’s version of the case. The crown takes advantage of media access to provide pictures of evidence, to clarify their arguments in the case, and in turn that access by nature shapes how journalists report on the case.
And almost always, none of the people shaping public perception are Black. It is not only all-white juries, but also all-white crown prosecutors, and all-white media who become responsible for arbitrating the guilt of Black people.
In Riley’s case, jury selection began with what is called “challenge for cause,” which is intended to address jury bias. Potential jurors were asked whether the fact that the defendant is Black and the deceased is white would affect their ability to try the case without bias. This question is not a comment on the victim or his family (it is certainly not a suggestion that they are racist), but rather about how perceptions of guilt may be influenced by race.
Of course, racial bias is not uncovered simply by asking people whether they are racist. But part of the point of the process is to alert jurors to the idea that they should reflect on their racial bias throughout the trial and be aware of how it may impact their judgement.
But the very reason why asking a question about racial bias cannot possibly unearth whether racial bias exists is that unpacking anti-Black bias requires thinking about things like how we see Black people represented, how often we see Black men as criminals, what we picture when we think of a thug or a dealer or a killer, what other representations of Black men we commonly see, how many articles we’ve read about Black neighbourhoods and crime, how many Black people we’ve seen in positions of authority, how many young Black men we might know personally, and so on and so on.
The result of lifelong media and social narratives is that when white people enter a courtroom, in whatever capacity, they are primed to see Black people as particularly guilty and particularly criminal. And lack of representation of Black people in media and long histories of segregation means that many white people simply are not familiar with Black faces, Black expressions, the way Black people express or don’t express emotion.
Studies show that Black people are more adept at reading emotion and expression than white people. The reason? Black people have spent our lives having to read the subtleties of expression as a survival tactic. Is this white cop about to order me to raise my hands? Is this white woman threatened by the physical presence of a Black man? Should I lower my voice, step back, make myself smaller, smile, not smile? White people have not had to read the expressions of Black people, and have survived without doing so.
This brings me to coverage of Riley’s trial on Thursday. On that day, a “childhood friend” of Riley’s testified that he had allegedly drove Riley to get the gun, and that Riley had told him his motive for the killing.
I had been in court throughout the week. Every day, Riley sat with a serious expression, looking at whoever was on the witness stand, occasionally taking notes or speaking with his lawyer. I wasn’t able to attend court on Thursday. Following the live tweets from court, I read repeated references to how Riley was “staring” at the witness box as Smith was testifying.
The impression given was that Riley was intimidating the witness or glaring threateningly towards him.
Rileynis staring straight at Smith, who is looking at the floor in front of him as he testifies. #nscourt
— Blair Rhodes (@CBCBlairRhodes) March 29, 2018
The courtroom has a lot of spectators today for proceedings. Smith is staring at the ground as he testifies. Riley is staring directly at him while he sits with his lawyer #Halifax
— Natasha Pace (@NatashaPace) March 29, 2018
Randy Desmond Riley continues to stare at Paul Smith as he testifies in the first-degree murder trial. Smith still staring at the ground as he speaks #Halifax
— Natasha Pace (@NatashaPace) March 29, 2018
Smith appears to be staring at his hands as he answers McGuigan’s questions. Riley continues to stare directly at the witness box. #nscourt
— Blair Rhodes (@CBCBlairRhodes) March 29, 2018
Riley continues to stare at Smith as he answers questions in court. Smith has looked at the ground the entire time he has been a witness #Halifax
— Natasha Pace (@NatashaPace) March 29, 2018
Riley’s “stare” was referenced so often in the tweets, I eventually emailed someone in court (disclosure: this person knows Riley) asking them if Riley was indeed looking menacingly towards Smith. Following the end of court, they responded to me:
Just read the tweets of Rhodes & Pace.
I arrived just after 10am, while the prosecutors were doing direct examination.
I sat behind Rhodes & Pace before lunch & after — the entire time I was there. The same section of benches I’ve sat for every day of the trial in [courtroom] 301. They didn’t keep their eyes on Riley for much of it, because both were hunched over using their phones most of the time.And based on this week, if we’re going to be accurate, then Riley didn’t only stare at Smith, but at the woman who did the autopsy, who testified immediately after Smith, and at the dog cop from earlier in the week. When he isn’t looking down, he’s looking at the witness box. I don’t think I’ve once seen him look further left, in the jury’s direction.
Plus, half the courtroom was staring at Smith. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, waiting for him to once make eye contact with someone. He briefly looked at McGuigan [Riley’s lawyer], but that was it. He didn’t look at the prosecutors, the jury, the spectators, the woman who brought him water…Given those tweets, I’m not sure what a defendant would have to do in order to seem non threatening. If he turned away, he’d be shunning him. If he looked down, he’d appear shamed. The big thing is that he’s not fidgeting. He doesn’t have a phone or a computer, he’s not adjusting his posture like the reporters, spectators, and jurors do, and he’s on trial for murder.There’s a big difference between looking and staring. Perhaps Riley stared at Smith early in the day, but I didn’t see that. Or, if that’s what they call staring, then I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.
I would contend that the difference between looking towards the witness box and staring is the subconscious assumption of guilt. Or, perhaps, the subconscious assumption of criminality. And it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that until a verdict is rendered, all defendants are assumed to be innocent.
What underlies the representation of Riley as “staring” with some kind of intent at the witness is the same thing the prosecution means when they ask about “street codes.” Reporting only on Riley “staring” in this context suggests that there is something unusual in his demeanour in relation to this witness compared to the other witnesses. What makes his “stare” remarkable here but not any other day or any other witness?
Repeatedly drawing attention to his “stare” only in this context suggests a broader dramatic narrative. Why is Riley staring? Is he intimidating the witness? Is he being menacing?
The five tweets invite the audience to project particular narratives onto this look. And the lack of reporting about when he looks down, or takes notes, or whispers to his lawyer suggest a particular intensity to this stare. The repeated emphasis on his look suggests that there is something noteworthy going on, that his “stare” contributes to our understanding of the trustworthiness or truth or believability of the witness, and that it is necessary to tell us about it repeatedly to enhance our understanding of this testimony.
As I wrote with the coverage of Abdoul Abdi’s clothing, part of what is happening here is that journalists are taught to try to give the audience an image, and to provide human details. They report on what they believe Riley is doing because it helps to paint a picture of court for people reading. “Demeanour” therefore becomes part of the narrative.
Except journalists cannot possibly interpret what is meant by someone simply sitting and looking and what that person is thinking, let alone whether they have some negative intent towards the witness, or whether this suggests guilt. The force of the language used paints a picture not of a defendant sitting passively listening, or even paying attention intently, but of a defendant who is apparently staring with a purpose.
Where this intersects with anti-Blackness is that there is no look Black people can have on our faces that can’t be interpreted as evidence of guilt. If you look serious, you are menacing. If you smile, you are remorseless and not taking the proceedings respectfully. If you slouch, you are both remorseless, and unconcerned. If you look away, you are shifty. Looking becomes staring. Attention becomes threat. Listening becomes threatening.
And the image portrayed to an audience is of another Black thug, who despite being on trial for a life sentence, is hardened enough to stare threateningly at the witness right in court, apparently betraying his guilt.
If the defendant is not doing anything, but is simply sitting and looking in a direction, there is nothing to report on and no need to report on his demeanour. Not doing so has no impact on the trial. But projecting onto a look by reporting on it as though it is significant has an impact on the broader ways Black people are portrayed in the media, and how Black bodies are seen in general.
And every time a Black person is accused, or stopped by the police, or in front of a jury, or simply walking along, these assumptions condition how we are allowed to move, to look, and to be.
If simply being Black and having a face and eyes is a problem for the media, then what do we expect of the all-white juries who are consistently chosen in cases to fairly judge Black defendants?
Again, recognizing the implications of these practices is not about accusing individuals of bad intentions, but about thinking through how so many of the ways we unthinkingly portray Black people, and the way those portrayals are normalized, read differently from the perspective of Black people.
Beyond this particular case, and the guilt or innocence of this particular defendant, representation of Black people as inherently suspect or criminal contributes to the way all Black people are seen in court, and in broader society.
2. The Black janitors’ strike
On Thursday, Joel Plaskett joined the Justice4Janitors picket outside Founders Square.
The latter part of the Metro article, after reporting on the song created by Plaskett, his father, and Lynn Jones, illustrates something about the way race and racism are typically reported.
As I suggested above, certain anti-Black practices are so ingrained in reporting that journalists rarely consider “getting another side.” Black people are not consulted to refute representations of ourselves in the media. Every time white people speak or write about Black people, it is not common practice to consult with a Black person to challenge the representation of our neighbourhoods, or characterizations of crime, or use of loaded language.
However, when Black people recognize and speak out about racism, journalists always feel compelled to print the “other side” as a matter of course. Accusations of racism are treated in themselves as dubious, and denials of racism are presented as an authoritative rebuttal.
In this case, the company’s denials of racism are printed, but Black people or the organizers of the pickets are not given the opportunity to respond to those denials. They remain uncontested, giving the company the opportunity to claim that accusations of racism are “ridiculous,” but not affording those who actually made those claims any chance to speak about why that dismissive response in its turn might be ridiculous.
This means that Black people have to continually respond through things like pickets and protests — methods which have much less authority than the opportunity to provide written comments. Black people forging the space to address racism through protest is not the same thing as being asked for a comment and having that comment printed. The Black people will be seen as provocative and as disruptive, while the white respondents get to be measured and calm.
For the record, here is a response from SIEU organizer Darius Mirshahi to the comments by Deep Down Cleaning. This response was emailed to me by Mirshahi.
“Rich Abbass, one of the owners of Deep Down Cleaning, called the allegation of racism ‘totally ridiculous.’”
What’s ridiculous is that Deep Down couldn’t even figure out how to respond for a whole week. And they respond to people pointing out structural racism in their hiring practices by calling them ridiculous
“’This is just crazy,’ he said. ‘People are jumping to conclusions and it’s the furthest thing from the truth.’”
The workers and their allies only pointed out the FACTS. That Deep Down decided to re-hire one white worker, and not to re-hire any of the remaining workers of African descent. These are facts. Not “conclusions that have been jumped to.”
The company has taken over cleaning contracts in the city for 20 years, Abbass said, noting that it hires its own cleaners while the outgoing contractor finds new placements for its cleaners.
Deep Down is basically saying that they made an exception for this one white worker this one time, but that generally they have a scorched-earth policy towards janitors and their livelihoods. They are publicly admitting that their standard practice when taking over a building is to throw everyone out on the street. This blatant disregard for workers and their livelihoods is appalling and other cleaners, property managers, and tenants should take note. Deep Down will bring conflict to any building they get a contract at through dispossessing the most vulnerable workers in the building.
This conversation started by us saying Black workers and their livelihoods matter. Deep Down’s Response is that No Janitors matter and All workers are disposable.
Deep Down Cleaning decided to hire the building’s day porter — who is white — but opted not to hire the cleaning crew, said Abbass.
Yes. They hired the one white worker, but none of the workers of African descent who are invisiblized and do the majority of the work.
“’We had no idea the cleaners were black or the day porter was white,’ Abbass said. ‘We just had a lot of positive feedback about the day porter, he’s well-liked at the building, so we offered him a job.’”
I call BS. Does Deep Down really expect us to believe that they hired someone without bringing him in for an interview? Of course they knew the Day Porter was white. This is a straight-up lie.
Abbass added that one of the company’s owners is black, and about half the staff have ethnic backgrounds.
This is the corporate equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, I have a black friend!” Just because one of the partial owners of Deep Down is Black doesn’t mean that the company is immune to racial prejudice in their hiring practices. Did this Black partial owner play a role in the hiring process in this case? If not, then what’s the point of bringing it up other than to distract from the issue at hand. As for their claim of “half their staff have “ethnic” backgrounds, it would be interesting to see what they mean by “ethnic.” All workers have an ethnic background! If they are saying that ALL people of colour account for about half of their staff, it would be interesting to see who gets the day shifts, and who they make invisible on night-shifts. Who gets to works indoors, and who cleans parking lots in wintertime. Who advances in the company, and who stays at the bottom. It would be impossible to run a cleaning company in this city and not have any “ethnic” people on staff. The majority of workers in this industry are people of colour. The fact that Deep Down says only about half of their workers are “ethnic” does more to reinforce the allegation of structural racism in their hiring practices than it does to refute it.