Solidarity with Black Women Journalists Beyond the Briefing Room

November may not be the month to remember when it comes to President Trump’s targeting of three Black women journalists.

The president accused Yamiche Alcindor of asking a racist question, called a question from Abby D. Phillip “stupid” and instructed April D. Ryan to “sit down” as if she were a child—and called her a loser who “doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.”

The National Association of Black Journalists issued a statement calling Trump’s finger-pointing insults “appalling and irresponsible.” Trump’s behavior toward journalists often is, regardless of their race or gender—but the targeting of Black women journalists is especially noticeable within a White House press corps that is still mostly white and mostly male.

Although Trump’s behavior was unseemly, it was unfortunately not surprising. Based on research I conducted on the experiences of Black women television news managers, insults like the ones that came from the president come regularly, too, from white men within newsrooms. Theirs are often less overt, but that doesn’t make them less serious.

Harvard psychiatry professor Chester Pierce coined the term “micro-aggression” in 1970 to describe covert racism that continued to plague Blacks after the civil rights era; in 2010 psychologist Derald Wing Sue created a classification system to explain the different levels of micro-aggressions and expanded the concept beyond race. Of the 40 Black women news managers I interviewed, many said they experienced micro-aggressions on a daily basis.

Most Black women journalists who entered the ranks of management at television stations in the late 1970s and early 1980s experienced blatant insults like the ones Trump issued last week that Sue calls “micro-assaults.”  One research participant was told that “news from a woman’s mouth sounds like gossip.” Another was managing a network news show on the day Martin Luther King’s birthday was first observed as a national holiday when she overheard her colleague asking: “Who do those n—— think they are?”

The subtler version of a micro-assault is a micro-insult, which Sue describes as “interpersonal or environmental communications that convey stereotypes, rudeness and insensitivity that demean any part of a person’s identity.” The perpetrator does not recognize the slight as a snub.

Many African American women repeatedly spoke to me about more subtle slights that questioned their educational background, their skills or their ability to lead. Sometimes supervisees asked extra questions in order to delay or avoid executing the woman’s directives; sometimes, staff members assumed the woman was incompetent until she proved otherwise, whereas her white male counterpart was assumed competent unless he proved otherwise. “They doubt everything you say,” one participant told me.

The most common insult the women described was what I call I Just Said That Syndrome (IJSTS), often during meetings where a woman’s suggestions were ignored. “I can say something three times and everybody would sort of go on with their way,” one participant explained. “Then you let a white male say it and then it’s a genius idea.” Women of all races and men of color often experience IJST–a type of micro-aggression that Sue calls a micro-invalidation, because the experience essentially renders a person and their ideas invisible or irrelevant.

Trump’s attempts to diminish the journalistic abilities of Alcindor, Ryan and Phillip were bold and in-your-face. But it is the day-after-day attacks, no matter how covert, that may have the most long-term effect. One white male news executive in the study acknowledged the phenomenon by calling it “death by a thousand cuts.”

These cuts bleed.  They hurt and can provoke unnecessary stress.

I hesitated several days before even writing this piece because whenever I write about women and or race, the trolls come out. However, as an educator of future journalists, most of whom are women, it is incumbent upon me to prepare them for the reality that they, too, could face demeaning behavior because of their gender, race or sexual orientation—despite their hard work or leadership.

I want journalists who are pummeled daily with micro-insults and micro-invalidations to know: I see you. I am with you. I am you.

Instead of being surprised, I want them to be ready.


Ava Thompson Greenwell has taught broadcast journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University for 25 years. Her forthcoming book is titled Leading While Black and Female in TV News.