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After 20-plus AAJA Conferences, Achieving Diversity in Media No Different Now, Maybe Even Harder

In education, in the media, we fight the same battles.

It boils down to the basics: How do we get more of us in there? Not just as foot soldiers, but as generals.

In academics, it means lifting a young prof to the ranking of dean, or higher.

In journalism, it’s transforming a young reporter into an editor and maybe a publisher. Or in broadcast journalism, it’s a reporter becoming an anchor person or news director.

Even if the media has changed, these aren’t outmoded paths. We’re still trying to achieve diversity through inclusion.

But in the process, bad things still happen to good people.

And so 52 years after the Civil Rights Act, we continue to ask the same questions. And we continue our struggle to get to the right answers without becoming roadkill.

I wouldn’t normally be thinking about such things during summer vacation. But it’s August, and I just finished attending yet another Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) convention.

I’ve been to 20 or more of these things since the beginning of my media career.

And the progress? There’s been some. But not nearly enough.

You’ll see tons of Asian American women on TV news these days. And there’s a handful of Asian American men.

But it’s all just the illusion of diversity.

The broad American workforce is still 79 percent White (Hispanic and non-Hispanic), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jenn Fang, an academic at Yale, presented the facts at one of the AAJA panel sessions I attended. She filled out the workplace stats: Blacks make up 12 percent; Asian, 6 percent; Native American, 1 percent; Multi-racial, 2 percent.

Asian Americans are in the workforce. But that Bamboo Ceiling is real.

Asians are less likely than their White counterparts to be promoted into leadership or management positions.

For example, more than 43 percent of Whites achieve full professor status, while just over 29 percent of Asian Americans reach that rank, according to the National Science Foundation Survey of Doctorate Recipients in 2008.

In journalism, it’s no better.

Whites make up 46 percent of reporters. Twenty-five percent of supervisors are White.

But where Asians make up 41 percent of the reporter ranks, only 14 percent reach supervisor status, according to a 2015 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

A deficit in management means a deficit of empathy.

Under-representation in management leads to manifestations of racism in the workforce such as micro-aggressive behaviors. Some are often unconscious. But they are remarks or actions that usually emphasize racial power differences.

It could be something as easily overlooked as an employee who constantly mistakes her two Asian co-workers for the other.

Or a supervisor who assumes his Asian employee is meek and uncreative. The supervisor appreciates his or her hard work, but never seeks that person’s opinion.

And it can get far worse. Heard any overtly racist or sexist remarks lately at work? Seen the presumption of a White workplace culture that minimizes or is hostile to a non-White perspective?

Do editors even bother to solicit story ideas that involve non-White communities? Is there backlash against employees who always bring up the topic of race?

These are the real-life situations that happen in the non-diverse workplaces in American media.

And when you call co-workers on it, companies often hide behind their token representatives proudly and say, “See we get this diversity thing.”

At least minimally.

Fang’s presentation was the set-up for a unique off-the record session to discuss the personal toll all this has on employees of color.

It was an eye-opening session, something I don’t really recall ever seeing in all my years going to conferences like these. Indeed, it’s the reason we have conferences like this. But this kind of venting is usually categorized as gossip and reserved for the late night bar session.

Sometimes, however, instead of “academic” discussions at conferences, we just need a long off-the-record dump session. It lets others know what problems exist and offers an opportunity to find the support and encouragement “fellow travelers” want and need.

As a veteran journalist, I was surprised to see the younger Asian American journalists totally clueless.

Some hadn’t come to the conclusion yet that HR is not their friend. Or even the so-called “diversity” department leaders, essentially HR in sheep’s clothing.

At a journalism conference years ago, I recall one of the seminars, “Are you ready for management?” was all about “helping” a worker by documenting his poor performance.

The seminar was a lesson in how to build an iron-clad case for termination. Maybe that’s why I never considered corporate “management.”

Since the panel discussion was off the record, I will only mention what I shared.

I told the young reporters if they take a stand to be prepared with a Plan B. Pursuing justice comes at a price, and rarely does a lawsuit get you 100 percent of the justice you seek.

For many, speaking up, filing a complaint or lawsuit is a ticket out of the industry. Or you’re simply branded an “unhirable” and you never work again.

But consider the alternative. If you stay and endure, you’re compromised, and not just in your professional life.

Such is the problem of fighting institutional workplace cultures that are buttressed by traditional racist norms.

But sometimes we simply have to fight. So we take our lumps. We summon courage. And if bad things happen, we still manage to find our way, our voice, and our passion.

Because we all have a role in creating the diverse world we want to see.

And we take solace in the fact that as people of color we are part of a continuum working toward that diverse ideal.

It’s the long haul. And spans generations. But we’ll get to the changes we seek if we all do our part.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator who writes at



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