Newsrooms recognize women of color as the canaries in the coal mine

For my 2023 prediction, I’m ramping up my urgent call for us to make room in journalism and media for women of color to rise up and lead us. It’s a call to action that’s been simmering within me for years. But something happened earlier this month that provided the cultural touchstone for me to take to my keyboard and write this piece.

In his final thank you at the end of a Daily Show episode, Trevor Noah said the quiet part out loud.

“Special shout out to Black women…I’ve often been credited with having these grand ideas…and I’m like: ‘Who do you think teaches me? Who do you think has shaped me, nourished me, informed me?’…From my mom, my gran, my aunt, all these Black women in my life. In America as well. I always tell people, ‘If you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women, cause, unlike everybody else, Black women can’t afford to fuck around and find out,” Noah said to a captivated studio audience while choking back tears.

I watched the five-minute clip online the next day and nodded with recognition as he spoke a truth that has been whispered for decades among rising–majority media insiders. It’s a truth that I, as a woman of color journalist and media founder, have lived throughout my 25 years in institutions like El Diario/La Prensa, Honey, Urban Latino, Giant and The Progressive magazines, NPR, National Journal, and The Atlantic.

“Black people understand how hard it is when things go bad, especially in America…But any place where Black people exist, when things go bad, Black people know that it gets worse for them,” Noah continued.

Covid is the latest catastrophe to bear this out. Proportionate to their populations, more people of color died. More essential workers were people of color. More ethnic minorities were among the uninsured, those rendered bankrupt by the pandemic, and those left jobless as it decimated service industries.

“But Black women, in particular, they know what shit is, genuinely. People have always been shocked, ‘Why do Black women turn out the way they do in America? Why would they vote the way [they do]?’ Because they know what happens if things do not go the way it should. They cannot afford to fuck around and find out,” the outgoing late-night host said emphatically.

“I’ll tell you now, do yourself a favor, if you truly want to know what to do, or how to do it, or maybe the best way or the most equitable way, talk to Black women,” he concluded after listing a roster of Black women intellectual and cultural luminaries whom he considers his teachers.

In our country, Black women, and women of color writ large, have been our teachers longer than we will ever give them credit for. Just in the last 100 years, we saw Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, force the world to look at his mangled face by allowing Jet magazine to publish pictures of him in an open casket. She ignited the fire that would become the Civil Rights Movement. Dolores Huerta orchestrated the largest worker rights movement in our history by taking on the deplorable conditions farm workers endured. Tarana Burke moved millions to cry out #MeToo, and made white feminism more inclusive. Erika Cheung blew the lid off the grand scheme that was Theranos. Timnit Gebru exposed ethical failings at Google. The list keeps growing.

As women of color watch news stories unfold featuring another one of us coming forward at great personal risk, many of us nod in recognition of that pivotal moment when one of us reaches a saturation point and utters (to herself usually) what’s informally known as the strong [Black/WoC] creed, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

It is a mantra deployed up and down the labor and professional ranks, from a retail worker tired of asking for better training to a manager dizzy from the circular HR rhetoric that keeps her from addressing a toxic situation to the C-suite rookie dismayed at how blind leadership is to the inequities in their ranks. So many of us have been there. 

So many more of us live there.

Black women and women of color experience greater levels of poverty and food insecurity. They have less health care coverage. They earn less at every job, regardless of educational level. They endure domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and homicides at greater rates. More of us live on or below the poverty line. More of us are heads of households. More of us are sandwiched between two generations as caretakers. More of us are scraping to get by. And that is the tarnished reflection of our country, the embodiment of the deep denial we have been in for decades about the abyss between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent.

Coming into the 2024 elections, the country cannot rely on the bravest among us to occasionally burst through the lies. We have to start listening to Black women and women of color well before they hit their breaking points if we are to know the real conditions and the afflictions that drive people to the polls, and keep them away.

Journalists must seek them out as sources and experts — as driving characters in features, as lead researchers, organizers, and political analysts. Their insights and knowledge of the true state of this union must become routine in the dailies and network news. Black women and women of color have too long been the canary in the coal mine of this capitalist system. In 2023, journalism has an opportunity to change that.

Juleyka Lantigua is the founder and CEO of LWC Studios, a Peabody-nominated media company.

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