- Daric L. Cottingham is a journalist and soon-to-be graduate of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
- While studying journalism, Cottingham felt a target on his back for being Black, gay, and fem.
- Instead of whitewashing his résumé and appearance, Cottingham sought advice from Black queer journalists.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
“You’ve got to work twice as hard” echoed throughout my childhood. Like many Black people who’ve heard that exact phrase, it means we have to do more to be seen as equals to our white counterparts.
When I came out, at 17, I received the extended version of this phrase, because I have “more targets on my back” being Black and gay. For a time, I still saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and had faith in others’ humanity, but by the age of 18, I’d learned the whole ugly truths of implicit bias and microaggressions I would experience in my career.
In 2014, I was off to college at a Texas PWI â€” a predominately white institution â€” in east Texas as a first-generation student majoring in kinesiology. When I arrived at orientation, I learned that I could major in journalism, and I made the switch immediately.
Growing up, I never knew journalists went to college
It sounds silly, but because I wasn’t exposed to higher-education opportunities, I thought journalism was simply a trade. I grew up blogging and obsessed with the media, and saw this as a sign of what I was meant to do with my life.
I became active in all the press-related student organisations, such as NABJ, and joined the journalism department’s student broadcast entertainment news show as a cohost.
Everything was going great. I learned quickly how to read the teleprompter and was a natural at ad-libbing through technical difficulties. I was even asked to audition to be the next lead host after doing a few successful episodes.
At that time, I was most passionate about broadcast as a medium, but that soon changed. The first time I experienced journalism bias was when I was asked by a cis white male graduate student assistant who was a producer on the show to cut my hair to be more presentable on camera â€” something I refused to do.
I was told ‘it was just hair’ and it was ‘normal’ in the industry to cut it, but it made me uneasy
I felt that my hair was something that had nothing to do with my performance, and after recently dealing with a cancer scare and growing my hair back, I’d made the conscious decision not to cut it unless I genuinely had to. This was not that. When I refused, I began to be scheduled less as a cohost, so I left the show.
During my freshman year at this PWI, more egregious racist events occurred, including KKK rallies that were held near campus, and I ultimately decided to transfer to an HBCU (historically Black college/university) at the start of my sophomore year.
My time at my HBCU, Prairie View A&M University, was better. While there, I joined the student newspaper, The Panther. For the first time in my life, my race, country accent, and the curly coils that grew from my head weren’t factors in journalism opportunities.
I honed my skills, learned a lot about journalism, and worked my way up from a beat reporter to editor-in-chief by my senior year.
Though my Black identity did not matter, I still had a target on my back for being openly gay and fem
I felt this target so much that it often led me to cry myself to sleep at night.
Traditionally, queer identities are left outside the general Black community because of years of religious rhetoric that our existence was a sin. Although I could navigate journalism comfortably as a Black person on campus, I still had my guard up as a queer person as means of protection. I remembered being told at 17 that I had “more targets on my back.”
In May 2019, I graduated and headed to USC Annenberg to begin my master’s in journalism for sports and entertainment. The environment echoed the rest of the world’s implicit bias of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. There were 10 Black students out of 66, and I was the only HBCU student in my cohort.
Three weeks in, I was brought back to the same feelings I’d felt in undergrad at the PWI, only now they were intensified. An incident of elitism and microaggression occurred with one of the white international students in my program. I reported it, and the administration handled it right away. But afterward, it felt as if I was wearing a scarlet letter on my chest.
I also noticed that while my white counterparts were assisted with getting internships with publications throughout LA, the same was not happening for me or other Black students.
But I shrugged it off and continued to try on my own. I kept being handed off to diversity recruiters when applying to the same positions as my white counterparts, which often led to dead ends as the diversity recruiters had fewer open roles than regular recruiters.
In the 2nd year of my program, with graduation in May 2021 soon approaching, I began to get desperate
I knew I needed to find a way to break into the industry, so I started applying to jobs that I was overqualified for, but I couldn’t even land an internship or fellowship with a bachelor’s degree.
I received rejection emails with coded language: “Although we were impressed by your qualifications, we have decided not to move forward in the hiring process.” When I’d ask for more feedback, responses would be along the lines of “unfortunately, as per company policy, I am unable to share my notes with you. I apologise for the inconvenience.”
I kept my cool and tried to approach things differently, and continued to seek advice from recruiters and professors. The advice I received leaned either to being pigeonholed to fill diversity roles or whitewash my rÃ©sumÃ© to avoid implicit hiring bias altogether.
Whitewashing a rÃ©sumÃ© is when minority applicants delete references to their race with the hope of boosting their shot at jobs. I’ve been told to do the same repeatedly by removing my HBCU and that I’m an active member of NABJ, and instead to list my graduate program at USC Annenberg because it was more prominent, and leave off my bachelor’s degree altogether.
Other advice said to lean into my diverse identities, including to add my photo to my rÃ©sumÃ© so that recruiters would know for sure I was a diverse candidate because “that’s what they are looking for these days.”
I gave in and put the rose-coloured glasses back on, code-switching so much to make myself fit into the token the journalism industry wanted. I suppressed my queer identity, country accent, and use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English). I applied to countless jobs on LinkedIn with no luck.
Despite doing everything right, I had to create my own alternative path to finding a job in journalism
I sought out community and connected with other Black queer journalists online that had shared experiences.
One person I went to for advice about navigating the industry was Tre’vell Anderson, a Black nonbinary person of trans experience and the president of NABJLA, the National Association of Black Journalists of Los Angeles. They helped me refine my pitches and offered me my first freelance opportunity. Since then, I’ve found my footing without having to minimise parts of my identity.
Before, I’d lost count of how many versions of my rÃ©sumÃ© I had. Now, I stick to a simple traditional template. Whitewashing my rÃ©sumÃ© felt like I wasn’t presenting myself; I couldn’t keep up the facade of shrinking myself to be given the chances my white cis straight counterparts received. I realised that others’ implicit bias was not a reflection of me, but of their own ugly truths.
Journalism has a long way to go, but I believe that structural change is possible once Black queer journalists’ varied experiences are heard and taken seriously.
Daric L. Cottingham(he/him) is a Black Southern queer multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. He is from Ruston, Louisiana, and grew up in Dallas, Texas, surrounded by streetwear, sneaker, and hip-hop culture. This environment fuelled his interests; he grew up being called “a walking encyclopaedia of pop culture” because of all the “fun facts” he knows, which led to his passion for pop-culture news. Cottingham loves analysing the intersection of society and culture in a nuanced, digestible way. Follow him on Twitter.