Nneka Nwosu Faison is executive producer of the newsmagazine “Chronicle” on WCVB-TV. Here, she talks about the challenges she faced as a Black TV reporter in New England and the pressure she still feels not to do anything that would make people doubt her. — As told to Katie Johnston
My first brush with racism at work happened during my first job after grad school, working for a 24-hour news station in upstate New York. I was covering a mayoral race in a small town and did a story about a candidate who was accused of being a neglectful landlord that aired over and over. He ended up winning the election, and his party was at an Elks Lodge or a Sons of Something, and I went to cover it. I was 25, I think. I was shooting by myself, juggling a camera and a microphone.
I was trying to talk to him, and his supporters were mad about the story. They physically boxed me out, crowding around me and pushing my arm out of the way. This is a very homogenous area of New York. His supporters were all white, every single one. Would they have been physically violent toward me if they looked at me and saw their daughter, or their wife? I’ve had people throw rocks at me, and I’ve had people bring out dogs, as plenty of reporters have. This was one where I felt they were being extra aggressive to me because they saw me as an other.
I didn’t drive much before that job, and I didn’t like to drive in the snow. I never turned any story down, ever. I did once ask to ride with a photographer during a storm, as other reporters sometimes did. But people would joke about how I would refuse to do stories in the snow. And then it came up when I was trying to get a job in New York City. A hiring manager said, I’ve heard you have a bad attitude, can you tell me about that? That was my warning to myself: OK Nneka, you just have to shut up and do your work, and you can’t tell people when you need help.
Later, when I was working at another TV station, other reporters would complain about assignments: “I’m on the worst story. This is bull----.” But I just did whatever they told me to do. They would say, ‘Go to the house of a violent crime suspect,’ and I would go knock on the door by myself. My boss would even tell people who complained about assignments, “Nneka would do it, why don’t you?” Yeah, well, Nneka has to do it. If I don’t, someone’s going to say I have an attitude. My colleagues didn’t know I would get to work five minutes early just to take deep breaths in my car.
I never said no. Even to this day. That’s why I got an au pair, so that I would never have to turn anything down. I’m the first Black woman to serve as executive producer of “Chronicle.” Unfortunately, a lot of Black people feel the burden of being an example for their race.
I have to overperform just to be seen as good enough. When Twitter was this novel thing, and our station wanted someone to figure it out, I said OK, sure, I’ll do it. I started a podcast and tried to increase our presence on social media. When I was pregnant recently, I asked my boss if there was a way I could work two days a week while I was on maternity leave. I’m always trying to do more.
Once, around Christmas time, an anchor at a previous job told me, “I should be wishing you a Happy Kwanzaa, right?” And I was like, “No, I celebrate Christmas.”
I’m Episcopalian. My parents are from Nigeria, which was a British colony. Kwanzaa is an American holiday. My parents aren’t American. And he said, “You don’t celebrate Kwanzaa? But you’re Black” — just kind of lumping me into this larger group.
Before I got hired at that station, someone there told me, “We just lost a reporter who was just like you.” It made me think, “Oh, you just lost a Black reporter.” And it turned out there was a Black guy who had just left. When I quit, my station hired another Black woman. Some people even jokingly called her “the other one” or “the other Nneka.” There was also a Black woman at a competing station while I was there, and one of my bosses said something like “Ours is better.” I didn’t know what a microaggression was until recently, but I didn’t take it as a compliment.
An agent I sent a tape to once told me “Your skin is so dark.” When I got off the phone with him, I cried. He might have been one of the reasons I said OK, I think I’m done being on air. The problem is, and I’m sure every woman feels this way, you’re not judged on how hard you work or how many sources you have. It’s your hair and your weight. People told me to fix my teeth; I fixed my teeth. I can’t really change my skin tone.
Photographers didn’t know how to light me properly, or they wouldn’t light me at all. I would joke with them, ‘Hey guys, I’m Black, and it’s OK, but I need a light.” You can’t use the same setup as you use for my friend who’s a blond, blue-eyed reporter. You can’t shoot me in front of a white wall, because I’m going to look like a big black blob. Some people are so afraid to talk about race or the fact that you require something different, so they just pretend you don’t. It’s like that equality vs. equity meme on social media. Equality is giving people of different heights the same size box to stand on so they can see over a fence. But the tall person doesn’t need the same size box as a short person. Equity is giving people what they need so that everyone can be at the same level.
I’m supposed to be strong. It’s the trope of the Black woman: You’re angry or you’re strong. I’ve always felt like I had to take the hardest classes and also be the student body president and also play sports, and also go to a good school. It’s ingrained in your head that you just can’t show any weakness. You can’t do anything that would make anybody doubt you.
I had a miscarriage in October at 11 weeks, and I told my boss I could be back to work the day after the procedure. He ended up telling me to take the rest of the week off. That was the first time a boss encouraged me to take care of myself. Someone like me just needs that grace extended because I’m not going to ask for it. I really needed someone to say “No you don’t need to work, Nneka. You just need to lie in bed and watch ‘Emily in Paris,’ ” which is what I did.
Recently, before my daughter’s ballet recital, she told me she was nervous. And I said, “Why are you nervous? You’re a fabulous dancer.” And she told me, “Sometimes even fabulous people get nervous.” And I said, you know what, you’re right. I want her to be able to be vulnerable. I like that she’s able to express those things.
Since my miscarriage, I am trying to show all sides of myself. I don’t have to be strong all the time. My Black life, as well as the life I lost, matter.
Nneka Nwosu Faison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at email@example.com.