By Piya Sinha-Roy
“You’re both girls and you’re Indian. That means it’s going to be ten times harder for you to succeed, but if you work hard, you can show everyone how far you can go.”
I can’t remember the first time I heard my dad say these words to me and my sister, but I do remember one occasion where he gave us this speech while in his blue striped dressing gown on a lazy Sunday morning as we sat at our breakfast table, in our beautiful redbrick house in the very white, affluent county of Surrey, eating soft toast dipped in runny eggs (sometimes he over-boiled the egg, and then would throw his hands up and tell us that egg-boiling was not on his syllabus).
The phrase wasn’t a challenge. We would have to work harder because we were entering a world skewed against us. A white, male-dominated world where women and brown folk were marginalized easily just for looking different, sometimes tied to stereotypes of our cultures.
Last June, I was laid off by Entertainment Weekly, and just last week, I was laid off by The Hollywood Reporter. And while I’m a hard worker and no stranger to the hustle, I’m finding myself facing a very uncertain, and very bleak future in journalism, an industry that has long been the scrappy underdog as our world evolved into a digital landscape. On one hand, I’m lucky that I was able to succeed in a competitive profession and be a voice for the underrepresented; on the other, I’m also one of the first people that outlets decide they don’t need in crunch time. And this is not just my story. This is an obstacle that women and people of color have faced all along, and even more so now with the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
At the age of 8, I told my dad that I wanted to be like Moira Stuart on BBC News, the smart, poised black news anchor who never faltered, no matter how difficult the news bulletin was. He said, “yes, but you have to be good at writing and politics and economics, and you have to read the news.” And so I did, from participating in a nation-wide newspaper competition at the age of 10; editing the school yearbook in high school; joining the student newspaper in my first week at university; commuting four hours a day to be an editorial assistant at a national newspaper.
But that wasn’t enough. With my English Literature degree in hand, I was told by a wearied voice on the phone at the local Surrey Advertiser that they only considered Masters students for work experience. So I came to USC to do my masters in journalism. I got involved in our online student news publication and while covering red carpets, I met a British TV producer, who introduced me to the editor that gave me my first shot at Reuters.
I worked at Reuters for over six years, covering everything from celebrity interviews to business features, trend pieces, deaths, divorces and scandals across film, television and music. I got smarter and more confident with the stories I was telling, but there was nowhere to move upwards. And so after covering the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement, I bid an exhausted farewell and moved to Entertainment Weekly.
There, I carved beats in the prestige movie space, awards and diverse representation in Hollywood. I quickly found myself marginalized, and the stories that were important to me, and people like me, were not prioritized by the editors. As the magazine restructured into a monthly, I found myself out of a job.
That one stung. The day I was laid off, my colleagues – who had survived the cuts unscathed – went out to get drunk at the bar across the road and didn’t glance back at those of us packing our boxes. I had tried to make myself indispensable by covering important topics that no one else really did – the indie films, the underrepresented storytellers, the awards space and the business of Hollywood. But it didn’t matter.
A couple of months later, I landed a better job as the senior film editor of The Hollywood Reporter.
With each job, I asked for better titles and better salaries. I prepared well, crunched the numbers and made sure to ask for the salary that I know my white, male counterparts would ask for. I negotiated hard and got what I wanted, and became one of the very few female minority editors in entertainment. My position and responsibility to advocate for other female and minority journalists was not lost on me, and in my short amount of time there, I tried to elevate those around me.
Diversity is a buzzword that you’ll see everywhere, but with little meaning. In the years that I’ve been covering Hollywood, every single white male executive at studios, networks, streamers and agencies, won’t miss the opportunity to earnestly claim how important it is to diversify their workplaces.
My “diverse” perspective is rooted into my core – an American woman, raised in England by two Indian immigrants. I was one of the few members of staff who could engage talent and creators in their stories of diversity and representation. People respond differently when they see a shared experience and an understanding in the person interviewing them. When I was hired, I was told by someone with knowledge of the hiring process that one of my big advantages was that I was a woman of color, a very desirable trait in a very white newsroom. When we put together the lists of Hollywood’s most influential, I not only was invited into the room where it happens, I successfully advocated for certain creators of color that deserved a spot in those lists.
By choosing to remove me, the message was clear – the skillset that I had worked so hard to develop was no longer worth the money. The higher salary that I so audaciously demanded – and got – was the target I put on my own back. My perspectives, my ideas, my writing, my editing and my presence were no longer valuable enough. Once again, I found my career halted – and possibly ended given this current pandemic.
I’m not giving up on telling the stories of the underrepresented. As Dad said all those years ago, I’ll have to continue to work ten times harder than most. Maybe my platform will shift, but the mission remains the same – elevate those dedicated to authentic representations of the marginalized.
And just maybe, one day, I’ll find myself back in the room where it happens.