Why I Responded Live On The Air To A Viewer Who Called Me A Racial Slur

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I real­ly don’t think I had a choice.

When that vile email came across my com­put­er at 9:26 p.m., I saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Yes, oppor­tu­ni­ty.

We were on the air live, dis­cussing the role of race in the Atlanta may­oral elec­tion. Two women ― one white and one black ― were the last can­di­dates stand­ing in an extreme­ly con­tentious elec­tion to suc­ceed Mayor Kasim Reed. The cam­paign sea­son had offered up sub­tle and not-so-sub­tle under­tones of race through­out.

Race, and racial bias, was the sto­ry.

The for­mat for our 9 p.m. show is loose and inter­ac­tive. We put skin in the game (no pun intend­ed) as anchors, shar­ing our opin­ions and view­points, and we invite view­ers to give us their take. We promise to put their com­ments on the air whether they agree with our pre­sen­ta­tion of the issue or not.

I looked at my email and saw the word “Niger” ― (this par­tic­u­lar view­er couldn’t spell the slur) ― and got a knot in my stom­ach. Adrenaline kicked in.

SHARON REED

But it was a gift in real time. Black jour­nal­ists, includ­ing yours tru­ly, actu­al­ly do get attacked by racist trolls. I could use this email to show any­one watch­ing what we deal with ― some­times every sin­gle day. Opportunity.

To hide it or cen­sor it ― in my view, on that night ― seemed inher­ent­ly wrong and the height of fake news.

People at home deserve to know the truth, not some ver­sion of events san­i­tized for them from our perch on the anchor desk. Especially when it goes to the heart of the mat­ter. If we can’t keep it real dur­ing a dis­cus­sion about race on the air in Atlanta, then when and where can we?

In the min­utes after I read it, at 9:34 p.m., I for­ward­ed the email to our exec­u­tive pro­duc­er. I asked if we could get this on the air and told him only that I’d like to com­ment. He wrote back imme­di­ate­ly and said yes.

There wasn’t time to get my thoughts togeth­er. Truthfully, I could’ve used a few more min­utes. I want­ed some breath­ing room to get it just right and con­sid­ered beg­ging off until after the next com­mer­cial break. Ultimately, I decid­ed to be authen­tic in the ad-lib ― and to trust the audi­ence.

What came out of my mouth at 9:47 p.m. ― 21 min­utes after receiv­ing this offen­sive email ― wasn’t art­ful or pol­ished, but it was real.

I can only speak to my expe­ri­ence, but make no mis­take: It is a shared expe­ri­ence. Other black jour­nal­ists are called “nig­ger,” too. In fact, if you know any black per­son who hasn’t had this hap­pen, now there’s a sto­ry!

Many peo­ple have been reach­ing out to reaf­firm just that, and to say thanks for putting it front and cen­ter.

SHARON REED

The fre­quen­cy ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s relat­ed to con­tent, or per­ceived opin­ions based on our skin col­or. Check these out. These are just a FEW of what appeared in my inbox over the course of only a few days.

SHARON REED

Why do racists feel they can do this, that they can get away with this?

Because they can and gen­er­al­ly do. I real­ly don’t think there’s any­thing deep­er. Racists often like to spit that word, because there is hard­ly ever any per­son­al con­se­quence for doing so. Especially now. In a time when we are call­ing peo­ple “white nation­al­ists” instead of what their speech and actions actu­al­ly dic­tate. Cool sto­ry, bro, but not one root­ed in any fact.

Every sin­gle day, jour­nal­ists of col­or get emails like the one I got. Most of us con­tin­ue to do our jobs with excel­lence. You nev­er even know. That seems like one of the rea­sons some peo­ple were stunned by how casu­al­ly yet point­ed­ly racist the email I got was.

Another fac­tor: Most peo­ple are decent and just don’t har­bor or ped­dle such trash. But igno­rance of the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor among us seems root­ed in some­thing else, too. We don’t have enough hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about racism in mixed com­pa­ny.

It feels like some white peo­ple have a fear of being ver­bal­ly pounced on for say­ing some­thing awk­ward. And blacks? I cer­tain­ly know the feel­ing. Some of us fear we might not be able to hold back … and could keep it too real.

Having had a minute to reflect on how things unfold­ed, I real­ize that the deci­sion to put that email on the air was root­ed in hurt, defi­ance and even “I told you so” to all of the peo­ple out there who doubt this hap­pens. All of that, and on behalf of so many who sit in silence and sim­ply take it. Our #MeToo.

I have an under­grad­u­ate degree from Georgetown University and master’s from Northwestern University. I’ve worked hard on my craft for years and I believe I am a skilled, bal­anced jour­nal­ist who is nat­u­ral­ly curi­ous. It’s still not enough for anoth­er yahoo foam­ing at the mouth with racism. But then came the response to what I said on TV that night. Immediate. Swift. Overwhelming.

Phone calls … emails … mes­sages from new “friends” on social media.

People across the coun­try are speak­ing up and express­ing a phe­nom­e­nal amount of sup­port. I’m grate­ful for so many of those views, but not because most peo­ple are sup­port­ive. It’s because, col­lec­tive­ly, they offer a pow­er­ful les­son that I actu­al­ly did not con­sid­er.

Nearly a week after my “clap­back” went viral, after read­ing so many com­ments and lis­ten­ing to the voice­mails, I real­ize there’s an equal­ly impor­tant take­away: Even though white peo­ple can­not ever know the black expe­ri­ence first­hand, most peo­ple get it when you sim­ply serve up the details to them raw.

Common ground.

It reaf­firms my belief in trans­paren­cy in TV jour­nal­ism. But, be cer­tain ― even as I write this piece ― some in this indus­try claim dis­be­lief, and even sug­gest I man­u­fac­tured the email myself. Their dis­plays show extreme cal­lous­ness regard­ing the deep pain, divide and con­se­quences of racism.

That’s a dark piv­ot. In truth, I have received enough racist emails for a small book.

In oth­er news the sky is blue, the earth is round and com­mon sense is some­thing you pick up when you go out­side and talk to peo­ple who don’t look like you or believe every­thing as you do. It also seems per­son­al inse­cu­ri­ties are val­i­dat­ed when you choose to believe that an expe­ri­enced col­league can­not pos­si­bly be poised or prin­ci­pled enough to actu­al­ly con­front a racist on the spot.

My final thought? It’s actu­al­ly an acknowl­edg­ment. This has not been easy for our sta­tion man­age­ment to nav­i­gate, but to their cred­it, my boss­es han­dled it with grace and nev­er-end­ing sup­port.