Jemele Hill opens up about the difficult, insulting and unseen parts of racism in newsrooms

The former ESPN journalist on how she came back from rejection, dissing Trump and being underestimated

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 30, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Journalist Jemele Hill attends her book release party at 1010 Wine and Events on October 21, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Robin L Marshall/Getty Images)
Journalist Jemele Hill attends her book release party at 1010 Wine and Events on October 21, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Robin L Marshall/Getty Images)

One of the first gigs I got as a freelance reporter involved a crooked cop, a falsely imprisoned rapper and a collection of community members that proudly went on the record, saying how the cop had harassed them for years. I was from that community, so I knew the cop and I knew the victims and I knew that the newspaper was the only way to bring real attention to this matter – so I gutted the cop in a heavy article, clearly laying out his crimes and calling out some of the politicians and high-ranking officers who were aware of his crimes but still allowed this crooked cop to function. 
"This is great stuff, D," the editor at the paper said, "Really, really great, but too raw," – before he proceeded to tear my essay apart and water down the message I wanted to send to the city, about how horrible this cop was and the lives he ruins everyday. Now I was gutted because I felt like the editor didn't believe in me enough, even though all of the stories I submitted came from angry residents who also wanted change. It felt as if certain kinds of Black stories don't have places in white papers until they are viral or when the system finally says it's cool to advance the conversation. 
Years later, that same cop I wrote about was indicted for racketeering amongst other charges, was convicted and is now serving 18 years federal prison. That same editor who questioned my early claims has since apologized – but I was a vet and no longer upset, because at that point, I knew what it meant to be Black in a white newsroom. Atlantic magazine contributor Jemele Hill had to deal with being Black in white newsrooms for most of her career. 
Hill, mostly known for her work at ESPN had the ultimate "Black in the newsroom" moment when she called out then-President Trump for being a white supremacist, a decision that ultimately led to Hill leaving the network. Hill details her upbringing in Detroit, her career in journalism and all of the events leading up to the moment she bravely spoke out against the 45th president in her new book "Uphill: A Memoir." During our "Salon Talks" episode, we discussed the aftermath of her decision, her process of becoming vulnerable and the difficult and insulting aspects of being underestimated. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Jemele Hill here or read a Q&A of our conversation below. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A memoir is different than reporting on other people. You have to open up and talk about your own stuff. What was that like for you?

It was definitely challenging at some moments, particularly dealing with incidents that I thought I pretty much had unpacked a while ago. And so then resurfacing those incidents and then living through them all over again was challenging at some spots. But overall, I wanted to approach this book in the spirit of transparency. Even if it resulted in reliving through some things, I think what I got out of it at the end of it was definitely worth those moments. 

There's some parts in the book that's really heavy, we'll get to that. But then there's some parts that could come off as heavy that's just heavy dying laughing. Your mom showing you the crack was almost like a "Boondocks" episode, but her strategy worked.

Yeah, not that that was at the forefront of my mind at that particular age, but I think I compared it in the book to a very extreme "say no to drugs" commercial that was happening right in front of my face. It was one of those things, at least in the moment, where as even as a kid, I'm thinking like, wow, is this how bad things have gotten right now? Is that where we are? But a lot of the aggressive and intensive parenting that my mother did came from the place of her not wanting me to repeat the same mistakes. So, even though that was a serious and dramatic scare tactic, as you said, it did work. Because I've never wanted to have any association with any hard drugs.

I grew up in a family plagued with addiction as well. I feel like the long-term impact it had on me was it made me look at a lot of my early relationships in life as just temporary. Everything's temporary. These people are going to be around for a short amount of time. Don't get too comfortable, don't get too close because anything can happen. Do you feel like addiction has shaped you in any way or just learning your coping mechanisms?

Oh, definitely. I think one of the biggest ways that it shaped me was that I have struggled throughout my life with vulnerability. A lot of that came from having to survive certain things, having to grow up earlier than I should have, in terms of being introduced to very adult and traumatic problems. It caused me to build an armor around myself. I think that armor has been difficult to break. It's certainly broken at some points, but a lot of it is because I felt like through most of my life, and especially about what I saw as a child, that opening up, being vulnerable, those are things that can be very costly. You don't want nobody to take advantage of you. 

[My mom] used to tell me all the time,"Guard your heart," and all these other things that made me fearful about what that experience might be like. I think it was just a repeated pattern of being disappointed by some of the adults in my life, her included. These are things that made me question opening up and having those kinds of relationships with people. 

How do you break that armor? Is it even possible? Because we work in publishing and media where you need an armor.

"When you go into locker rooms and you're the only Black person in there, or maybe the only woman, and certainly the only Black woman, you understand there's a different scrutiny you're under."

I'm not saying that you should go around open-hearted and willing to share it with everyone, but I think in the relationships that I really valued, I wanted to be able to be more vulnerable and be more open, and I struggled to. I really couldn't. It would have been an easier way for me to communicate with people instead of just being somebody who thinks about things and broods over things a long time. I think it's healthy and human and normal to get things off your chest or to not necessarily in a negative way or trying to create any kind of conflict or in the midst of conflict, but just being able to openly communicate to somebody just even how much you care about them or feel about them. Those are things that were kind of difficult for me to do.

I was so happy when you mentioned your fifth grade teacher, Ms. Johnson. I think teachers don't get their flowers enough. And I think so many of us who grew up in poverty, our first glimpse or our first chance to see something beyond our surroundings is through the eyes of a teacher. What did Ms. Johnson mean to you?

I sent her a signed copy of the book, and her and I connected as I was writing this book because I wanted to get her impressions of me as my teacher. What did she think about me and why did she take time out to build a relationship with me? I wanted to find out from her what made her form that relationship. 

She put me in my first play. I was Dorothy in "The Wiz." I thank her in the acknowledgements [of the book], because she did that. That helped me get over a certain amount of shyness that I had. That was probably the first time I really had to publicly speak and not only publicly speak, but perform. Before anybody gets any kind of idea that I could sing, we were lip syncing. We were lip syncing. This was not me belting out like I'm Diana Ross.

There was a reason why I thanked her and a couple other of my teachers in my acknowledgements because there are so many pivotal points where you make decisions at the time that you don't even know are crucial or that people are pouring into you and you don't even understand what the lasting impact of that will be. Once you reach a certain place as an adult, you look back and, if you can, reach out to those teachers that really mattered in your life. I've been really lucky because I've been able to keep in contact with a few of my teachers. And I just want them to know from reading this book that they helped to change the course of my life.

I think a lot of people don't really understand the culture shock that a Black person has when entering media. In the book, you compare your job in Orlando to living in Detroit. It's almost like you have to learn a different language. Can you talk about what that assimilation was like for your younger self?

If you're in media, and especially the type of media I chose to do — I chose to be a sports journalist — it's a space that there's not a lot of Black journalists are in and certainly not a lot of Black women. That is a very isolating experience in itself, and so when you go into locker rooms and you're the only Black person in there, or maybe the only woman, and certainly the only Black woman, you understand there's a different scrutiny you're under. 

My time in Orlando, especially being the only Black female sports columnist at a daily newspaper in North America, there was a lot of scrutiny on me when I got that column.

"Am I about to lose my job over Donald Trump, of all things?"

Unfortunately when you're in a lot of these white spaces, whether you're in sports media or really any corporate space, as Black people our Spidey senses sense the fact that a lot of people in that room are questioning why we're there and wondering if we're the diversity hire or assigning some level of underperformance to us without us even having been on the job. I was 28 years old and there were sort of the industry whispers of people wondering how I got a column in this job at a paper the size of Orlando at just 28.

That was one of the more difficult and insulting aspects that I had to deal with at various points in my career. As I wrote about it in the book, to have a colleague at a competing newspaper tell me to my face that it was much easier for me to get a job than him and he's a white guy and I'm the only Black woman in the room, it's just like, are you serious? If it's easier for me, how come I'm the only one in here and all y'all are white men? That math ain't mathing.

Tough time for white men.

Yeah, exactly. I was like, y'all only have 85-90% of the jobs in sports media. Do you want 100% of them? I don't think a lot of people who are in those spaces with us understand how extraordinarily insulting that can be and how it's such a burden when all you want to do is do your job and do it to the best of your ability and not have people questioning why you're there.

I bet that training made ESPN easy.

It did in some respects, but ESPN was such a different place to be because whatever attention, readership, viewership you were used to reaching before, it quadruples when you get to ESPN because they unintentionally created the celebrity sports journalists. That was probably the most difficult part to get used to at ESPN. The other stuff I dealt with in my career in terms of hate mail, having people wonder why I'm there, and the scrutiny. But it is just so much more magnified at ESPN because of the magnitude of the platform.

It was uncomfortable, especially coming from a newspaper background where you're often told that you're not the center of the story and that the journalist is not supposed to be out there. At ESPN, everything starts with the person. So it's not just the Lakers aren't very good, it's Stephen A. Smith saying the Lakers aren't very good. Because of that element of your name being strongly attached to the opinions that you have and people saying, "Oh, it's not that you're pointing out something obvious, it's that you are the one pointing this out." That took a lot of adjusting to.

One of the things that frustrated me is that in a time where a whole lot of people were biting their tongues about Donald Trump, you told the truth. Sports has had a history of being the only profession where winning was more important than race. You can hate Black people from Monday to Saturday, but when they got on that football field on Sunday, that was your brother, that was your main man. You used your platform to highlight something that was really, really problematic in our country — still is. And people responded as if you were speaking a different language. What was your head space like during that particular time?

Well, I guess one place was: Am I about to lose my job over Donald Trump, of all things? Then there was a concern of safety because when you criticize somebody like Donald Trump, who has an aggressive cult that follows him, whenever he's criticized, they go on the attack. I had been getting hate mail since I was in college. So the hate mail aspect is not new, but it's very different when it's hate mail coupled with death threats and very strong opinions about how people feel about you. Just a barrage and nonstop barrage. 

I remember when one of the executives at ESPN had given me a batch of hate mail, snail mail, that people had sent to the network. I read a couple of the letters and then the rest of them I, didn't even bother to read because at some point you have to protect your spirit.

What's the most racist s**t Jemele ever heard?

Well, I got to be honest though, the racist slurs that always humorously, that I frankly laugh at are the old school ones. You used to being called the n-word. Like, all right, okay. But it's when somebody breaks out the occasional d***ie or c**n, that's when I'm like, man, you reach back for that one.

"I'm ready to be in a season in my life where if I don't want to do something or if I do want to do something, there's one person to consider and that's me."

They went back.

Which I should not be surprised at because if you are doing the old school thing of actually mailing me a letter, that's a lot of commitment.

That's a lot of commitment to racism.

You have to find some paper, you know what I'm saying? You have to write it down.

Get a stamp.

You had to take it to the mailbox or the post office. I was like, you really thought this through. So yeah, or the people who type racist slurs. And I'm just like, so you typed a letter to me calling me a n-word? Like man, I'm not even mad. I'm impressed that you took the time out to do that.

Even though racists are still racists, there are a lot more people who believe what you said. They now proudly call Trump a white supremacist. Knowing that, would you ever go back to ESPN?

I think one of the reasons why it was time for me to leave is that I kind of had outgrown what my role was there. You never say never, but there was just nothing else left for me to do. I hosted SportsCenter, I had my own daily sports show, I'd done radio, podcasting, wrote for, and did sideline reporting. I did everything there was to do there. And so it just felt like the mission was over. And it's kind of like in a relationship where you kind of know it's run its course. 

I wouldn't just say this about ESPN, but I think the experience and how I left there, it really showed me that I'm ready to be in a season in my life where if I don't want to do something or if I do want to do something, there's one person to consider and that's me. So I think the days of having to ask for permission to do things, of having email chains about whether or not you should do something, I'm just done with that. 

Yeah, f**k a email chain.

Definitely. For real. That's not my testimony anymore. Any email chains I have now, it's about strategy. It's about things that make sense and my participation is understood. But yeah, I think I knew what I signed up for when I was in traditional media for as long as I was. And I was OK with that bargain. But now I don't think I am. And even working in spaces still that our traditional corporate structures, I very much tell them what they can expect from me coming in. Like, if y'all are expecting me to be a different version of what you've seen, what got me through your door or why you wanted to work with me, you're not getting a different version. You're getting this. You got to be okay with this and you got to have the stomach for certain things. If you feel like you don't have the stomach for this, we can just stop and end this now without further frustrating each other. So I think now companies that work with me are much more aware and have the ability to handle what it is I bring to the table.

So what I got from the book was coming out of Detroit in the era you grew up in, we already knew it, there's toughness you had to have. But I feel like you take it to a different level and I appreciate that as a reader. What are some of the main things you want readers to take away?

I do want people to understand that your circumstances do not have to dictate the life you've imagined for yourself. This is not to say it will be easy, this is not to say that you'll have to be resilient about some things, and that some things you may go through may be traumatic. All that being said is that as people read the book, even in these circumstances in which I grew up, the people around me always made the expectation very clear that success was a priority. Regardless of what my mother was going through, what my father was going through, my grandmother, they were not going to let me be mediocre in any area of my life just because they were having their own issues.

I say that to people out there who can relate to some of the things I talk about in the book, or have their own version of the things that I talk about in the book to let them know that sometimes just being able to keep going will get you to so many more places and that you can start to break some of the generational trauma or the family trauma or the generational curses. You have to decide that you want something different and better for yourself. I hope people take away that part. 

And, I hope people also look at this book and realize why it's important to see their mothers, their fathers, their aunts, uncles, the people in their lives, their family members, as full people. You discover they're full people if you ask them questions, if you give them the safety of being able to tell you maybe some of the failures and disappointments that have happened before you were even there, or even while you were there. I think it allows you to give them grace. To me, that helps build better relationships with the people that you love.

Be a product of your expectations, right?


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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