Black Writer Survival Guide: The Fight to Be a Freelancer in 2020
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The Black Writer Survival Guide

What’s it like to be a black writer?

When George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, it shined a light on racial issues and inequalities, justice for all, and basic human rights for everyone…including freelance writers.

But if you’re not a black writer, you don’t really know what the day-to-day experience is like.

Or maybe you’re wondering what to say, what to do, or how you can be part of the solution to support black writers and people of color.

So what’s it like to be a black writer, right now?

We reached out to freelance writer, journalist, and Make a Living Writing contributor Williesha Morris to weigh in on what it’s like to be a black writer.

“The black experience in any industry or in any context can be a grueling one,” says Williesha. “Often the pressure feels like so much more is expected of you. Being a black writer is no exception.”

And then a pandemic happens.

And then there’s a period of unrest and protests about violence against black people and people of color.

How do you make sense of it all?

If you’re a black writer or person of color, you’ve got to make some decisions about how to navigate your career.

And if you want to be part of the solution, you’ve got to be proactive about it…black, white, or anything else.

So how do you survive and thrive as a black writer or POC during a time of unprecedented upheaval? Read on to hear about Willi’s experience — and her tips for writers of all shades.

Meet freelance writer Williesha Morris

Write for Magazines: Williesha Morris

Williesha Morris

Williesha Morris is a veteran journalist and freelance writer.

She’s written for Birmingham Magazine, Office Pro Magazine, the Shelby County Reporter, Write Naked, Be a Freelance Blogger, and many others.

She’s also written for Make a Living Writing, and provided a play-by-play about how she landed an assignment with the highly competitive AARP magazine in this Q&A: Write for Magazines: Steals This Writer’s Strategy to Write for Top Pubs.

Morris has celebrated plenty of wins as a freelance writer. But she also knows firsthand what it’s like to be a black writer in today’s environment.

What’s it like to be a black writer? Here’s what she has to say:

Q1: How do I keep writing when it feels impossible to succeed?

Williesha:  Some have described the current black experience as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” First, it’s imperative to acknowledge and work through your fear and anger.

Communities of color are collectively grieving the loss of so many people who were injured, harassed or killed for being black or brown. They are also at higher rates of dying from COVID-19. Even if you don’t know the victims personally, the losses can be visceral and deep.

  • What would you typically do if you lost a loved one?
  • Would you try and push on and do work?

If the answer is “No,” then give yourself a break. A common phrase among the black community is:

“You have to work twice as hard to get half the reward.”

That means you require “twice” the self-care and healing!

Don’t feel guilty about requesting deadline extensions from your clients. You aren’t expected to perform 100 percent when you’re in grief. However, if your income is dependent on freelance writing, this may not be an option.

Q2: Does self-care really make a difference during a time like this?

Williesha: One of my favorite ways to relax is to get a massage, but I’m continuing to self-quarantine.

However deep and lasting self-care is dedicating free moments to something that’s productive, uplifting, informative or just plain fun. For example, you can:

  • Tune into podcasts on your niche (or something new!)
  • Listen to fiction audiobooks or music you know all the lyrics to. (This doesn’t always work for me when I’m concentrating. I get too caught up in the lyrics and am obligated to sing along or lip sync at a minimum!)
  • Learn a new language. (I’ve been re-learning Spanish and volunteering with an online organization.)
  • Connect with other writers of color. You don’t have to talk shop. You can discuss what’s happening and release some of the powerful emotions you’re feeling.
  • Write a personal essay about something important to you, and submit it.
  • Create personal blog and write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. (Note: you don’t have to share it with the world.)
  • Keep a diary or journal. I use a notebook and write down all of the things on my mind. And I mean everything. Like if I have a toothache, I write it down. And remember, you don’t have to go back and check everything off that list.

The point of self-care…

Take a break from writing professionally and focus on you. Writing is your superpower, and you need a break to recharge every now and then.

Q3: What’s your experience been dealing with white editors?

Williesha: My experience has varied. Sometimes I think they’re talking down to me. But to be fair, my best experience so far as a freelancer was with a white woman.

I think a freelance-work environment is often free of some of that unconscious bias black folks encounter in brick and mortar, in-person jobs.

It still happens, because eventually editors find out what you look like. But I haven’t experienced it as much in a virtual environment. It’s easier for your work to shine.

Q4:  Have you or black writers you know experienced discrimination?

Williesha: I think I have, but this can be difficult to determine. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, or I’m not a big-name writer. There’s no telling, because this type of thing isn’t always blatant.

I have a “black-sounding” name. One of the major annoyances is having to shorten my name (Willi), because I feel better about getting less biased feedback. It’s a small thing, but it contributes to the erasure of who I am.

I have seen someone’s pitches get rejected and co-opted by that publication later. Can you prove it’s discrimination? No. It’s easy for an editor to maintain an all-white or mostly-white staff…simply reject the pitches from or about black and brown people. The racial and gender gatekeeping is real offline and offline.

Q5: What do you say to white writers who want to talk about what’s happening?

Most of the time I just tell them I don’t want to talk. Or I suggest places to donate or get more information. For example:

  • You can give to organizations like Color of Change and Use of Force Project. These non-profits are working diligently to create lasting change for black and brown people and end systemic and institutional racism.
  • Find out if there’s a local fund to support protestors on the ground. They need food, water, even bail money. You can also use your gift to inform or help others.
  • Pitch publications accepting submissions about the movement that’s happening.

Q6: What can white writers do to be a good allies for black writers and POC?

Williesha: White writers need to lift up writers of color. You’re not going to have a dozen black writers suddenly email you for help. You have to do the work.

  • Talk about them on social media.
  • Read their work.
  • Send writers of color writing guidelines or calls for pitches from interesting publications (and not just the black and brown-centered ones).

You have to be intentional about this

We appreciate empathy. But we don’t want your pity or your tears. Resist the urge to ask them right now if they’re OK. We’ve been dealing with this all of our lives, not just in the last few weeks. We survive and often thrive despite this. What else can you do?

  • Read about the system of white supremacy. It benefits you, but is a giant thumb on black and brown people, and has been for centuries. Almost all of the current New York Times bestsellers are about racism and white supremacy.
  • Call out other white people when you see or hear something racist.
  • Learn about microaggressions to ensure you’re not displaying bias or to know when someone else is.

Be part of the solution to help all freelance writers move up and earn more

The struggle is real for black writers and POC, but you can still survive and thrive. If you’re not a person of color, use these tips to help you cope, understand what’s happening, and be part of the solution.

Take care of yourself. Nurture your entrepreneurial spirit. Help others along the way. And don’t give up on your freelance writing goals.

What are you doing to be part of the solution? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Williesha Morris is a writer and administrative assistant who loves the internet and has a fondness for both Star Wars and Star Trek. Follow her on My Freelance Life.

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26 comments on “Black Writer Survival Guide: The Fight to Be a Freelancer in 2020

  1. Maria Perry Mohan on

    I don’t know why I don’t get it. I’ve always known that people of color are disadvantaged in the developed world. Most of the people who get executed in the USA are poor and black. But white supremacy means nothing to me. Have I benefited from white privilege? I don’t think so. I didn’t get to go to college as my widowed mother didn’t have money for that. I married a man from India. He is certainly not white. My beautiful kids are mixed race. For two decades I was the only white person in my city in India. People were okay with me. I struggle with my freelance writing career. The Irish were the only western to be colonised. I have never thought of myself as superior to anyone. I always knew that black lives matter.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Maria, it’s great to hear that people in India are perhaps more accepting of others who don’t look like them!

      I not only knew but actively participated in actions against mass incarceration and the targeting of black people in policing…and am grappling with how much it was NOT NEARLY ENOUGH.

      I think the big shift now is from individual cases of outrage and seeking justice in that one case, to pulling back and seeing the big, sweep of history and the pattern of institutional racism, and seeking to dismantle and root out racism in our institutions.

      You knew there was racism in our justice system, I knew (though not as much as I know now, having recently read Just Mercy and others)… that we continued to let it go on IS white privilege, I’d say. We could go oh, that’s bad, but not think, ‘I need to stop what I’m doing and work until this is abolished, and our justice system IS just.’ Because I was not personally at risk due to this injustice, nor my family or community.

      But I didn’t do that. I let the system continue to work in my favor, continue to target blacks, pull blacks over for nothing, target more blacks for arrest, etc.

      As someone who has a 6-foot-tall, teenage son who has black friends, I would reflect on this every time I saw them walking out from high school together. I’d think, ‘Glad my son isn’t a great big young BLACK man… he would be so much more at risk from the police. Like his friends are.’ I THOUGHT that, I knew the reality of racism in our justice system, but did not act enough to rectify that racism, which I was well aware of.

      I know we’re supposed to keep our white-centering comments to a minimum (sorry, Willi!)… but I feel culpability there. I was not un-woke about it, I was completely conscious of it. What I felt was overwhelmed, how can I change this? I’ve donated, I’ve protested against immigration jails… but you feel like just one little old you. And what’s called for is world-changing. It feels overwhelming. So you do a little, and feel good about doing… but the problems CONTINUED.

      The good news is, now we are not in this ‘making one little difference’ mode anymore. We can’t go back, but we can use this time of isolation and pause to bring transformative change and make a more just world. And I think that’s exciting. The history of this pandemic could include a massive turning point in our country’s coming to grips with the legacy of slavery… and it’s way past time.

      Reply
  2. kerry on

    “Send writers of color writing guidelines or calls for pitches from interesting publications (and not just the black and brown-centered ones).”

    The above is very powerful because at the end if the day its to help wherever and how ever you can.

    Reply
  3. Sheryl Williams on

    Glad to see this, I feel inspired and encouraged! And helpful tips about self-care. I very much appreciate Make A Living Writing!

    Thank you

    Reply
  4. Judith C Allen on

    Thanks to Willesha for her comments. A talented writer and a lovely person. I look forward to reading more of her work. Stay proud and stay strong.

    Reply
  5. Waldo Miller on

    A book for all white writers: THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston. Pick it up, read it and learn a thing or two. Every black writer has probably already read it – if not, do it quickly.
    Janie and Tea Cake are quite a couple but Janie is the leader.

    Thank you Willi for today’s inspiration. Thank you Carol for giving us Willi today. In the 1970’s I had a student named Willie–a big, tough. black football player. He was an A student. Lawyer type–always wore a shirt and tie–sometimes a navy blue blazer.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Waldo, I think of this as a time for all of us white allies to ask black people what we should be reading… but have certainly known and loved that book. With Tulsa and the attention on it right now, hopefully more people are learning about the dark history of independent, self-sufficient black communities that were burned to the ground by white supremacists. Wish it was only history, all too relevant right now.

      The two books I’m having recommended to me in anti-racist resource guides compiled by justice advocates the most are White Fragility and How to be an Anti-Racist… top of my to-read list right now. Also The New Jim Crow.

      Two that are life-changing for anyone unaware of what the movement against mass incarceration (which I’ve been deeply involved with on the immigration-detention side) is all about are The Sun Does Shine, and Just Mercy (now also a TV miniseries).

      We need to read, learn… vote. Act. Much more to do.

      Reply
  6. Cevia on

    Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts as a black writer, Williesha. White friends and I have been dealing with guilt and shame, and I appreciate what you wrote about having empathy, but putting pity in check, taking care of our own feelings, and being part of the solution.

    Reply
  7. Kaitlin Morrison on

    Williesha, this is a very practical and helpful post. Thank you for writing. I will bookmark this.

    I have a lot to learn, but I’m always looking for resources to send along when other white folks ask me questions. I’m not very knowledgeable on this and you handled these complex issues perfectly.

    Reply
  8. Katherine Swarts on

    I’m reading this on #Juneteenth and will be watching some online celebrations later. Congratulations on this post from a white writer who knows better than to say she “understands exactly how you feel,” but has her own minority issues as a “Spectrumite” (person on the autism spectrum), person with clinical depression, and simply a self-employed person and overall-melancholy creative.

    Reply
  9. Adejoke on

    Can an Africa-based freelance writer succeed in getting clients from US and other developed parts of the World? It seems it is tough already for people of color in the US

    Reply
    • Tanya Adams on

      Yes, Africa-based freelance writers can succeed in getting clients from the U.S. The funny, or perhaps curious, thing about companies in the US is that they look upon black writers and POC from outside the U.S. much differently than they do Black/POC who are citizens of the U.S. There’s a systemic prejudice with 400 years of history here with Black/POC people of color. Those authentic African names are considered exotic. Makes you preferable believe it or not. In case you are wondering, my opinion is based on experience and conversations throughout my life, not conjecture.

      Reply
      • Carol Tice on

        I bet that’s completely true — probably many US companies with a lotta white execs who would react differently to Africa black person vs African American… and then probably deny they had a bias that way. 😉

        Reply
    • Williesha Morris on

      I agree – I think the (still racist) feeling that Africanism is “exotic” could be a benefit.

      And also, it doesn’t matter where you come from – if you have a strong grasp of the English language, you can be a freelance writer!

      Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Williesha. Great insights in this post for black writers, POC, and everybody else.

      I remember a while back asking you if you go by Williesha or Willi, because I’d seen you use both in your bylines. You played it off with “either.”

      But now I just have no words for reading your explanation here:

      I have a “black-sounding” name. One of the major annoyances is having to shorten my name (Willi), because I feel better about getting less biased feedback.

      Just shaking my head. Cause that never crossed my mind.

      Your writing talent, creativity, work ethic, and determination to keep going is awesome. Scoring an assignment with AARP, is a major win, and few freelancers would be willing to pursue as long as you did.

      Thanks for writing this post on a short deadline, and being so candid about what it’s like to be a black writer, and how we can all be part of the solution.

      Reply
      • Carol Tice on

        Super-grateful Willi — people seem to think I know everything about freelance writing, but I obviously DON’T know what it’s like to be a writer of color. And that’s why I love all our guest posters! This one was particularly needed, right now.

        Reply
      • Tanya Adams on

        Jensen, it was the first thing I thought of when I first saw that Willi changed her name. Being a fellow POC, I knew that was the reasoning. I’ve considered taking my picture off my website for much the same reason. I had a client that did take his picture off his website for that reason,
        Tanya Adams recently posted…Pretty Creative Theme FeaturesMy Profile

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