Farah Nasser was six years old when she heard her first racial slur. She was at the playground and decided to tackle the red monkey bars. As she reached to grab the first bar, she heard a voice shout, “Get off the monkey bars you Paki.”
Nearly three decades later, Nasser related this painful experience to a white, male newsroom colleague. “He couldn’t believe how much of a visceral reaction I had to it,” she explains. “I said to him: ‘You know, it’s very hard when people target you about something that you can’t change about yourself. You feel like [you’re] not good enough.’”
Such hatred hasn’t lessened. Every weekday, Nasser co-anchors the evening news for Global Toronto. “I face a lot of backlash for being a Muslim woman on television,” Nasser says. “There’s one person who thought my husband is part of ISIS. There are many people who think that I have an agenda, that I’m trying to push Islam on viewers.”
With a rise in Islamophobia, and the misconception that Canada is an entirely inclusive and open country, Nasser has decided to use her platform to address systemic racism and shed light on diversity.
“Farah has had such a great career as she has moved up in the ranks and is now an anchor on Global,” says Haniya Sheikh, who selected Nasser to be featured in the October 2018 Toronto District School Board Islamic Heritage Month campaign. “This for a racialized woman is no easy feat and is something to be celebrated.”
“The First Time I Was Called,” a 2018 series headed by Nasser, explores different people’s experiences with racism and hatred, featuring people like Jully Black, Kathleen Wynne, and body–image activists. Nasser also takes part.
“All of these people said [something like]: ‘If somebody had come up to me afterwards and said this doesn’t represent Canada, this doesn’t represent everybody. You have every right to feel how you feel because that was not fair…’” explains Nasser, “[then each person] would have felt a lot better in that moment.”
She also has the ability to make issues outside of Canada feel close to home.
Nasser frequently works with the Aga Khan Foundation, and in 2008 she visited Syria to tour some of its humanitarian projects. When she returned, the war in Aleppo broke out. She watched as the events unfolded in Syria and decided, regardless of distance, she had to do something in Canada.
She made a virtual set with the help of graphic designers at Global. The result: a shocking comparison of Toronto to Aleppo. The video, titled “What if the Fighting in Aleppo was Happening in Toronto?” went viral and won Nasser the 2017 Radio Television Digital News Association (RTNDA) Sam Ross Award. The following year she received the same award for “93 Killed a Day at the Barrel of a Gun.”
When she first entered the industry, Nasser—a first generation Canadian whose parents were born in East Africa—never imagined being so open about her Muslim identity, or sharing her personal struggles with racism. It wasn’t until 9/11 that she began thinking more about how race, particularly Islam, is covered in the media.
“I would hide it [being Muslim] almost, I wouldn’t really talk about it,” she says, adding that colleagues or peers would often make fun of her religion. “Someone recently said to me when I was fasting, ‘I can’t wait to eat in front of you in the meeting,’ like to taunt me,” Nasser recalls. “It’s something made fun of—as if it’s a joke. But it’s such a big part of me that now I think in my position, and going through it all these years, I think I’m going to say something now.”
Growing up, Nasser’s alarm clock was her dad, standing over her with an article cut out from the daily paper. “I’d be like, ‘Oh god, I don’t want to read it,’” Nasser says, a typical teenage response . Her dad was unfazed, insisting she read it before brushing her teeth.
Every night, Nasser would watch the news with her parents, even though she admits that she was probably too young. Coupled with her love for public speaking made journalism the obvious career path.
In 1999, Nasser entered the Ryerson Radio and Television (RTA) program. Naomi Parness, Senior Manager of Digital content and Storytelling for the United Jewish Appeal, was an RTA student at the same time. While they are best friends today, they will both tell you they were rivals in school. “She is extremely passionate, hardworking; she cares about people and she cares about the world,” Parness says.
Parness recalls Nasser working around the clock, doing well in school and also taking on internships and volunteer positions. “She didn’t stop. She was going to do what it took to achieve her dream.”
While at Ryerson, Nasser worked for the radio station CFRB1010, screening calls for a show called Generation Next. Meanwhile, she was dreaming of being the next Christiane Amanpour.
From the computers at the radio station, Nasser applied for an internship with every bureau at CNN. She was offered Miami or New Delhi.
That summer, she went to New Delhi accompanied by her whole family. “My great great grandparents are from India. So we are Indian ethnically, but my parents had never been there either. So we all went together.”
The experience was life changing. She was thrust head first into covering major world stories, including the Agra Summit, the first major summit between India and Pakistan in years, held in July 2001.
For her, the juxtaposition of going to parties and events as a Canadian journalist, while seeing slums and poverty, forever changed her perspective of the world. “I really saw the difference in the wage gap and the difference between rich and poor. I think that really opened my mind to inclusivity,” she says. “It really showed me that inside [the caste system] were people, and that everyone should have a voice.”
Spanning over the next 20 years, Nasser worked at Rogers TV, Newstalk 1010, Toronto 1, A-Channel News, Citytv and CP24. In October, Nasser was named one of the faces for TDSB Islamic Heritage Month posters and will give a talk about diversity of perspectives at TEDxDonMills in February.
While Nasser is able to pursue stories on diversity and varying perspectives at Global, she is aware that there is a race issue in the industry. When Sunny Dhillon published his article in The Medium titled “Journalism While Brown and When To Walk Away,” Global News Director Mackay Taggart contacted Nasser immediately and asked for her input on how Global can do better. “That spoke volumes,” she says. “Since then I have spoken to people and have heard some concerns that I’m compiling because I think that it’s not just our station. I think a lot of stations can do better.”
Despite the shrinking media landscape, Taggart is committed to making sure diverse voices like Nasser’s are heard, and recognized. “While I can’t fix our business overnight, I can make sure that people on our team get the opportunities to feel listened to and valued and feel like they get to tell the stories that matter to them” he says.
And it’s about time. “We have to hold decision makers accountable. We have to inform, we have to educate. Those are all journalistic principles,” Nasser says, “but we also have to show that there are different perspectives. There are not just two sides to a story, there are many sides to a story.”