Award-winning broadcaster, radio personality and racial justice advocate Kayla Grey was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she made her on-air debut as an anchor of SportsCentre on The Sports Network (TSN), Canada’s largest sports channel. When she signed off that night, Grey made history as the first Black woman in Canada to host a flagship sports highlight show. The 27-year-old says that being “the first” felt cool for about 20 seconds — until she started focusing on making sure she wasn’t going to be “the only.”
Two years and one toddler later, Grey has been busier than ever. Beyond being an anchor for SportsCentre, she’s a weekend radio host at TSN, a correspondent on The Amazing Race Canada, and a contributor to CTV’s Your Morning, etalk and The Social, among other national news and lifestyle shows.
Claire Sibonney spoke with Grey about what it’s like being a woman of colour in the media and being a voice for Canada’s Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Claire Sibonney: What was your childhood like as a first-generation Canadian in Scarborough, Ont.?
Kayla Grey: When I was in elementary school, I was the only Black kid at the school, but then later I moved to a school not too far away that was predominantly kids of colour. It was interesting to have that experience of knowing at a young age how to be “the only” in certain all-white spaces. And then to realize, “Oh, this is what my culture looks like, and this is what spaces look like when it’s a mixed, diverse group.” The conversations are different.
I moved out of my house at 15, and I skipped a ton of school. But eventually I graduated high school. I went to an adult learning centre, and I upgraded my marks.
I don’t normally share this about myself because protecting my childhood story is a way to stay safe in an all-white space. You have to present a certain way when you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you, just to help them feel comfortable with your being in that space. Now that I’m more comfortable in my skin, I understand the importance of my story as a way to change things for the better. I’ve become a lot more vocal and open about it.
Out of love, my mom always told me, “Kayla, you’re a Black woman — you always have to work twice as hard.” But now when I look at my son, I want to tell him, “Levi, you’re a Black man, and you’re just enough.” I want to tell my son that he — his hair, his skin, the way he talks, the way he presents, what he likes, what he doesn’t like — is enough. Because as much as our parents tell us that you have to be twice as good to prepare us for the world that they lived in, there are mental effects. I definitely never felt I was good enough as is. It was one of the reasons why I got into the state that I did at high school. There was a lot of friction between my mom and me, and it was probably best that I had left the house at that time, just so I could figure it out and we could have space.
I love my mom so much, and we’ve had so many years now of healing, because as I’m working through my own trauma of things that I’ve suffered with racism and self-worth, so has my mom.
CS: What drove you, as a young journalist, when you didn’t see people who looked like you on camera?
KG: I wanted to be an editor or a producer or someone behind the scenes, because that’s where I did see familiar faces. But at some point, I realized that, no, on-air is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to tell stories that my community talks about. I wanted to be that voice.
So I decided, out of school, that I was going to say yes to myself. I moved to Winnipeg, to Prince Rupert, B.C. I got my small market experience, and then I came back and the rest just took off.
I tell this story a lot, about my first job out of college, in Winnipeg. My program director there told me, “Kayla, someone who looks like you should be lucky that you even have a job.” And so that was my first experience as a woman of colour — my very first job in the industry out of school. And as much as it was a really crappy situation, I think it was a blessing in disguise because that was the point where I said, “No more.” I found a new home in Prince Rupert, which was a way smaller market than Winnipeg, but I learned so much there. I shot my own stuff; I edited my own stuff. I was able to be their senior reporter.
I lived in Terrace, B.C., first, and then I lived in Prince Rupert. Two cities connected by the Highway of Tears. For me, that was such an eye-opening experience. I didn’t have that much knowledge about the Indigenous community and Indigenous people and the social justice issues in that community. It allowed me to learn. I became even more passionate about making sure that we’re creating inclusive spaces for Black and Indigenous voices and people of colour.
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CS: You’ve had some enviable assignments, from covering the championship-winning Raptors to travelling all over the country for The Amazing Race Canada. What has been the biggest thrill in your career so far?
KG: It was both of those things happening back to back. I went on this whirlwind of chasing The Amazing Race Canada in places like Yellowknife, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. I got to talk to people around the country. I got to learn about things outside of my Scarborough-Toronto bubble. And then right off the plane, I was thrust into the Raptors’ NBA Finals with this fresh perspective and knowledge of what Canada is about. Then watching everyone celebrate in my hometown and seeing our city come together in that way was such a blessing. I was so fortunate to have been chosen and asked to tell stories on that day.
CS: You’ve mentioned that you use meditation and prayer to hear your inner voice more clearly. How so?
KG: I’m a big believer in God, and meditation is something I started doing recently to feel more grounded. Especially in these times, everything’s been so heavy. I’ve used the stillness of the pandemic to deeply reconnect with faith, even if it’s just waking up every single morning and giving thanks for my family, my health. For me, it’s been a time of awakening. I feel I’m further in my walk as well, with what I’ve been doing and the conversations that I’m having.
In the past, my prayers would be like, “Lord, can you please bless me with this and that?” Right now, I’m finding all I can do is give thanks. Meditation has also really helped me because it’s incredibly traumatizing to see people who look like you killed over and over and over on television.
When I’m talking about my experiences in the industry, I’m revisiting my own trauma.
CS: What are you working on healing?
KG: It’s the conversation of microaggressions. Like, “You’re pretty for a Black girl,” or, “You’re not like all the other Black people.” It’s hair touching. Comments about how I dress, comments about how I look. My skin. Or things not being accommodating to someone who looks like me at work or out in the real world. The trauma for me is that I’ve been so conditioned to think that all of that was acceptable.
I think a lot of Black professionals are going through this unconditioning. We’re ripping away the things that we’ve covered ourselves with, to protect us, when we’re in predominantly white spaces. We’re turning up the volume of our voices when it comes to speaking out against things that we see in the workplace or things that we’ve noticed. We’re also accepting a very real fear that by speaking out right now, we will get fired eight months later when the news cycle turns and people are no longer talking about change and diversity.
CS: Since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there’s been a reckoning on racism everywhere, in every institution. What has the Black Lives Matter movement been like for you personally and professionally?
KG: I’m learning that some people are just learning about racism. I’m also learning that I’m some people’s only Black friend. With the coronavirus making more stillness available to the world, it seems we’re finally listening. I’m learning that some days I feel like fighting. And some days, I need to recentre and deal with my own stuff. So it’s been an interesting time. There’s almost a sense of urgency to plant those seeds of growth. I’m hopeful.
I’m not here to police how other Black people should feel, act or speak. For me, speaking is all I know, so that’s what I need to do to make sure that I am effecting change.
I think a lot of Black professionals are going through this unconditioning. We’re ripping away the things that we’ve covered ourselves with, to protect us, when we’re in predominantly white spaces.
CS: In June, you criticized the use of the N-word in an essay by a white sports journalist who was confronting painful racism in her family. Then a Twitter user made “an attempt to discredit, marginalize, and intimidate [you] through social media,” according to a statement from TSN. Many of your colleagues and fans responded in support of you with #Kayla-GreyAppreciationDay, a hashtag that was trending right below #WeTheNorth on the anniversary of the Raptors’ championship win. What was that like?
KG: My community showed up for me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined, but looking back I’m not surprised because as Black people — specifically Black women — that is who we are. We show up for each other and carry the load when our sisters can’t and need to reset. My community started that hashtag. It trended on a weekend when I needed to step away. It illustrated just what the Black community is all about, the power of our community and our voice, so that was really special for me. To see through that hashtag the ways in which I have made my community proud is something I will never forget.
CS: How do you feel about the NBA players’ protests in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., in August?
KG: As a Black woman, I was proud to see a predominantly Black league doing what it needed to do to get the message across. No more were they going to allow society to just see their bodies as a means of labour and entertainment.
Striking let the world know that Black bodies also have value, and as a fan you cannot have it both ways. Players had knelt and used their platforms before and after games to speak out against social injustice, but this was a clear message to the ownership group that they too must pull their weight. They have the money, the resources and the connections that can set change in motion.
Striking sent a clear message that it was time everybody got up from sitting on their hands. As we have seen with the violent shooting of Jacob Blake, the stakes are far too high, and we must all move with an immediate sense of urgency if we want to achieve anything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview‘s November 2020 issue with the title “I wanted to be that voice.”
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