Sunny Hostin on “Taking a Risk” in New Memoir to Champion People of Color

Courtesy of Miller Mobley/Harper Collins

Ahead of the release of ‘I Am These Truths,’ ‘The View’ co-host and legal journalist spoke about the revealing foreword to her book, navigating the gray area of being biracial and why the country’s diversity reckoning is “a movement, not a moment.”
by Lexy Perez

Sunny Hostin wasn’t sure she had a story to tell for a memoir.

“I’m only 50 and I was thinking, ‘Do I really have a story?’ ” Hostin tells The Hollywood Reporter. But after receiving encouragement from her book agent and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she realized that her story would be “important to young women of color” given “there aren’t enough stories of representation out there.”

Throughout her 268-page memoir, I Am These Truths: A Memoir of Identity, Justice and Living Between Two Worlds (HarperOne), the Emmy-winning legal journalist and The View co-host details the prominent moments in her life that helped shape her as a woman. Growing up as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, Hostin chronicles navigating two worlds as a biracial woman and shares personal anecdotes from her school years, motherhood as well as her legal career and time working on The View. 

The timing of her book’s release is arriving in a time that’s “very different,” Hostin says. To say her stories are hyper-relevant to the current times would be an understatement: Following the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police action, conversations surrounding race and representation continue amid the ongoing movement for racial justice. Hostin says readers now may be willing to “pay attention” to her story because “now people will understand.”

True to her title, Hostin begins her book by pulling no punches to tell her “truths.” In just the first page of her foreword, The View co-host reveals that ABC Network attempted to edit out passages from her book that it deemed put the company in an unfavorable light. Hostin writes that it was confusing as to why a “news organization would try to censor a Puerto Rican, African American woman’s story while they were covering global demonstrations demanding racial equity.” “I didn’t want to believe that racism played a part in their revision requests … Then, on Friday, June 12th, I got a text from a reporter,” she writes in the foreword.

The text pertained to a HuffPost report centered on ABC News senior vp Barbara Fedida who was alleged to have made racially insensitive remarks about colleagues, including Hostin. Fedida would later depart the network following an investigation. Though she doesn’t specify what passages the network wanted removed from her memoir, Hostin says she knows sharing details of the pushback in her forward is “risky” as most don’t “write about their current employers in a book” but it was “important to do.”

Ahead of her book’s release, Hostin spoke with THR about the revealing foreword to her book, her personal journey as a biracial woman and why the country’s diversity reckoning feels like a “movement, not a moment.”

What ultimately inspired you to want to tell your story in a book? 

Well, a couple of things. I’m only 50 and I was thinking, “do I really have a story?” I had taken a writing course many years ago and the person that I took a writing course with is a book agent and became a friend and he called me and he said, “I can’t believe I’ve been watching you on the show and you have such an incredible life and such an incredible story. You have a story that you should tell and, if you ever tell it, I’d be happy to review your writing and help you pitch it.”

The second person that did it was Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court Justice. She asked me to help her to moderate a discussion for one of her books and she said, “Have you written a book yet?” I said, “No, I haven’t, but you’re now the second person that tells me this.” And she said, “Oh my goodness, your story is so important to young women of color because I know what you’ve been through. You’ve got to tell this story. It’s aspirational. There aren’t enough stories of representation out there but you have to promise me to do it in Spanish and English because imagine if there is a little girl in Puerto Rico or here that is struggling with English as a second language and she’s in school and she doesn’t think that she can make it and she gets to read your story in Spanish. It will make a difference for her.” And that’s what did it for me. A couple of months later, I had this manuscript.

Oh wow, so it took you two months to write your memoir? 

Because I’m so super busy, Ryan [book agent] found this incredible woman Charisse Jones, who I wasn’t able to work with in-person, but I just called her and had hours of conversations with her. And she just transcribed all of my thoughts and sent them back to me in pages and pages of what I had said to her. With Charisse’s help it was pretty effortless, but a little painful. I’ll tell you that the hardest chapter to write was the chapter on motherhood. When I narrated the audiobook, I actually sobbed in the booth. Then my editor started sobbing and she started pouring out her own experience with motherhood. Another editor that I spoke to [also] started pouring out her experience with infertility. And I was thinking, wow it was painful for me, but I think it’s going to be so helpful to other women because it’s interesting that we don’t talk about it as women.

In the foreword, you reveal that ABC News wanted to cut passages and then also address the comments an ABC exec made about you and other women in the industry. Why was it important for you to share and reveal that right off the bat? 

I think that there is this reckoning going on in our country. I think it’s a time for introspection and there are so many of us that can’t speak up for a variety of reasons. Let’s say in the business world, they don’t want to lose jobs. We have to feed our families. We don’t want to make waves and we already know that if we do agitate that we’re considered sort of like the troublesome one. So you kind of get along to go along and, you see from the book, I haven’t been that person and it’s probably made my journey a little harder. But I think it’s really important to speak truth. I was really saddened and hurt by the fact that I felt that I had really been retaliated against for doing that.

The other piece that I think is really important is that when you read about a wealth gap in our country and that it may never be closed between Black families and white families. I started thinking that someone like me who had a lot of obstacles yet still did what is supposed to be the right thing, went to school, got educated. I have two degrees. I work really hard. I’m usually the first person at work. I’m the last person to leave. I read all the books. I prepare. I fight for others, try to give voice to others. I still get paid less than my white counterpart who is sitting right next to me, [and] who is doing the same exact job… And I just thought that that is just not supposed to happen when you are supposedly doing everything that’s right. I thought it was really important to speak out about it and to speak out for those that are likely experiencing things and that can’t take the risk and hopefully can point to what happened to me as an example.

I think that companies around the country are now talking a lot about diversity and inclusion and equity, and they’re getting diversity and inclusion okay but when it comes to equity of opportunity and equity of salaries, they can’t seem to get that right. And that’s really, in many respects, the most important part. I think now is the time to have really uncomfortable conversations. If I didn’t put it down in writing when I was hurt and sad and not feeling very hopeful, I don’t think that I would have had the courage to do it later.  I think that in writing it that I’m taking a risk. I still think that it is risky.

Have you heard any reaction about the foreword at all? 

No. I will say I love my job. I love my company. After it was made public that these comments were made about me, I received support from the highest levels of ABC News and Disney. I received personal calls from the president of ABC News and also the president of Walt Disney Television. I’ve received repeated support from the executives at The View as well. And that’s been wonderful, but as a woman of color in the business of television, being as honest as I did in the foreword and in the book, I don’t think that people write about their current employers in a book. I feel that I am likely taking a risk but I think it’s important to do. We must be treated equally in the workplace and no one should experience the way that I felt on the weekend that I got the phone call from the reporter. I don’t think anyone should feel that way.

Throughout your book, you really explore identity, such as navigating the gray area of being biracial. Was that something complicated to try to convey or have you thought and spoken about it so much that it flowed out effortlessly?

No, it was extremely difficult. It’s extremely complicated and I thought about it for years: “How do I explain this?” Two days ago, I posted something and someone said, “Is Sunny Puerto Rican or is she Black?” and because I’ve been asked the questions so many times and kind of rebuffed from both communities and questioned by white people a lot, I’ve thought about it a lot. I was really challenged to finally come up with an explanation and I wanted to document it because I wanted biracial people to be able to have some sort of language for it and I also wanted to answer the questions. My parents got married a year after the Loving [v. Virginia] decision, so interracial marriages weren’t allowed the year before I was born. So, of course, no one looked like me. I was kind of the test case. So when I say that I’ve experienced this world in a much different way and people are like, “get out of here,” it really is true. Those are my truths because I was a unicorn. People really did call me a zebra because it was that unusual for someone to look like me. I call it living in the gray because you’re not Black, you’re not white. I really wanted to explore that because really the true American experiment is supposed to be people like us. It was a very challenging part of the book and that’s why the book and the title is about identity. I wanted to be able to answer those questions not only for biracial people, not only for people that only have one identity but also for white people.

We are in a time that’s being considered a diversity reckoning and so many voices are speaking up, but how much change and progress do you think has been made in the amplifying of diverse voices when comparing the times and experiences you detail in your book?

It’s funny [because] after I finished writing the book and I handed it in, I started thinking, “Is anyone even going to read it?” (Laughter.) I really did! And then all of this stuff started happening and I was like, “Oh my God, people are going to pay attention because now people will understand.” I really think it’s a movement, not a moment. It feels very different. I asked my dad, just the other day, “Do you think this is like just a fleeting thing?” And he said, ”No, it’s not. Everyone is talking about this and everyone is protesting this and it’s everywhere. It’s just not tolerated now. It’s happening over and over and over again, it’s sustained.”

He also always reminds me that this country, in terms of civil rights, is really young. Those of us who are part of the diverse community, we feel like it’s taken a really long time. I’m sure those of us that are non-diverse feel like, “Oh my God, this is all happening so quickly.” But I’m the first person in my family who has enjoyed full civil rights. My father didn’t have his civil rights when he was born. So I’m in my fifties and I just got civil rights. So this is a pretty young movement and I think it’s sort of a continuum in many ways.

It’s almost odd to call your book hyper-relevant because the experiences that you detail are very much being voiced about now, specifically your chapter on being on the front lines of covering the Trayvon Martin story. What, if any, differences do you see now in the media coverage of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and unfortunately many more names versus what you experienced at the time and what changes would you like to see that hasn’t been made? 

We’re covering these stories nationally now. When I brought it to CNN, it wasn’t really being covered on a national basis. Now with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, I mean the list goes on and on, you still see the demonization of Black men. What first comes out is sort of like a criminal record. It’s like, “He must’ve been reaching for a gun.” You never hear the record. You never hear that this police officer has been involved in many killings. You never hear about his use of force record. But what is generally released is anything related to the victim and, if it’s a Black male victim, you immediately hear that the victim is Black. You immediately see pictures not of the victim horseback riding or going to church or in his Sunday best. You see a grill or you see baggy pants or you see all this sort of demonization. I think it still continues because you don’t have enough Black reporters or reporters or color. You don’t have enough people of color editorially in supervisory positions. That has to change and that hasn’t changed quickly enough in terms of diversity and inclusion at higher levels. It’s changing slowly and I think this reckoning has certainly changed that. We’re seeing that across the spectrum, [but] not fast enough. I, along with my fellow Black correspondents, have been asking for it at ABC. That’s a change that if it is made, I think we’ll see a different type of coverage of these stories.

In your book you detail your journey being a federal prosecutor and a journalist. What experiences and lessons that you learned as a federal prosecutor has aided you as a journalist? 

The skillset translates really well because when you’re a prosecutor and you’re speaking to a jury, you have to tell a story and kind of piece together a timeline. You have to put them there at the scene of the crime. I think good journalism is very similar. It’s fact-based. You have to put the reader or viewer there and, for me, that transition was very, very easy. Legal journalism has that added layer of the law having to be right also. That has always been my sweet spot because I’m a good lawyer. So being in courtrooms and understanding the nuances on both sides, what defense attorneys do, what judge and what prosecutors do, and then judge’s rulings, evidentiary rulings, and being able to distill it and then explain it, I find is instrumental. The one thing that has kind of been almost distressing for me is that so few people, especially people of color, they just don’t know the law until they get caught up in it. They should almost teach it in high school, constitutional law, like what are your Miranda rights? People go into this world and they don’t even know what their rights are. Those are the kinds of things that for me are very fascinating that people don’t know that. I try to explain that and I think that’s when legal journalism is at its best.

If you could give any advice to those struggling to find their way in the industry, especially people of color, what would it be?

Nothing can replace doing your best. I believe that you have to be excellent. Nothing’s going to be handed to you, especially if you’re a person of color. It’s just not. My dad used to say, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far” and it used to just tick me off. I’d say “That’s not fair” and he would say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s not fair, it’s just true.” And unfortunately, I do believe that’s still true with people of color. I say if that’s the truth that you confront, confront it head-on. To truly be excellent, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You’re not going to be excellent if you don’t like your job. There are many people I think that go into a certain career because they’re gonna make a lot of money doing it or they think it’s an attractive type of career, but if you are doing something that lights you up and you’re excited about and you’re interested in, you will find excellence in yourself and you will work hard and you will be the first person at work and you will be the last person at work because you’re enjoying it. So when you find that excellence, I say no one can justify not treating you with equality and then you can demand what is your do.

While writing this book or even after, what was something that you learned about yourself while reflecting on all the milestones and memories?

I’m certainly more of a risk-taker than I thought I was. An acquaintance of mine told me that every single decision made about your career and about your life is made about you when you’re not in the room. You have to have someone in the room to advocate for you and the person in the room has to be not just a mentor or a sponsor, but more of a champion. The champion has to have the power, the capital, and that person has to decide to take the risk to spend it on you and has to have a seat at the table. If the person’s not in the room for you, doesn’t have power and won’t take the risk to spend it on you, you won’t make it. I realized in writing the book, I’m in a lot of rooms now and I have not a lot of capital, but I have some. I am willing to take more risks than I thought to just spend it on people of color [and] women so that they can have it a little better than I did because it didn’t have to be as hard for me. It didn’t have to take me this long to make as much money. It didn’t have to take me this long to figure some of these things out. I’ve learned that I’m more of a risk-taker than I thought I was and I wish I kind of would have known that earlier. I think that was a big lesson afterward.

I Am These Truths: A Memoir of Identity, Justice and Living Between Two Worlds is available now in English and Spanish.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Courtesy of Harper Collins

 

This article originally appeared on HollywoodReporter.com.