Race in the media: The wrong kind of lens

Culture, Pop culture — By Adebe D.A. on December 16, 2009 at 07:40

Originally posted on Stopbigmedia.com

What do Disney’s debut film, The Princess and the Frog, Mattel’s new Black Barbie line, and the American tour of the historic Ethiopian fossil, “Lucy,” have in common? Their stories present an opportunity for honest and successful discussions about race in the media. But what they really do is point to the media’s failure to engage in these discussions in a way that fairly, accurately or thoughtfully addresses the subject of race.

One of the great conundrums in the media is the prevailing standard of whiteness as the default norm for beauty, intelligence and success. Studies have shown that photos of lighter-skinned folks elicit more media hits, further contributing to this racialized ideology. The National Academy of the Sciences, for example, found in a survey of voters in the 2008 presidential election that most preferred a lighter-skinned over a darker-skinned image of Barack Obama.

The research is not particularly groundbreaking. Renowned psychologist Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, explored the issue in the black doll tests of the 1940s. When black children were shown four dolls, identical except for skin color, the lighter ones were consistently picked as favorites.

Various researchers who write on issues of racial justice have long acknowledged that Western society’s association of light skin color as a marker of success is deep-seated and, unless specifically targeted by campaigns to address the issue, here to stay.

Media-driven moments that some claim were designed to perpetuate negative images of blackness include the menacingly digitized darkening of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time magazine during his trial in the 1990s.

But Time’s treatment of Simpson is just one example of the media choosing to misrepresent people of color, including women, diverse religious leaders and immigrants. Media misrepresentation has a profound impact on people of color, and on the nation as a whole.

The media have failed to discuss instances of racial oppression honestly. We need media that help us combat stereotypes, and foster genuine discussions on race, to explore race in all its complexity. But our current media system doesn’t allow for this. Just a handful of corporations own nearly everything we read, watch and listen to, which means diverse viewpoints – and viewpoints that could counteract racial stereotypes – are squeezed out of the media. Additionally, a drastically small percentage of broadcast and radio stations are owned by people of color and women, further limiting media diversity.

Despite an entrenched media system, campaigns to rid the media of racist figures, such as BastaDobbs!, have been successful. Not long after the campaign – protesting CNN anchor Lou Dobbs for his comments on how blacks are criminals, immigrants a burden to the economy, and other shameful, racist remarks – went national, Dobbs “quit” CNN. But being able to locate where racism breeds in media is not always as apparent. Sometimes, the sources aren’t as obvious, and hate speech isn’t something you’ll read in headlines or hear on live broadcasts. Racist media outlets often function by proposing that we live in a “post-racial” society, that race is “in reality” a mere social construction.

However, as renowned cultural theorist Stuart Hall notes, reality is something that’s always channeled through symbolic categories made available by social mechanisms, of which the media is the most powerful. In keeping with Hall’s ideas, the view that ethnocentrism is somehow universal or a given, and not the product of particular decisions to direct hate or to exclude, neglect, or exploit, contributes to the problem. To paraphrase the equally prolific theorist Louis Althusser, ideology largely functions by making us believe that we are outside ideology. Just because a certain set of readers may not believe in, support or understand the history and effects of white privilege doesn’t mean their responses aren’t racialized. This is because media are all about framing: Media frame what is normal, which is how particular cultural values get produced and reinforced. The media disseminate subtle and subliminal messages about race in ways that are designed to evade the average reader/consumer. Without being prompted to read images, for example, we think that racism is always about instances of clear-cut hate. Not so.

Racism is systemic, institutional, and in the media, often a case of what you don’t see.

For example, racially tinged advertising decisions that erase the faces of people of color are not marketing mistakes. They are reminders that our nation’s commitment to diversity is still not a selling point. Race sells, but in most cases, representation is done cheaply and on the assumption that readers and listeners are consumers first, thinkers second.

Those of us working as writers, researchers and activists need to generate new tools for addressing racial frames in media, which in turn means that we need to locate our ethical responsibilities as journalists in the process of viewing, analyzing and evaluating our own work, as well as the work of others. The only dynamic discussions generated in media are those that consider disparities and alternatives, exploring the very frames that limit the issues at hand.

We need creative thinkers able to reveal the injustices at work in the corporate control of our daily news and information to head the movement for media reform. We also need advocates for a media system that allows communities of color to “see” themselves equitably reflected in the media for once, and to have their concerns taken into account. Finally, we need to support a generation of critical writers both to use the media as a means of disseminating messages about justice, as well as to analyze how the media is the message (to cite media prophet Marshall McLuhan).

It’s not about changing the channel or turning off the tube; it’s about channeling new ideas about diversity in ownership, programming and coverage. And this change starts with you.

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Author: Adebe D.A. (11 Articles)

Adebe D.A.

Race-Talk Cultural Editor Adebe D.A. is a Toronto-born writer and former research intern at the Applied Research Center, home of ColorLines magazine. A recent MA graduate in English/Cultural Studies, she writes on issues related to race, social justice, migration, and the phenomena of culture. She currently holds the honour of Toronto’s Junior Poet Laureate and is the author of a chapbook entitled Sea Change (Burning Effigy Press, 2007). Her debut full-length poetry collection, Ex Nihilo, will be published by Frontenac House in early 2010.  Visit her blog at http://www.adebe.wordpress.com.

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