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.
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.
Race-Talk Cultural Editor
Adebe D.A. is a Toronto-born writer currently living in New York as a
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
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