As a white girl growing up in a small town, I learned plenty about racist American history during my childhood and understood its injustice at a young age. But I was never given the tools to look critically at or discuss the complicated ways that race affects current society. It wasn’t until college that I started building a language around race and racism that was more complex than my basic notion that “racism is wrong.”
Learning to talk about social issues like race, gender, class and sexuality is a process, one that media isn’t always helping us properly engage. As writer Susan Owusu puts it, “Media can powerfully shape ideas about people or groups.” It can perpetuate stereotypes, creating a social framework around issues like race that supports racism. Yet media also provides other spaces that teach us how to break these stereotypes, that educate individuals out of racist rhetoric that so many Americans have learned to justify.
Because it’s institutional, racism often feels abstract. This is why it’s so important to learn about it in a deeper way than just knowing its injustice. Learning to talk and learn about it through media literacy helps give context to racist images that people create and consume in media. Not only does it help us better interact with media, this awareness also slows the cycle of stereotyping we see in media. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few basic ideas around race that helps support an anti-racist media literacy.
Race is socially constructed. There is no genetic basis for race, and the false notion that there is has long been a tool used to oppress people of color in the U.S. People are still essentializing race in current media and not being called out on it. Here’s a great toolkit I found on talking about race, and one on talking to kids about race. Also, Jay Smooth talks about talking about race here.
Racism describes the way through which people of color are systematically oppressed in society. It is structural and affects all aspects of society, from government to schools to media. We see racism in the racial epithets about Jeremy Lin (see SNL clip below), Rick Santorum’s denial of racism, and even the comment section discussions on Beyonce and Jay-Z’s baby’s skin color and hair texture (click link and scroll down to comments).
White privilege upholds the socio-economic injustice we see in American society today. It’s the fact that whiteness is unfairly privileged in this country, and it’s shown in media daily from white notions of beauty in magazines to the overwhelmingly white Oscar nominees. This experiment is a powerful example, showing how children of color enact a white bias, choosing to play with white dolls over dolls of color. White privilege is permeating, teaching young children at an early age who don’t benefit from it to enact it. Peggy McIntosh writes an excellent piece on White Privilege and Tim Wise gives perspective on the construction of whiteness in this video. It’s a really important aspect of race and racism in society that gives light to social injustice.
Intersectionality: A few months back I wrote a piece called “Gender 101 for Media Literacy” where I explained that “deeply intertwined with stereotypes of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, gender stereotyping through media both reinforces and is enforced by gender discrimination.” This is how racial stereotyping in media works, too. All of these social institutions work together to marginalize individuals and they can’t and shouldn’t be seen as separate from one another. That’s just not how they work. When you look at experiences of race in America, you’ll also see that race is intertwined with sexuality, gender, class, among other aspects of social identity. This is where we get the term “intersectionality.”
What other points do you think are important to consider in discussing race and media?