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As opposed to blatantly racist laws and practices of the last century, today’s racism is rather subtle and feeds on seemingly innocuous jokes and stereotypes. Apart from making sweeping generalizations about people of color, another problematic approach is so-called color blindness and refusal to recognize the struggles of the colored communities. This paper will examine the issue of racism in media from the standpoint of Conley’s “You May Ask Yourself” guide to sociology and two recent articles.
You May Ask Yourself: The Role of Media
These days, media and culture are not only interrelated but practically inseparable concepts: media represents what is relevant in today’s culture, and at the same time, discourse shapes reality. Conley opens his argument with the statement that we leave in a media-saturated environment (73). The author argues that culture is relative, and theoretically, there are no superior and inferior cultures (75).
However, the history of humankind saw many examples when one culture operated on an ethnocentric ideology and asserted its dominance over others. In relation to this essay’s topic, White European settlers murdered Native Americans en masse and imported West African slaves. They justified violence by perpetuating beliefs about the non-human nature of people of color. The legacy of the past persists: many racial stereotypes, no matter how subtle, are deemed normal despite being socially engineered.
Reflection theory explains that many people are involuntary messengers of the hegemonic culture. They never chose to have such convictions, but they could not help but internalize them during socialization. Thus, when people uphold racism through media, they do so within the existing system of social values. It is not to say that they are not at fault; however, they are somewhat blindsided by what has been translated to them for years on.
Conley ends the chapter on an optimistic note: in recent years, there have been many media campaigns promoting racial, ethnic, and gender equality (91). Thus, while media can fuel racism, it can as well relieve some tension and help the right cause.
Media and Racism: Negative Impact
While I generally agree with the perspective given by Conley, I am convinced that there is a need to be more specific when it comes to racism in the media. One of the root causes of under- and misrepresentation of people of color in news, movies, and TV programs is the lack of diversity among the producers. There is a lot of controversy surrounding affirmative action and so-called quotas. While one’s race does not qualify him or her for a particular job, in some cases, it is critical that a person of color shares his or her opinion and impacts media creation.
Sometimes even when the media aims at shedding light on the pressing issues of communities of color, it still harms them directly or indirectly. For instance, Sonnett et al. describe how White-owned media distorted news about Hurricane Katrina (328). That natural disaster targeted a black-majority city, New Orleans, and the lion share of evacuees was people of color. Sonnett et al. argue that out of all the journalists working during the hurricane, only 3.7% were of African-American descent. White journalists shared images of struggling Black families to raise awareness but at the same time, used racially insensitive language.
For example, a young Black man was “looting,” but a White family was “looking for food” – a more neutral expression (Sonnett et al. 331). Some journalists reported violence that followed the disaster, which was instantly associated with Black people. The reports proved to be ungrounded but still hurt the Black communities’ reputation. It appears that we’re people of color working on the case, they would be more sympathetic toward the victims and uphold a more flattering image for them.
Media and Racism: Positive Impact
Conley made a solid point describing how media could benefit minorities when used right. For instance, in their article, Loewstedt and Mboti show how the wide utilizing of phone cameras helps to combat police brutality (125). In the United States, the police target minorities disproportionately, often using force when a situation does not call for it. Digital electronics allowed people of color to record their interactions with the authorities to expose the issue.
After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was created, which then led to the creation of a social movement against racial profiling and injustice. Black Lives Matter followers rely heavily on media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in spreading awareness and conveying their message. Thus, a possible solution could be encouraging or at least not interfering with people of color taking control of the narrative and doing so through the means of their choice.
Racism is discrimination and violation of human rights on the grounds of an individual’s racial background. It is a pervasive phenomenon that plagues modern society still and finds reflection in various media. Using Conley’s theoretical framework, it is possible to explain racism as a spawn of the oppressive hegemonic culture built around ethnocentrism. Reflection theory shows how people internalize racist beliefs and later express them through media. Though the current culture distorts the media images of people of color, new, independent media content can positively influence society.
Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself. W. W. Norton, 2017.
Loewstedt, Anthony, and Nyasha Mboti. “Media Racism: Beyond Modernity and Postmodernity.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 13, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 111-130.
Sonnett, John, et al. “Priming Implicit Racism in Television News: Visual and Verbal Limitations on Diversity.” Sociological Forum, vol. 30, no. 2, 2015, pp. 328-347.