With the current Black Lives Matter movement garnering increasing international attention, the portrayal of Black people in the media has become more relevant than ever.
Dr. Myra Washington, UNM Communications and Journalism professor, said anti-Blackness in the media is one of the many products of systemic racism, which she described as institutions — such as families or educational establishments — that hold all racial power. Washington said one-dimensional depictions of people of color often originate from lack of resources, which is a byproduct of how anti-Black institutions operate.
“If an Indigenous student wants to go into screenwriting, and he doesn’t have any Indigenous classmates or Indigenous professors, then he won’t write about his family because others in his space wouldn’t understand,” Washington said. “So he’ll end up writing about the same things as everyone else and well-rounded representation won’t happen.”
Dr. J.E. Jamal Martín, Africana Studies professor, said both systemic and structural racism reinforce racial inequality. Media remains both a product and source of these negative behaviors.
“The contemporary media uses the cultural representations gleaned from a long history of expertise of those responsible (i.e., white supremacists) for engaging in the dehumanizing, devaluing, destroying, denigrating, desensitizing and denial about the diversity, sanctity and existence of African descent people,” Martín said.
Washington said news structures are intrinsically anti-Black institutions for this same reason; regardless of the moral intentions of individuals working for more liberal outlets, systemic racism is rooted in institutional practices.
“Even CNN is there to make money, so it will go with news that is flashy and click-able and will get people talking,” Washington said. “Even though CNN might try to do better and be more ethical and responsible, it is still making money the same way as Fox News. When you operate that way, you’re not concerned with the stories behind the sources.”
Washington said the news can never be fully objective, because it is the result of storytelling by diverse individuals. In addition, the prevalence of Internet “filter bubbles” is both a contributor to and a product of systemic racism in the media.
“These Internet algorithms are programmed by people who do not have POC experience,” Washington said. “You want the Black and Indigenous and mixed-race kids to be programming in addition to the East Coast kids since different experiences will then go into the code. This would fix the algorithm.”
Martín said Eurocentrism presents an even greater form of confirmation bias than filter bubbles, and the best way to escape said bias is to review the history of African and Black Americans in journalism from the 1820s through the 1860s, which he refers to as the “glory years of the African descent people.”
Washington said any visibility, though not nearly as impactful as experiential diversity, can be considered progress.
“No one ever says, ‘oh no, not another white woman stripping,’ because no one is worried about white women watching television and seeing themselves as only strippers,” Washington said. “Just like I can’t say ‘well, Black women shouldn’t be shown as twerkers,’ because now there is a value judgment that doesn't need to be made. The problem arises when Black people on TV are only twerkers.”
Because of the constant risk of one-dimensionality characters of color, Washington said that social media helps combat anti-Blackness by offering multiple facets to a Black person’s interests and overall personality.
“Social media gives people the opportunity to see a class neighbor doing his own thing and realizing they have shared interests,” Washington said. “Then, he can talk to his Black neighbor about their shared interests and see that there is more to Black people than their TV-ascribed stereotypes.”
Martín said social media can be either a positive or negative influence on anti-Blackness, depending on the situation.
Tokenism — a performative effort to include people of color without actually giving true representation — has also recently plagued several entertainment series.
“The rules of the entertainment game are written by people who never have to think about the experience of people of color,” Washington said.
Martín said it is crucial to distinguish tokenism with meaningful diversity, since the latter actively works to dismantle structural racism, whereas tokenism carries “the socialized notions of popular stereotypes, images, frames and narratives as created under pathologies of power related to whiteness as an ideology.”
According to Martín, increasing the physical “diversity as quotas” is a necessary first step to incorporate diversity in media.
He added, “Nevertheless, I would rather think about the rapid dissolution of liberty and press freedoms rather than diversity in entertainment.”
Washington said this movement is purely a product of work that activists, religious leaders and reporters have been furthering for years.
“This is a reflection of generations of people realizing America is and has been terrible,” Washington said. “This is being augmented now because of all the work people have been doing up until this point.”
Beatrice Nisoli is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BeatriceNisoli