This week, my students asked several questions that highlighted the conundrum of teaching diversity in media: (1) the fact that these discussions make everyone feel uncomfortable, (2) the no-win situation of attempting to be “diverse” when producing media, and (3) the seeming futility of trying to be post-racial.
I host a submission page for my class, “Race and Gender and the Media,” so that students can voice their thoughts or concerns without concern anonymously. The first submission was from a student who was from a traditionally disadvantaged background; s/he identified as a member of an ethnic minority, who grew up in a rough urban neighborhood, and was a scholarship student. This student described a frustration with the class as it consistently reminder her/him that they were disadvantaged. Reading this first thing in the morning was doubly heartbreaking for me, as I find myself in this psychological conundrum every day. Although learning this material and being able to talk about it is essential to overcoming these inequalities, but as a member of stigmatized groups, these statistics only highlight for me the complex and insurmountable task that I myself am undertaking. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “[We] must work twice as hard to be seen as half as good.” My mother had this plaque in the bathroom growing up and I read it every day; although I understood what it meant, I have only recently become aware of the context in which it puts me.
Studying these issues is painful to everyone involved. Unfortunately, in these classes, we tend to focus on the experiences of privileged students and assume that less-than-privileged students will be well versed in the content and excited to be able to share their experiences with their classmates in a safe space. I thought that this comment was an excellent description of how this subject matter can be difficult for individuals on either, or every, side of the issue.
In class, a student voiced the concern that being aware of categories of difference and attempting to present them fairly in media was a “no win situation;” her exact words were, “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” I agree with her completely. There are many occasions where people, attempting to do something right, end up doing something completely wrong, and efforts to target new segments of the community backfire as stereotypical or bigoted. In my opinion, the best, and only, strategy that one can have is to know why certain decisions were made and the intentions of the company, client, or brand. If you try and do something wrong, you should be prepared to describe your intentions, an awareness of the history that informed these intentions, and a willingness to accept and be accountable for mistakes. I ask my students to write an email to their immediate superior reflecting on the implications of a media artifact (e.g., film, TV series, commercial, music video, print ad) and why the artifact is problematic or beneficial. In the end, it may be a no-win situation, but the best preparation for such a thing is to not be caught off guard. I tell my students, I never want to hear you say, “It’s not about race” (or gender, or sexuality, or class, or any other category of difference). Rather, it is your responsibility as media producers to be aware of how your content may be interpreted if it was about race, or any other category of difference. In the end it is always about race, or gender, or sexuality, or class, because those things always exist, even if they are socially constructed, or we are trained not to see them.
Another student asked if we would ever reach a point where media was actually post-racial, and would there ever be a time where an actor could just be an actor, not a Black actor, or a White actor, or a disabled actor, or actress. Combined with another student’s recounting of a Starbucks commercial earlier in class that appeared diverse on its face as it tracked how a cup of coffee for “Sue” originated with Latino farmers, loaded onto trucks by Black workers, and served to a classy urban ethnically ambiguous, possibly White woman. The student he didn’t notice these trends until his second viewing; whereas he originally was excited about the diversity of the commercial, this excitement quickly gave way to concern and fear.
Although I do believe that a post-racial world is possible, it is important for all of us to move towards that goal every day. Furthermore, the stereotypes and associations that are pervasive throughout our culture are often beyond our awareness, but have a significant effect. I mentioned a paper in class where college-aged students, generations removed from the overt association between Black people and primates, were still more likely to associate Black people with apes, a phenomenon reinforced by news articles regarding crime suspects; Black men were more likely to be defined as animalistic as compared to White men, thus perpetuating an association subconsciously (Goff, et al., 2008). Much like the Starbucks commercial, When we ignore it, we are more likely to slip into the hegemonic norms of men as more credible and trustworthy, people of color and women as hired help and tokens, and the pervasive xenophobia that consistently situates Americans as the heroes and international actors as the villains.
As I was working on this post, I received another anonymous email from a student expressing perfectly the frustration of a hegemonically “normal” individual just coming to terms with the seemingly lose-lose social and emotional struggle. S/He described with amazing clarity the internal and external strife of being “a white cog in a diverse machine, conditioned to not throw any wrenches in the works or speak about any “uncomfortable” race issues.”
We’ve been raised to ignore our privileges, so suddenly getting involved to address them is like entering a juggling championship when the balls are still invisible and you never were taught how to juggle… For all the privileged people who are just seeing all the hidden stairwells they climbed over what they thought was regular, solid ground, how can we overcome what we’ve conditioned to not feel all our lives. How do we teach ourselves to juggle, even if we want to, when the balls have been invisible and mysterious all our lives? How do we care and engage when we’ve been raised to think there’s nothing to care and engage about?”
Yes, this problem is bigger than any individual, but the only way to overcome such a problem is to feel and acknowledge the emotional growing pains that come from a change in oneself and society at large, and to tackle the problem one small step at a time. Taking every opportunity to point out and correct subtle biases that, in a large cultural scale, can feel like saving a single cup from a landfill. With social and interactive media, the coverage of these issues is even more pervasive, but, at the same time, individuals can affect change from the palm of their hand (Police Brutality), or share stories of seemingly small moments with great impact (A Trip to the Grocery Store). We, as individuals, may not live to see a true post-racial society, but, like climate change, we can only try to improve the situation for the next generation who will hopefully continue the fight.
Which brings us back to the Shel Silverstein poem, “Melinda Mae” (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1974)
Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.
She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale
Because she said she would!