Calling All White People, Part 36
(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)
By An Average White Guy
TODAY’S EPISODE: The media help prop up white supremacy and racist systems, and it’s not just Fox News
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]
We—and by “we” I mean we who are white more so than others—tend to put a lot of trust in the prevailing systems and structures of society in the United States. A lot of trust. Even when we say or act like we don’t. But rarely do we look critically enough at those systems and structures and the people and institutions that comprise them. Because of that we perpetuate, though both action and inaction, racism (as well as sexism, rape culture, Islamophobia and a host of other nasty things).
Media is one of those things we trust and which is a big part of the problem.
Oh, I know a lot of people say they distrust the media or look at it with a critical eye, but that’s not necessarily as true as we think. After all, we say we don’t trust politicians but many of us continue to trust that “the system” will work out and rebalance itself to remove Donald Trump specifically or reverse the darkly uber-conservative turn it’s take in recent years. Many of us still vote, and often without all that much research into candidates or issues. So too do we look to the media to tell us what’s going on, and that’s fine—just as voting is important—but we don’t look often enough or deep enough at what’s wrong in the media and, for example, how is perpetuates and props up racism—how the mainstream media is very much complicit in upholding white supremacy.
And when I say “media” in this piece, I’m mostly talking about news and analysis and not entertainment, though certainly other aspect of media like that are also complicit (look at the overwhelming focus still on white protagonists or “white saviors” in ostensibly Black-themed movies or the way non-white actors in films and shows have so many fewer prominent roles yet filmmakers will put white people in roles intended to be Asian or Indigenous).
But no, I want to focus on the news media and journalism.
Journalism touts itself on aiming for objectivity, but biases often creep in and the wording of articles and broadcasts can shift the way people see reality. The framing of situations and people can skew how people feel. The choices of who to interview or allow to comment very much influence the narrative and what people hear (or don’t) and what they believe (or don’t). And I say none of this as some person casually spouting off about something I only vaguely understand. The media business (journalism in particular) has been responsible for paying most of my bills over the years.
Look, it’s easy to point a finger at Fox News and waggle said finger judgmentally in the news network’s metaphorical face. You can say that they peddle twisted truths and outright lies. Or that they pour poison into the ears of gullible bigots and people uncomfortable with demographic shifts. Even that they are the propaganda wing of the Republican far right wing (which is increasingly the Republican mainstream). And so on and so forth.
And you’d be right. Fox News is terrible and naked in its willingness to stoke racial fears and fan the fires of bigotry, among many other awful things.
But look at the others, too. CNN recently had overt white supremacist Richard Spencer on to address whether Trump’s recent tweets attacking ‘The Squad” were racist—and CNN also had a group of white women on to defend Trump as not being racist when he obviously is and always has been demonstrably so. And lest you leap to the defense of NPR as a notable bastion of balance and perhaps liberalism, I’ve noted a steady increase in their willingness not only to give voice to the far right but not to challenge them when they blatantly deflect issues or spread lies and—more than that—an NPR executive recently indicated that we shouldn’t call the president’s tweets “racist” because that’s a label and a judgment. It’s part of the whole debate these days over the media’s insistence on using phrases like “racially charged” or something rather than “racist.” At a certain point, though, you call something what it obviously is. If it’s raining outside, your weather guy will say it’s raining, not that the air is noticeably wettened.
I mean, really? If the president had tweeted that a group of white female politicians should stop worrying their little heads about politics and get back in the kitchen would we have a problem defining that as sexism? I think not.
BGIM has had her own encounters with media framing with regard to racist incidents, just this month again in fact with a story that appeared in the Portland Press Herald. Initial handling of the article wasn’t done well, and she was subtly cast as a possible instigator in a racial incident or as someone “claiming” an incident rather than as the very clear victim, as well as having her safety and well-being compromised by the way the story focused on her and not so much on the perpetrator.
The fact is that even if we don’t regularly watch the news or don’t read the newspaper, we get a lot of our information from media—and media that is, for the most part, fairly reliable and honest. We get it from friends, from our Twitter feeds, from overhearing people talking or playing the radio. Whatever. But media forms a major foundation for how we find out what’s going on and what to think about it.
That foundation is also part of what holds up the house of white supremacy.
When one gives platforms to extremists on the racist and xenophobic side of things, whether inviting them as guests or doing puff pieces on their lives (like the New York Times profiling Nazis to give us a glimpse of their human side) or giving them actual jobs as commentators, one gives them legitimacy and power. That amplifies their voices and grants them a kind of authority, and in a world where we have problems calling racist people and things racist even when they obviously are, that’s a problem.
Because that’s how you normalize racism and white supremacy. To be fair, white supremacy has always been the baseline in the United States. But media helps prop that up and reinforce it by favoring the white voices more often and by often putting people of color in a worse light. Photos will often make white people looks better and more wholesome and Black people look sketchy or thuggish. Headlines written and quotes picked for stories will often cast people of color as troublemakers.
Most of this is done without intention to do harm. It’s not as if the entire media apparatus consciously sets out to reinforce an already white supremacist system. But like with so many things in this country, we white people don’t look at it critically enough—certainly not the way Black and Indigenous and other people of color are forced to as the system repeatedly puts them through the kinds of obstacles that white people don’t generally encounter. That is when intention ceases to matter and we need to look at the impact of what is being done so that we can stop doing it.
So, we need to stop blindly trusting or only vaguely questioning the systems in place, and that includes media. We need to hold all of these systems accountable and call them out when they fail. More to the point: Demand that they do better. The more we do, the more likely we can break up the stranglehold of white supremacy and maybe—just maybe—start building a society where people really are mostly just treated as people, regardless of the color of their skin.
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