How the Media Fuels Modern Racial Prejudices
BY: JESSICA XU, Editor-in-Chief of Bitter Melon Magazine
Art by Kathleen Day (IG: @artist.kday)
I was taught to fear Black men. I have lived my entire life in New Orleans for eighteen years, and even as an adult, I cannot walk through predominantly Black neighborhoods in my city without feeling as if there is a threat to my safety. I have been made to connect African-American dominated, poverty-stricken areas to places of immense risk, with shotgun houses and abandoned convenience stores and graffitied walls as trademark warning signs. I have grown to prematurely judge a place and the people associated with it as a correlation to danger. And I am incredibly ashamed of myself for it. Yet, I am not the only one who has been taught to think in such a way. I have seen friends reroute cars on their way home to avoid driving through Black neighborhoods, parents who shield their children from young African American men walking down a street, and women who clutch their purses in supermarkets when a Black man walks by.
And African Americans are painfully aware of the perceptions we have imposed upon them. In an article published by NPR on Fear Of Black Men: How Society Sees Black Men And How They See Themselves, one African American man states how he whistles Frozen songs down the street to prove “Hey I have kids, I am not a threat to you. I just want to go home to my family.” Although I cannot understand experiences Black Americans face—and I know I never will—I had to identify that I was one of many who had perpetrated a fear of African Americans. And I needed to correct myself in order to stop such a damaging, persistent cycle. I’ve realized how horrible it is for a human being to feel the need justify their existence, to feel the need to remove a preconceived threat that comes with the color of their skin. But I wanted more than anything to educate myself about the root of the matter and how it has come to embed itself into the minds of so many, as I looked to media and mass culture for greater understanding.
All that we consume influences us. We constantly take in what is occurring around us, especially with the perpetual movement and influx of media. However, absorbing so much of what is portrayed of African American has distorted our image of African Americans, especially Black males. African Americans are heavily underrepresented in portrayals of wealth and intellect; in most commercials sponsoring luxury items or the pursuit of education, Black people are not as widely represented as their white counterparts. And from such mass production and viewership, we have taken what we see and hear as our own perception. The unforeseen, resulting reality we don’t acknowledge is that it becomes difficult to conjure up the image of a Black man as the thought of someone being educated and wealthy, perpetuating a cycle of racial prejudices and faulty imaging.
Besides underrepresentation in positive aspects, African Americans also experience overrepresentation in negative aspects. The most highly represented connotation for African Americans in mass media is their connection to criminality. Especially in the news today, Black men are often portrayed as criminals and shown in threatening and aggressive manners. From a sample of local Chicago TV news from ’93-’94, stories regarding African Americans were four times more likely to be associated with mug shots than the white population. And even in the entertainment industry, Black bodies are continuously used as threatening figures and victims. The continuous reinforcement of the media’s depiction of Black people has morphed the populations’ understanding regarding race and conflict. News stories on poverty and African Americans are also linked, as depictions of low-income Black males are more likely to live in slums, rather than rural areas. However, most strikingly, African American males associated with poverty are not the face of true poverty in America, yet poverty is part of the face of the Black male. Constant repetition of the problems associated with Black males can obscure more positive aspects of their reality and can reinforce prejudicial stereotypes as well.
With the understanding that the media tends to gravitate towards a certain image in representing Black people, in what ways can we learn to become more educated? More awareness of our tendencies to judge with inaccuracies? With most reports and dispatches, we must remind ourselves that information outlets tend to disregard the contexts of situations. African Americans are often affected by unreported circumstances, including economic disadvantage, disconnect from social networks that create opportunities for success, and the continuum of the anti-Black male image. For the media to not report on such backgrounds is for them to deny the true realities Black males face.
However, we must not fall into the trappings of mass media. To do so would be to dismiss our own ignorant shortcomings.To do so would be to continuously diminish the value of a whole human race. To do so would be to perpetuate a movement of racial stereotyping that has plagued this country since its very beginnings.
We have seen the reality of coming together. The possibility itself is a reason for hope, for change despite racial perceptions. In protests today, people from all different races and backgrounds march together on the streets in the fight to achieve justice and equality for humanity. Despite upbringing and culture, skin color and status, we have taken the pain by the Black community and given it the voice it demands, lending ourselves to the mourning that calls for reform. Our differences have diminished in the unification for such a taxing yet necessary goal. So let us remember this time of coming together. Because when we hear protestors shouting for justice, carrying signs with the faces of those unreasonably murdered, we are standing up for one another without racial biases or stereotyping, we are standing up for one another as human beings.