Calling All White People, Part 36: Media is complicit in white supremacy

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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Calling All White People, Part 35: Why exactly are you sharing that video or picture?

Calling All White People, Part 35

(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: We need to examine why we share pictures of dead or abused Black and brown people  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I rarely watch the videos that make the rounds of the internet, in which a Black or brown person is verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, threatened with weapons or outright shot to death. There are times I cannot avoid the images because there is no warning. There are times I merely glance at a few seconds willingly because I feel I need some context to understand the written story about the incident. There are times I might watch the video with the sound off.

But mostly, I don’t watch them at all.

And this isn’t a situation of me burying my head in the sand. Back in the days of the Trayvon Martin killing and the senseless murder of Tamir Rice I would watch the videos because I felt it was a duty to do so. To force myself to see just how bad people could be, especially law enforcement officers dealing with Black people who posed no threat but were treated like the vilest of evildoers. I watched the Tamir Rice video just to understand how aggressive the police were, how unwarranted their response was and just how impossibly little time they gave Tamir to even respond to them (a literal second or two) before they opened fire. I’ve seen videos of Black kids being pinned to the ground violently when they weren’t resisting and had done nothing wrong but have the police called on them for existing. And more.

There was a time going back to that watershed moment of Trayvon’s death when many white people like me had to see the brutality to understand it fully. To really realize that the police were even less fair and equitable to Black and brown people compared to white people than we had ever imagined. To understand how senseless an act of violence could be and how obviously wrong it could be—and yet still see police and average citizens alike (but especially police) found not guilty by juries.

But how much do you need to see? And how much do you need to share? And why?

Very recently, a photo appeared in news stories and got spread around the internet of a Latinx father and his very young daughter face down in the Rio Grande, drowned. And it was a stark image. And one that many of us were confronted with on absolutely no warning and not having gone looking for it.

And part of me gets it—both the taking of the photo and the sharing of it. Photographers often capture images because they are stark or even shocking. Because they seem to encapsulate a multitude of issues and concerns in one single scene that cannot be conveyed the same way in words. I’m not going to fault the photographers nor even cast dispersions on the media outlets who run these photos from AP and other sources (as long as they are providing some warnings). We’d probably be raking them over the coals if we found out they were refusing to show the horrors of Trump’s treatment of immigrants at the southern border (or police brutality or whatever).

But the part of me that gets it also gets something else: White people have been sharing and spreading images of horrors for ages now, even before the internet. Postcards of lynchings being one of the more infamous examples. Moreover, taking it to the current time, we’ve been sharing horrific images of Black people being killed or nearly killed by police for quite a number of years now and not only has nothing changed, but it’s gotten worse in many ways. Now we have more police with body cameras and we see even more images but we still almost never bring those police to justice when they do wrong. Now it almost seems like many law enforcement people are happy to have so many images out there, as if to say, “See? We can still get away with it. You’re screwed now and forever.”

Whether it’s a Black child being shot to death for playing in a park or a dead immigrant father and child in a river who represent victims of very obvious American government abuse (we have concentrations camps for children, people…what more do you need to know?), what are we doing when we spread the images far and wide?

I fear that we don’t do much at all.

We desensitize ourselves in many cases. We sometimes demoralize folks by showing how little changes and will perhaps never change. We embolden the people who like to see such images and praise the violence.

I’m not saying we should ban the images. There needs to be a record of abuse and there needs to be a way for people who don’t understand the scope of abuse and racist policies to see it up close and personal, as it were.

But the thing is, with our internet-connected world, we can find these images on our own. That’s the power of Google. I don’t think we need them shoved in our faces anymore. I don’t think we need Twitter or Facebook posts that blast a video or photo right at us without giving a chance to look away. No warnings in many cases: Just the raw horror dumped in our laps.

And the thing is, I’m not saying this to protect white people. I’m not saying “Please stop making us white people see this.” Because the thing is I don’t see nearly as many white people in my circles complaining about this as I do people of color, particularly Black and brown people. They live these horrors daily in many cases, because they know they have targets on their backs societally speaking in the United States and many, many other parts of the white world.

I’ve seen more white people rush to the defense of “We have to see these images to move people and to understand the horror” than Black people. I’ve seen more Black people say “Please stop showing me this” than I have white people.

That said, I will admit that I’ve seen Black and brown people insist that we have to see the horrors. It’s not like Black people or other people of color are monolithic groups with a single opinion.

So what is the answer?

Well, I’d say (as I did before) that the answer isn’t to delete all these images or to never record them to begin with. And the answer isn’t to never share them.

But I would say ask yourself why you are sharing them. Is it because it makes you feel like you are doing something (when you probably should be doing something more direct)? Is it because it’s become a form of torture porn? Is it because you want to change the minds of wishy-washy moderates who don’t want to rock the boat (you probably won’t) or Trump supporters (with those people, they probably smile when seeing those images) who you think can be turned?

Bottom line: We need to stop being so aggressive with forcing people to see these images. Try some trigger warning or content warning messages if you must share. Try providing links (with warnings) instead of automatically embedding a video or photo in your post.

What we need to do is look less (being bystanders and hand-wringers) and do more (by tearing down white supremacy and white nationalism). Images have motivated people and have turned the tide of public opinion in the past, but we aren’t in the same world as, say, the 1960s/1970s and the Vietnam War, when there were only a relative handful of media outlets and no internet. We are in a time of a fascism-fueled White House committing overt acts of evil and lying daily without shame—so much that every new sin is forgotten the next day by a new sin and so on and so on and so on…

The fact is, most of us who don’t want the world to be this way and to treat Black and brown people as less than human already know the score. It’s just that many/most of us are afraid to confront the problem directly or put ourselves on the line. There’s nothing subversive, bold or game-changing about sharing images of what increasingly amounts to trauma porn. The images have a place and a role, but they aren’t the answer to social change.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Calling All White People, Part 34: Racism isn’t a wrap yet

Calling All White People, Part 34

(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: Calling for the after-party before you’ve even wrapped up filming  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

So, let’s get straight to the point: actor and activist of various causes Alyssa Milano said some stupid stuff on Twitter recently. And then in the process of what very briefly looked like a breakthrough learning moment dug herself a deeper hole. To be precise, this is what it looked like:

And of course there was much retweeting and commenting and dragging across the Internet, much of it sadly well-deserved, but you can find that on your own.

Let me be clear: I’m not anti-Milano. She’s problematic in many ways when it comes to social causes and activism, to be sure. She made a splash putting the “Me Too” movement in the spotlight starting a couple year ago, but got criticism for seeming to take credit for starting it and not giving recognition to the woman who did, Tarana Burke. Also, in response to the recent abortion-ban laws being passed in more and more states, she called for a sex strike by women to spur men to repeal these laws, which has met with criticism on many levels. That said, I’m glad to see any person, celebrity or not, embrace notions of justice, decency, equality and more. And she isn’t the first person (nor will she be the last) to have a lot of exuberance but too little actual knowledge of an issue and too little critical thinking regarding actual solutions to pressing societal problems.

In other words, I’m not here to crow about how Milano screwed it all up again. But, to be honest, she is…well…she is pretty much progressive white people in a nutshell. She’s a symbol of our failure.

No, not all progressive white people are clueless and/or unwilling to actually give up any of the privilege/power they enjoy just by being white. But I think it’s safe to say that the majority of white people who express outrage over things like KKK rallies in modern times or police killing unarmed Black people for no good reason or wondering how Trump got elected are pretty clueless.

I mean, really, look at how many of us in liberal/progressive circles say things like “I don’t recognize my country anymore” or “this isn’t America” or “I thought we were past this.” Social media is filled with this kind of thing and any of us white people who know better need to do more correcting of our fellow white people who apparently don’t. Because this country—much of this world, in fact—is built on foundations of white colonialism/conquest/oppression. The very brick and mortar of Western society is largely made up of the blood and bones of people of color. And despite lofty ideals in constitutions and elsewhere, place like the United States really don’t extend justice and equality and opportunity equally to non-white people.

But Milano literally did the “greatest hits” of white cluelessness in her tweets—she played the hell out of the role of being all of us white people who have failed at being truly progressive on racial matters. She started with “I don’t recognize my country anymore.” Then she was made aware of the fact the country has always been this way, acknowledged her privilege and how she was sheltered from seeing how racist the country has always been—and then dropped the ball just as she was headed in the general direction of revelation. She brought out the “colorblind” thing, even if she didn’t actually say, “I don’t see color.” Because she talked about the diverse and inclusive sets she’s worked on. I’m not saying there weren’t people of color on the sets she worked on. I’m not saying she didn’t have any good relationships with people of color. But what show has she been on that shows anything but whiteness, whiteness, whiteness? Is Who’s the Boss? a beacon of diversity? How?

But then the finale: She expressed hope that we had gotten past racism and suggested the election of a Black president somehow signaled this achievement.

And again, I’m not slamming Milano herself. We are her; she is us.

We white people who often say we want a society free of racism talk a lot about not being able to believe how much racism still exists or not being able to understand how racism could become so mainstream again. We like to talk about the people of color in our workplaces or our families or our “Black friend” to “explain” how we are enlightened and/or unable to notice racism all around us. We ignore all the relatives we share holidays with who share Fox News propaganda. We dutifully gloss over the fact that our first Black president received constant accusations and abuse in the public sphere because of his race and that racial violence rose in response to him becoming president. We express shock that the KKK is marching openly even though we have literal Nazis and Nazi sympathizers on television arguing their points and being treated like just another “alternate view.”

Look, to continue on the theme of Alyssa Milano and celebrity-activist ignorance I can say the problem here is that white Americans, even the most well-meaning ones, are quick to yell “cut” when they don’t even have a fully workable scene. They are quick to wrap up production and send everyone home without actually having finished filming. America and so many other nations are, racially speaking, poorly produced and badly edited shows. We white people get one strong scene that speaks to the horrors of racism or the dignity of people of color and then start planning the after-party.

Racism went nowhere. There has been no solution. Our biggest progress has been to not openly enslave Black people anymore but instead to let most of them appear to be free while doing everything possible to hold them back and to covertly enslave “only” a large fraction of their population through law enforcement tactics and racially skewed incarceration. As far as progress goes, that isn’t very impressive.

If the progress we think is going to end racism is a Black president and a few more other non-white politicians or another wealthy person or color or two—and we’re going to sigh gratefully and say “It’s over now”—then we will never make a dent in racism, especially not for the Black and Indigenous People who have been victimized non-stop since the earliest days of this nation and before it even was a nation.

The fact is, despite her tweet saying otherwise, Milano did “miss racism.” It went completely past her in any substantive way. And likely still is. But she’s not alone. Let’s all start paying attention while we maybe—MAYBE—still have time to create something better. And let’s get moving; we’re already way behind schedule on this production.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.