As a college professor who has taught about race, ethnicity, immigration and media for the past six years, and as a multiracial Black and Latina parent, I know the mass media is a powerful force affecting how people understand race and racial others. It often has racist stereotypes and shallow representations, which can influence our thinking and lead us to becoming desensitized to racism and perpetuating it ourselves.
Our society is confronted with a pandemic of systemic racism alongside COVID-19. During the peak of the shelter-in-place, we consumed more media than usual — a cycle we will likely see again as the virus ebbs and flows into the winter months. At this moment in history, there is a dire need to look critically at how racism and popular media like TV shows, movies and news operate together.
Like wearing masks to protect against spreading and contracting COVID-19, we must curb our exposure to racist content. As media consumers, we need to be vigilant in identifying, understanding and standing up against racist content in popular entertainment. We must also educate our young people to recognize for themselves how racism manifests in the content they watch if we want to see a healthy racial future for our society.
Learn the history: Many may question the significance and responsibility of the media in racial affairs. But there’s a long and deeply intertwined history of racism and media to contend with. Scientists examine past pandemics to understand how to treat and protect societies during contemporary outbreaks. Similarly, an important first step is to consider our country’s history of systemic racism so we know where we’ve been and how to make better decisions for our future.
The country’s founding upon the cornerstone of African enslavement systematically ingrained the idea that Black people were less than human into American society. As a result, images of Black people have been dehumanized and criminalized from the onset of public media. Advertisements of humans for sale or those designed to aid in the recapture of escaped enslaved Black people are early examples. Throughout the antebellum, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, the savage brute stereotype that likened Black men to violent beasts proliferated, as in the 1915 white-supremacist film, “The Birth of a Nation.” During this time and into the Civil Rights era, regular lynchings of Black people by whites created an atmosphere of racial terror. Postcards made from photos of lynchings were printed, mailed and kept as souvenirs. Significantly, research shows the direct linkages between such stereotypical and dehumanizing images and how unarmed Black men killed by police are continually criminalized today in news content, shaping audience perceptions of victims and perpetuating centuries-old ideas into the 21st century.
Beware of dehumanizing messages in children’s media: Much like microscopic virus particles that you can’t see in the air around you, racist content we consume can sometimes be hard to detect. But it’s important to remain watchful for the most pernicious indicator of racism, systematic dehumanization of Black people, even in children’s TV and movies.
Show young people what to look out for: Just as we make sure our kids wear masks and wash their hands to protect from COVID-19, we have to be proactive about teaching our kids about shielding themselves from racism. Discussing what these media choices, including who is being represented and whether there is diversity, reflect about our society’s ideas and challenges around race can shape the way our society faces issues of racial equity and justice in the future.
Conversations like these are important for all kids, but especially those who grow up to occupy positions with the most racial privilege and power in our society. Even when adults are constantly exposed to stereotypical and dehumanizing content, they begin to devalue their own self-worth and the worth of others. Most significantly, people can make decisions that negatively affect people outside their own racial group as they become teachers, politicians, police officers — and vigilantes.
Ultimately, an important strategy for stopping the spread of the racial pandemic into our future is closely examining media representations of race. It is a key component to raising anti-racist young people and keeping all of our eyes open to how historical and systemic patterns of racism operate in our daily lives.
Faustina M. DuCros is an associate professor of sociology at San José State University, the author of several articles on Black identities, migration, race and media representations, and is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.