Race and the Media: Are We Looking at the Same Person?

I grew up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood about an hour southwest of Chicago. Despite that, my parents knew well enough to raise me color blind. While I see a vivid spectrum of colors in the world around me, something I very rarely see is race. I was never taught to differentiate between white and black and African American (which are different to some people) and Hispanic and Asian and anybody else you can imagine because it just wasn’t important. It was a “God makes people in all different shapes and sizes (and colors)” kind of household and it made me more aware of the egregious injustices that can plague minority races in this country. Because the media is run predominantly by a single demographic, that being an older white male, it has a terribly habit of distorting representation of people belonging to ethnic and racial minorities in a way that they become almost unrecognizable.

Like I said, I am color blind when it comes to people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see patently offensive and what I consider to be highly unethical choices made by the people disseminating news and entertainment. While the news is supposed to contain an unbiased representation of the facts, people often play subconsciously into stereotypical traps, or worse, theatrics. Take, for example, a mug shot shown in the paper or on television. Those pictures are not the most flattering or human images of people, and, in fact, they tend to make us believe a person is guilty. This is especially true of a white audience looking at a black man’s mug shot. “Pictures of black men that flash on the screen leave an indelible image that anyone, with the exception of somebody white, is guilty,” and this is a huge problem (Smith). The stereotype created here makes black men out to be violent criminals while white men tend to be misguided, from a bad home or mentally disabled. The fact of the matter is that any man (or woman) can be violent and any man (or woman) can have life factors that predispose them to committing crime.

In the entertainment media world, the divide only gets worse. For black men, “[t]he typical roles are all too often the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies’ man, the absentee father or, most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug” (Smith). Even though we don’t think it will, these images affect our perceptions of people in our everyday lives. They cause us to cross the street at night when we see somebody coming, even if we don’t know why. They cause us to create criminals and ignorant people where they do not exist. Black people are not the only ones plagued by this kind of stereotyping; everybody from Asians and Hispanics to blondes and big-boned women suffers from this kind of snap judgment. The issue here is that the media is in many ways reinforcing the stereotype. People don’t necessarily want to see a black protagonist, at least not unless he is fighting the odds to stay off the streets. We have been sadly conditioned not to know how to respond to such a story otherwise.

The media is a powerful tool. It can set agendas, start trends and send ripples through society. When used properly, the media is equipped to make a change in our color-obsessed society. It can show you that a person is a person no matter what you may see or hear when you interact with them. Darron T. Smith puts it best in a Huffington Post article when he says, “[u]nfortunately, images and words wound and are difficult to erase from the mind.”  Once people are exposed to these damaging images, it is nearly impossible to remove them. I say nearly because it can be done. An intelligent, tolerant person can fight through the media distortion to realize that the stereotypes perpetuated in the media are nothing if not horribly inaccurate.

There is still hope that people can live wonderful color blind lives together. It doesn’t take much effort if you are already there, but if you aren’t, I assure you the task is worth the effort. Life becomes much easier when we don’t hate or form snap judgments. I personally know people who just don’t fit into any stereotyped roles. I see them and wonder what a producer would do if they met them. How would they handle an encounter with such a unique, human person? While the media hasn’t caught on to this just yet, I hope that we may see a full spectrum of people of all races fitting all personality types that truly apply to people. I hope that we can see characters not for their color, but for their humanity.


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