This week we are going to rewind to May 2008 when Dewey picked one of my favorite Weekly Geeks themes: Political and Social Issues. Since we have many new members to the Weekly Geeks Event, I thought it might be fun to revisit this fantastic theme.This was also one of my favourite WG themes. Last time, I posted about mental health (more specifically, how negative emotional states are increasingly seen as pathological). This time, I decided to go with racism in the media.
Here is how to play:
1. Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. If you were a Weekly Geek last May and already did this theme, pick a different theme than the one you did at that time.
2. Educate readers about your topic by telling us a little about it and any involvement you've had in this issue.
3. Find books addressing your issue; they do not necessarily have to be books you’ve read. They can be non fiction, fiction, poetry, etc...Give a little synopsis of the book or a link to the description.
4. Use images which you feel illustrate your topic.
Blatant racial slander is not often found in the media these days, at least not in serious media outlets. But there are more subtle forms of racism that persist. One that bothers me in particular is the constant association between specific ethnicities and violent crime and unruliness. There are studies that show that the ethnicity of a minority member is explicitly identified much more often if the news is about a negative topic, like crime, than if it is about something positive, like an outstanding achievement.
I know there are actual laws against this kind of thing in some countries, but in mine you still often seen headlines like "Black young man accused of rape", "Eastern European gang arrested for robbery", "Police chases Brazilian criminal", and so on. This is a linguistic strategy known as "overcompleteness", and as I said, it happens much more frequently when negative topics are being discussed.
Even if the reporter's intention is not to be racist, what this does is creative an association between ethnic minorities or immigrants in general and crime. And even if - if - there is some statistical truth to this, it completely ignores social factors, police profiling, etc. What this kind of news reporting does is create distrust of minority members; is spread the idea that "they" are more violent, more dangerous, perhaps even less fully human than "we" are.
You might think that all of this goes without saying, but in my experience, it really doesn't. For example, I tend to think of myself as being aware of racism, yet I know that if I'm coming back home after dark and I see a member of an ethnic minority walking towards me, I'm more likely to be scared than if it's a member of the ethnic majority. It's an instant reaction, and maybe it only lasts a second until my brain catches on, but it's there. We're none of us immune to this. Association is one of the most basic human learning strategies, and the association between immigrants and crime is made relentlessly. Maybe being aware of it is a start.
Time for books:
Communicating Racism by Teun A. van Dijk is a reference work in this field. It's an academic book, and given that I have a background in both social psychology and linguistics, it's hard for me to say how acessible it is for those who don't. As most non-introductory academic books, it does assume that the reader has some previous knowlege, but I think it's far from impenetrable. It explains things carefully and throughly, using many examples from the Dutch and the British press. Van Dijk has a more recent book, Racism and the Press, which covers similar ground and is even more interesting. Unfortunately, it's out of print, and used copies are going for $235 on Amazon. But my library has a copy, and most university libraries at least should have one too.
Language, Society and Power edited by Jean Stilwell Peccei and Ishtla Singh: I needed a couple of chapters from this book for a course, and I ended up reading the whole thing because it was so interesting. This one is definitely accessible to a non-academic audience. It's not just about racism, but about how language can be used to create and maintain power dynamics. It also covers sexism, class prejudice, prejudice against the elderly, etc. It's just too bad it doesn't have a chapter on homophobia. But it's still an excellent book, and if you're at all interested in language and ideology then I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Finally, a book I read recently: Racism: A Very Short Introduction by Ali Rattansi. It's not about the press specifically, but it does cover police profiling and the way racism is becoming more subtle in modern societies. And more subtle doesn't really mean less harmful.
I also found a list of reading suggestions at UnderstandPrejudice.org. I really like the sound of many of the books on the list.
I wanted to include fiction on my list, but even though I'm sure there are novels that deal with these themes, my mind is drawing a complete blank. If you have any suggestions, I'd very much love to hear them.
Other Weekly Geeks: Florinda wrote an excellent post on sex education; Pussreboots covered mental health; Ali wrote about the social horrors that often hide behind bargain prices; and Claire wrote an inspiring post on philantrophy. For even more posts, visit the Weekly Geeks blog.