Mar 5, 2009

Weekly Geeks - Racism in the Media

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.

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.

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.

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 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.


  1. Thanks for the link to Understanding Prejudice! I will be checking out that list for certain.


  2. I love your post this time around just as much as I loved your post last time. After your review, I added the Very Short Introduction book to the wish list, and now I think I'll have to add Language, Society and Power as well. It sounds very interesting, and I'm sure it's quite enlightening as well.

  3. My background is also psychology. And I spent a lot of time dabbling in linguistics (though not enough apparently to make it a minor).

    I'm glad that you brought this particular issue up. Since we elected President Obama, I've heard folks say that it is proof that racism is "over." And I don't really believe that they're right - though we are making steps in the right direction.

  4. Great resources, thank you. As for fiction, I recently read 2 excellent graphic novels dealing with this issue: Incognegro, and American Born Chinese. For more traditional lit, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Roots are all fabulous books.

  5. Excellent post Nymeth. This is a topic that deserves more attention, and you’re right – it is everywhere, to varying degrees.

  6. Great post and I completely agree it is becoming more subtle and that's a dangerous thing.

  7. Thanks for such an enlightening post and yes, to be honest we've all changed our behavior in some form. I will be honest and say that I caught myself looking at anyone who looked middle-eastern differently after 9-11. Most of that fear I feel was pounded into our brains by the incessant rants and profiling that we watched on our news programs!

  8. I find it so funny when people talk about racism being "over". We are so far away from racism being over. It has crept into so many different aspects of society that it is almost acceptable these days.

    Thank you for bringing up an important issue.

  9. Thank you for the great post, Nymeth! This is such an important issue that all of us need to take note of.

  10. I'm so with you on this one Nymeth! I'm fortunate enough to live in a city where different races are not only accepted but welcome. I love it...New Orleans has always been referred to as "a melting pot". People from all races gather here and everyone gets along. For the most part, we don't see race in New Orleans. But the rest of the nation does. We happen to have a high percentage of African Americans here and the media loves to focus on "black crimes" in New Orleans. What they don't understand is that of course there are a lot of "black crimes" because we have a lot of black people! Drives me nuts. Katrina made it even worse because most of the neighborhoods that went under water were primarily african american the media gave them even worse of a aggravates me to no end!!! I'm right there with you on this one!

  11. I so agree with you. Where as the media might think saying things like 'black man arrested' is just another information, the fact that it is in the headline says something else.

    That is some good reference for books on racism. Thanks Nymeth.

  12. I've noticed these subtleties as well. I wonder why people insist on classifying victims or preps this way. I just think of them as men or women, not by their color...that has nothing to do with it...white/black/purple...there is good and bad in everyone...and some choose to go to the dark side.

  13. Thanks for this enlightening post, Nymeth. I never actually thought of this before. I guess the subtleties are that effective.

  14. Great post _ very insightful and thought-provoking.

  15. I also notice that when people talk about someone they met, they'll say, "Oh, he was a black man" but they never say, "he was a white man". It's always seemed kind of strange to me.

  16. great post nymeth! well said :)
    and great book selections!
    Language, Society and Power sounds very interesting.

  17. Lezlie: I hadn't been to their website before, but it's a great one!

    Debi, thank you so much. Language, Society and Power is great. And you know, it might be useful for homeschooling. I guess it's mean as an introduction for undergrad students, but the fact that a book or course is college-level has never stopped Annie before :P

    saveophelia: It seems very naive of people to say racism is over anywhere at all in the world. Yes, steps in the right direction have been taken, but there's a lot more that needs to be done still. I live in a country that had little to no ethnic diversity until recently. Now we're starting to have immigration, and so racism is only beginning to become really noticeable.

    Ali: How could I not remember American Born Chinese! Or Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. The other two I haven't read, but I'll definitely check them out.

    Heather, thanks. And yes, it really is.

    Alexa: is.

    Staci: It's next to impossible not to be affected by the connections that are constantly made in the media. But at least you're aware of where your reaction comes from, and that's a first step!

    Kim: We are far from it indeed. And yes, while blatant racism is no longer socially acceptable (unlike blatant homophobia, and oh, how I could go on about that), more subtle forms still are.

    Melody, I'm glad you liked the post!

    Chris: That diversity is one of the reasons why I really want to go to New Orleans! The merging of different cultures makes it sound like such a rich, interesting place. You hear a lot about "black crime", but not about "white crime", and unlike what I sometimes hear, I don't think that the numbers justify it at all.

    Violetcrush: Yeah, it isn't an essential piece of information at all. It's superfluous, and to include it is harmful.

    Serena: You hear people saying "oh, it's just a physical description", but how often do you see headlines like "big-nosed robber arrested?"

    Claire: This happens so often that it's hard to stop and think "Wait, why am I being told this person's ethnicity/nationality? What does this add to the news article?" And that's exactly what makes it so effective.

    Maree, thank you.

    Lenore: Yeah, and like I was telling Serena, it really isn't just part of the person's physical description. You don't see other physical features being mentioned in the same way.

    Naida: It's a great book. I couldn't put it down.

  18. Thanks for the reading suggestion link. I'm going to have to check it out. :D

  19. Wonderful post, Nymeth. This is an issue that extends beyond even race as well. It's a very important one that impacts each of us.

  20. Great post! Racism is sadly alive and well. I see it regularly here in Japan and in other Asian countries.
    I studied a little sociolinguistics back in university, and really enjoyed learning about that aspect of language. I'm putting Language, Society and Power on my wishlist for when I'm in the mood for some non-fiction.


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