Mind Your Media

Mind Your Media: The Grand Misunderstanding 

Sometime in January, a thought came to mind:

Privilege may yield power, but it doesn’t automatically bring knowledge. 

– Claire

A few years ago I interviewed a white female professor for a diversity-driven story. Dr. Shelly Tochluk is an expert on challenging white people’s perspectives on bigotry. And she explained something to me about why some Caucasians are so defensive when attempting to tackle racism.

Our conversation centred on allyship. The following is an excerpt from her answer to my question, “Suppose a white person claims that they’re genuinely interested in combating racism. What’s one of the most critical things that they need to [realize]?”

“White people are conditioned to see ourselves as competent, as people who can get things done. We hear that we need to end racism. We hear that white people need to do something. We think we’re supposed to jump in and take charge. We are often like bulls in a china shop. We need to first understand how little we actually know at the beginning. Listening and learning are important.”

When confronted with race-related situations, due to their biases, some white people risk making wrong assumptions. They may misunderstand the gravity of the circumstances involved, as well as their potential psychological impact.

A white person may be aware that racism is wrong. But that doesn’t guarantee that they have an inherent understanding of how to dismantle it. Nevertheless, some of them choose to ignore this fact. They assume because they have Black colleagues, friends, or connections, that by association they possess knowledge of what constitutes racist circumstances or behaviour.

Furthermore, some think that all it takes is associating with Black people to guarantee that they will approach the subject with the appropriate amount of sensitivity. Yet it doesn’t. Especially when they don’t think it requires any.

The Lure of Lackadaisical Dialogue

“I don’t burn crosses on people’s lawns. I don’t use racial slurs. What’s the problem?” That’s where some people’s idea of what constitutes racism begins and ends. And it’s especially troubling when those who think this way have impressionable audiences.

This is the crux of my concerns: People need to pay attention to perspectives that are expressed in the media they consume. Said perspectives can colour their perception of legitimate problems and affect their real-life interactions with those who have a different point of view.

In the current news cycle, misinformation is being discussed quite a bit. However, much of the dialogue is surrounding COVID 19. Yet there’s harm that can come from the willful consumption of misinformation as it relates to other issues. Among them, racism.

And how does the idea of misinformation about racism reveal itself in the media?

It shows up in how people view diversity-related subjects: They seek deeper levels of education on issues when they believe they need to. They do not pursue knowledge about things that they think they’re competent in.

And certain media figures speak ignorantly about the pursuit of justice. Yet as they do so, they convey a sort of confidence. They genuinely believe their assertions, in spite of evidence that it would behoove them to educate themselves about their subject matter.

They simply don’t understand what’s at stake. And yet they do things such as make inane comments, believing they’re being insightful or even entertaining.

After all, everyone should just love each other. Why can’t people just get past their frustrations?

In a perfect world, yes. But…

Overall, they seem to prefer a simple approach to important issues. And they regard people who are too thorough as troublemakers.

But quite frankly, racism isn’t something that persists simply because Black people refuse to get over themselves.

Forget racism for a second. We could be talking about almost any other subject that deserves to be treated with nuance and depth. 

The fact of the matter is that some people ingest what these media figures are saying—not because they’re actually right. But rather, because they have a likability factor. These people are telling them what they want to hear. They provide an ego-driven refuge of sorts.

There’s something some audiences find reassuring in believing that things out there aren’t as bad as “those people” say it is. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an “us vs them” type of person, consider the possibility that you harbour some unconscious biases. Your determination to commit to a skeptical perspective can have broader implications related to things such as how you process information as being either true or false. 

But where was I?

For some, skepticism towards “those people” is where the conspiracy theories kick in:

The Others keep insisting that Such and Such is awful. But that can’t be true. Surely, it’s a part of their Great Plan to do XYZ to us.” 

And their response to The Others?:

Come on in, the water’s fine. And you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Meanwhile, those who are vulnerable are saying “We need help….” And another problem arises from that, because the help that some of us are asking for doesn’t actually begin with help. Rather, it starts with a request for a change in attitude on the part of those who insist that people who point out things such as injustice are lying. And a change in attitude begins with vulnerability, as well as a willingness to consider a change in thinking.

For many, this is too unnerving. 

But do you know what else is unnerving? The perspectives that some have come to take as gospel.

I will not use an exact quote. But, among other things, I once heard a popular pundit claim that those who protest against inequity and injustice are imagining things. He was adamant about it. In fact, as he went on, he was, essentially, insisting that those who long for justice—and aren’t silent about it—aren’t in their right minds. 

More concerning, though, there is the fact that this person is someone who has repeatedly been promoted by someone else, who has an even more popular platform. And their audiences believe what they say.

Powerful people are talking about racism in a trivial way. Do they care about the impact of their words?

I mean really. How are people who are committed to following these media figures’ ideas processing their perspectives? What are they doing with what they learn from these people?

When I think of the consequences, I’m not only considering vulnerable people. 

What happens after you put your faith in a certain type of media’s messaging, and adopt their worldview as your own? When your favourite media people insist on believing that serious issues are simple, how does that affect your interactions in the real world? What are your relationships like with people who aren’t like you?

I’ll be honest. When you insist on adopting a superficial attitude towards serious things, that doesn’t instill confidence in you. In fact, it can make you seem ignorant and inconsiderate. Here, I’m not critiquing you for the sake of being cruel. 

Those adjectives suggest a damaging impact on your relationships—both individually, and with humanity at large. That type of outlook will also undoubtedly affect your ability to understand other people. 

Imagine someone in your circle comes to you, sharing their feelings about a racist encounter or incident. They could be anything from hurt, to angry, to frightened. But most likely, a mixture of all three.

How do you respond? Do you take them seriously? 

If you ardently absorb a certain kind of popular media, likely not. Chances are, you’ll dismiss your contact as being hyperbolic or hysterical. Their concerns aren’t worth listening to.

After all, your media gurus say so.

Please know that I’m speaking from experience, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Time and again, legitimate concerns are met with what may as well be laughter. It’s a frustrating, fatiguing cycle. It’s a battle that seems impossible to win. And it’s one that many of us are tired of repeatedly fighting.

Here’s something for the skeptics to consider: You may understand where Your Favourite Media Figure is coming from on a topic. And they may very well have a prominent platform. But that doesn’t guarantee that what they are saying about their subject matter is actually correct.

At the end of the day, it’s not realistic to expect a difficult, nuanced subject to be simple just because you want it to be.

And a simplistic approach to real-world problems is harmful. As I think about how I long to engage an audience, I’m aware of the following: Some might be more sympathetic towards issues that don’t affect them if I demonstrated some restraint. To them, I suppose it would be more palatable if I adjusted my language. It might be better if I said that adopting a mistrustful approach towards the outcry against injustice was “unproductive”. But people like me can’t afford to mince words. There’s far too much at risk. 

Photos by Conner Baker, Nadine Shaabana, Jassir Jonis, José Léon, and Ayo Ogunseinde.