July 22, 2010

Watching and reading news reports about race in America is a depressing endeavor. Just this week, race has dominated the headlines, from racism in the ranks of the tea party to USDA’s Shirley Sherrod being dragged through the mud based on an edited video being posted on a prominent conservative blog.

Why is the press corps so bad at covering racial issues? Regardless of the circumstance, the players, and the nature of the problem, most stories about race follow the same format, almost to the letter. A journalist describes the issue at hand and poses the question, “Is this racist?” The reporter then interviews the principals or talks to a pundit (rarely is an expert tapped), presents both arguments, and ends the piece.

This is indicative of a much larger problem. Since race is such a polarized issue in the United States, reporters and pundits often avoid the messier threads, preferring a tighter, “neutral” story flow over our messy reality.

And even if an outlet chooses to tackle race without hiding behind the he-said-she-said formula, the subject is often treated in the most sensationalist way possible.

For example, take a recent Time magazine piece by Joel Stein called “My Own Private India.” This story was positioned as satire, but it relied heavily on racial stereotypes to explore an awkward and explosive topic: how immigration impacts small, traditionally white towns. While Stein attempts to get in a few jabs at white Americans, the effort fails as it still upholds racist language and ideas toward South Asians. One unfortunate section reads:

“Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians ‘dot heads.’ One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to ‘go home to India.’ In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

The blogosphere quickly mobilized and responded. Sepia Mutiny, a blog reflecting the lives and experiences of South Asian-Americans, quickly took Stein to the woodshed, with Anna John (a friend and fellow Poynter Sense-maker) breaking down why Steins’ words were so problematic:

“You ‘question’ the quality of Edison’s schools because you think ‘Dot Head’ was a mediocre epithet? Would dotbusters‘ have been more suitable? Yeah, I know, wrong place. They slaughtered a ‘Dot Head’ for the crime of being Indian over in Jersey City, not your precious, quondam white Edison.”

While the Mutineers found themselves in a conversation about whether Stein’s article fit the definition of racism, actor and former political appointee Kal Penn took to the pages of The Huffington Post to show how Stein’s “jokes” were not new or novel:

“Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I’d get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell ‘go back to India, dothead!’ I was always ROTFLMAO when people would assume that I wasn’t American. He really captured the brilliant humor in that one too!”

Time magazine quickly issued a statement saying the piece “was in no way intended to cause offense,” despite its use of racial slurs and an “us versus them” tone that is more often seen in antagonistic roundtables on CNN than in humorous columns.

Stein’s response to the controversy was similarly aggravating:

“I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.”

If Stein wanted to explore his discomfort with the changing dynamics of his hometown, why make the new residents of Edison, N.J., the butt of his jokes?

Kate Rigg, an Asian-American comedian who often tackles race and racism in her routines, notes that there is a difference between making a joke about race and making a racist joke. However, far too many people don’t understand the boundaries.

While Stein didn’t fall back on cheap language gags, he did rely on a lot of pernicious stereotypes for his humor — stereotypes that are unfortunately still in effect and change the dynamic of a “joke.” Considering our tense conversations on race and immigration (not to mention who qualifies as a “real” American), Stein could have erred on the side of caution.

However, the Fifth Estate is not immune from clumsiness in dealing with racial complexity. Tech blog Gizmodo was reamed recently for an article called “Why I Stalk a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (And Why You Should, Too),” in which Joel Johnson, after learning that African-Americans have a disproportionately high presence on Twitter, sought to broaden his mostly white Twitter life by following a random person.

While he intended to extol the virtues of diversifying one’s Twitter feed, his remarks about her “faux modeling shots,” “mall fashion” and “frustratingly childish” expressions of faith, combined with the stated goals of the piece, created a strange space where people could read racism, sexism, and other things in his account.

Johnson seemed surprised at the backlash and responded in the comments to his original post, but he appeared fairly unwilling to understand exactly why his piece prompted such a harsh reaction. However, as Shani_O explains on the Postbourgie blog:

“Calling her tweets about God ‘charming’ and ‘childish’ is creepy. Talking about how he enjoys looking at the pictures she sends to other guys is creepy. Focusing in on how sexy she is, when we have a history in Western culture of black women being treated as hypersexual creatures, is creepy and sexist. And the exotification of this woman is creepy and racist. It’s not lynchmob racist, or job-discrimination racist, or even ‘black people suck’ racist. It’s the kind of racism that’s casual and common and doesn’t technically ‘hurt’ anyone, so its defenders would have us believe it isn’t racism. But it is. And it matters.”

Johnson stuck to his guns, writing in a follow-up post:

“While quite a few people seemed to grasp the thrust of the piece — ‘You should follow a few people on Twitter who aren’t like you’ — several others got caught up on issues of race, sex, voyeurism, and the ‘proper’ use of Twitter itself.”

But here’s the thing: Both the Time and the Gizmodo stories were racially tone deaf. The authors (both white and male) had the impression that it was permissible to make jokes in service of a larger position about race (and other data markers, in Johnson’s case) or racism (and immigration, in Stein’s case.) However, what they chose to present were rehashed stereotypes.

Instead of authentically approaching conversations about race and racism by acknowledging their experience and how it forms their opinions, they just assumed that their worldview was the default and did not consider any other perspectives.

Discussions of race and society do not have to end badly or strip themselves of humor to be taken seriously. In a speech for South by Southwest, Baratunde Thurston (comedian, Web editor for The Onion and political pundit) managed to explain “How to Be Black” online — without stereotypes and with illuminating data and information.

His speech revolves around how African-Americans use the Internet. Around 4:30, Baratunde explains how a joke quickly goes sour when put into the existing context of race and racism:

The clip ends almost 7 minutes into Thurston’s speech. However, it’s the next segment that is crucial. He reveals that while Twitter can be an amazing space to hang out and connect, it is not immune from the same racism that occurs in offline spaces:

So what makes Thurston’s speech different from Stein and Johnson’s efforts? In essence, he relies on knowledge that comes from a base of knowledge, his own observation, and life experience. Thurston also presents stereotypes, but he challenges the perceptions that inform racial stereotyping rather than just letting the stereotypes stand. Thurston was always a comedian, but he also knows enough about race and racism to ensure he isn’t perpetuating the same inequalities in his work.

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And here, it is the knowledge gap that figures prominently. Media outlets in both the Fourth and Fifth Estate often stumble over the best way to handle this tense situation.

In order for the media to live up to its goals of informing the populace, those who create stories and articles will need to do some deep reflection on their personal biases, the role that race plays in society, the role that race plays in newsrooms, and how all of these factors together influence the national dialogue on race, racism, and race relations.

Anything else is journalistic malpractice.

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