I’m an avid consumer of media. As a Geekgirl, I love media, but I’m not in love with it. I don’t consume it unquestioningly. I’m perfectly capable of indicting the media I love so much for its bad behavior. Why? Because it can be better. I’m also a Black American Woman, so I can’t really afford to be blind when it comes to such things.
Even when I was very young, I was critical of the media I watched, and read, and listened to. The first real memory I have of this: I was about twelve, sitting in my kitchen with my Mother in the background, doing whatever Moms do. I was watching television and although I forget what show it was, I know it was Science Fiction, because I turned to my mother and asked “Mom, how come there ain’t any Black people in the future? What happened to us?” And without missing a beat in whatever she was doing, she glanced at me and said, “Maybe we left.”
First, a little background on my Mother. She was a child of the sixties, and a member of the Black Panthers.* She very much believed in community service, and always spoke to me and my siblings about being Black Americans, and the things that should be important to us because of the way the world might treat us. So this answer from her is entirely in keeping with her general aesthetic. This is just the kind of thing she would regularly say.
This idea was such an intriguing concept for me, though, that I have never forgotten this conversation. Where did Black people go? Why did we leave? It wasn’t until I was older that some answers started to come to me.
I talk about these subjects, such as racism in media, because for PoC, these stereotypes have real world repercussions, and a lot of White people, (and PoC too), who believe themselves to be very Progressive and liberal, reproduce the attitudes they see in the media, without even realizing that’s what they’re doing.
What’s the first thing you think of when I say the word “Paris”? The Eiffel Tower, Baguettes, the French language, Romance. Chances are, you got these ideas, and images, about Paris from TV and movies, not from actually visiting the city. If this influence works with foreign locales, then it most certainly works with lives and people, influencing your thoughts about places (Russia, Japan) and people (with tattoos, Muslims), and events (weddings, Proms) you may have never encountered.
For example, the idea that marginalized people need to be of use to White straight people is one that’s pervasive in every form of media from movies to TV, to books. This culminates in White people who treat PoC, gay people, and others as if these (other) people are actors in a movie which stars themselves.
I’ve encountered this myself, with men telling me to smile because they believe my purpose on earth is to make them feel comfortable and do their emotional labor. Or White people who get angry when I don’t please them by laughing at their jokes or being as friendly as they would like me to be, once again making them comfortable or doing their emotional labor.
Why? Because I have to be useful to them. I have to be a sidekick, a friend, a mammy, or a love interest in their personal movie of which they are the star.
Both of these attitudes stem from the same foundation, however, of not thinking of other people as separate people from themselves, who have their own agendas, separate from whatever makes them happy. PoC and other marginalized people have their own lives, and sometimes their desires, goals, wants and needs are not going to align with with someone else’s.
This is a an attitude that is prevalent not just in everyday life but in every strata of American society, from people who are angry about people on welfare, to the idea that other human beings must be PRODUCTIVE to be worth life and respect, or to receive food, clothes, or housing. This attitude promotes lack of compassion for others and their circumstances.
This same lack of compassion leads others to dismiss the claims, by marginalized people, of their discrimination, and the same lack of compassion in excusing the police shootings of Black people (because Black people are not considered USEFUL to the world.)
When you believe that other people are the sidekicks of your life, it is that much easier to consider their lives expendable or, like Immortan Joe, (Yeah, that’s what you’re acting like!) to use them for your own ends. How much easier is it then, to believe that person’s life is worth nothing when it has no obvious use for yours?
What happens in the media affects the real world in ways people don’t often consider. Most of our values, ideas and thoughts about the rest of the world is influenced as much by television and movies, as the people who surround us. Television and movies teach us how the word works, what to expect of our lives at certain ages, how to fall in love, how to behave at a wedding or Prom, how to behave at 25, 45 ,and 65 years old, and how to think about people who may be wildly different from us.
The constant message that everyone (this includes me) receives from the media is that White Stories Matter more than all others (The Sidekick Effect), that their lives are the only stories that are worth being told (Erasure, Whitewashing), and that marginalized people don’t have stories of their own (The White Savior Trope), that are separate from making White people feel good about themselves (The Manic Pixie Dream Girl), or fixing their love lives (Ghost, Hitch), or maximizing their happiness (The Legend of Bagger Vance).
People of Color, and other marginalized people, do not have to be USEFUL, to be treated with respect, compassion, or be worthy of being loved.
*And yeah, all these lies being spread around about what the Black Panthers actually stood for, is incredibly infuriating to me because of my connection to them through my mother, and uncles, who were directly involved in the local chapter.
**Yes, there will be a part two about Black Lives Matter vs. the Mainstream Media