Friday, February 6, 2009
Posted by John S. Wilson at 11:19 PM
Wanna Talk About It?
A few days ago I had the opportunity to meet and hear Michael Eric Dyson speak at my university, Virginia Commonwealth. I had yet to read any of his books but had followed him in the media, especially CNN, during the Democratic primaries and leading up to the general election. Around campus it was advertised as "A Conversation with Eric Michael Dyson."
So, understandably, I was reminded of President Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia, especially his yearning for a "national conversation" dealing with race. Interestingly enough, some conservatives lamented talking about race because, after all, don't we talk about race too much already? To their credit, we do talk about race but in mere euphemisms such as poverty, affirmative action, welfare, and government programs. The use of euphemisms isn't to allow for needed nuance and approach a dialogue in a tactful and careful manner. On the contrary, it is used to shield one from having to articulate the actual issue at hand, incompetent subterfuge really. If we want to discuss low income housing or our burgeoning prison population, let's do so with full respect to the disparities that occur in both. Let's do so in a holistic enough manner that takes into account not only socioeconomic factors but also cultural, historical, and gender specific factors. Thus far our dialogue regarding race has been predicated on a b-movie script filled with too many trite and inaccurate lines. Race was the elephant that lingered in the room until Obama's speech in Philadelphia. Euphemisms surrounded it like foliage with names like "Muslim", "radical", "exotic", "foreign", "Chicago style politics", and "wholly inexperienced." The media was scared to broach the subject because it is all too accustomed to approaching race negatively. Now, some would say "well, wait a minute. Obama received enormous positive coverage and in some cases was fawned over by journalists." Good point. But it's a lot easier [for the media] to give praise, even undue praise, than to ask hard questions of a candidate, a society, and one's profession. Unfortunately, negative portrayals of blacks in the media is not a new phenomenon. When one thinks of positive portrayals of black families and, especially black men, one has to reach back to the Cosby show in the early 90's to be successful . To be sure, it is not just the perspective the media engages in that creates the portrayals; it is also the lack of context. Television isn't known for nuance or erudite debate. It's known for soundbites and first impressions that may seem intuitive but end up being stereotypical. Neil Postman, noted sociologist and cultural critic, in Amusing Ourselves to Death writes,
"Television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing."
Is it any wonder that the conversation about race in our society yearns for context, when the primary method of its communication is television? As a society, we can't afford to rely on one medium to get the point across. We must be willing to engage in a new dialogue that dispels euphemisms through various mediums.