Friday, February 6, 2009

Wanna Talk About It?


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.

3 comments:

  1. very well written. i really like that quote, disinformation sounds like a really appropriate title. i think i'll start using that :) and it's true that most 'race talk' occurs on tv and, sadly enough, any attempt to engage the topic is preaching to the choir (i'm thinking about cnn's black in america and wondering about the amount of black viewers compared to the amount of white viewers and who really benefitted from that program. many blacks saw it as incomplete and too narrow--more disinformation?) how was the 'conversation' with m.e.d.? i have a fairweather appreciation for him--i've found that when he's on he's really on, but when he's off. . .

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  2. very well written. i like the quote about disinformation--i think that's an appropriate characterization. i think i'll start using that :) i agree that much 'race talk' is done in sound bites on tv and even when attempts to fully engage the topic are made, they tend not to be really successful and/or may be preaching to the choir (i'm thinking of cnn's black in america, both in terms of black v. white viewership and in terms of who benefitted from the program--many blacks thought it was too narrow and stereotypical). so what do you do? even barack himself didn't address the topic of race until it seemed he 'needed' to.
    how was 'the conversation' with m.e.d.? i have a fairweather relationship with him. i've found when he's on he's really on, but when he's off. . .

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  3. Thank you, I appreciate that. I agree that CNN's special was lackluster at best because of the limited scope, stereotypical portrayal, and lack of follow up. As far as the gap between black viewers and white viewers, I believe it was probably large. I'm very proud of the fact that the crowd at Dyson's event was mixed and highly engaged. It's hard to have a conversation about race amongst yourself. So I'm proud the VCU community came out in full force and supported him. I think his perspective is important and asks critical questions. I started reading his book Debating Race and there are definitely some of his conclusions I disagree with. But that's ok. My goal when talking about race will always be the same: to do so in a manner that is nuanced enough, passionate enough, engaging enough, and inclusive enough for anyone with an open mind to hear, respect, and learn from . They'll probably feel some discomfort along the way, but sometimes the old adage is true - No pain, no gain.

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