Racial discourse is a common and, quite possibly, inescapable aspect of the modern media. In this sample essay on racism in America, an Ultius writer examines the race-related challenges social workers face in the United States on a daily basis.
A lack of diversity in the media
Issues of race will always have to be considered and can never be entirely satisfied, but that does not mean that people should not be constantly aware of the impact that racially prejudiced imagery has on the public. Social workers in particular have to deal with some of the most oppressed and unfortunate parts of the population, parts that are often overlooked and denigrated by the media. The social identities of various races are so fundamental to physical and internet publication that they are nearly overlooked unless the consumer looks for them specifically. In this case, it becomes obvious that systemic racism is still common in America and affects the identity of those who have power and those who do not. It is the identities reinforced by these images that social workers must contend with on a daily basis and hope to one day overcome.
The artifacts for discussion are three collections of images that might be a common sight for an average American. The first, a magazine rack at a university bookstore (Figure 1, Appendix), is a seemingly eclectic display of magazines from many areas of interest. Science, music, food, family, film, and fashion are only some of the genres represented. Looking at the image with an eye for racial implications, however, reveals a trend of white dominance. Only two magazines feature images of non-white people. One is President Obama on the cover of Newsweek and the other is Oprah on the cover of her own magazine. While these are strong images of powerful and successful black people, the majority of people represented on the rack are white, suggesting that the majority of attractive, interesting, and important people are white.
Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of Ms. MagazineSource: WC
Gracing the Spring 2016 cover of Ms. Magazine, Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o is one of few non-Caucasians to be prominently featured in the mainstream media.
How images reflect racial discourse
This theme of white dominance in seemingly innocuous compilations of media can be seen on the internet as well. A Google image search for the word “wealthy” (Figure 2, Appendix) delivers images of exclusively white people. Some are young and attractive, some are overweight, some are older, and some picture include no people at all, but the common factor in the people that are represented is affluence and their white ethnicity. On the converse is the results of a Google image search for the word “poor” (Figure 3, Appendix). This collection of images focuses exclusively on non-white ethnicities. Though many are children, there are people of all ages and apparently a variety of races, just none of them white.
To fully understand the impact of the racial discourse in these images, the discussion must turn to the Cycle of Socialization that explains how social identities are formed and what their impact is. There is a great deal of academic discussion and analysis regarding racial discourse and one of the fundamental authorities on this subject is B. Harro. His commentary on the Cycles of Socialization and Liberation provide a solid basis from which to analyze images of racial discourse and their impact on the population. The basis of these cycles is the idea of social identity, “we are each born into a specific set of social identities, related to the categories of difference mentioned above, and these social identities predispose us to unequal roles in the dynamic system of oppression” (Harro, 2000, p. 45). By identifying with a certain social group, a person is going to drift toward the stereotypes portrayed for that social group. In this case, social identity contributes heavily to how a person of a particular race lives his or her life, “We get systematic training in ‘how to be’ each of our social identities throughout our lives” (Harro, 2000, p. 45). These images are exactly the kinds of systemic media that project a social identity onto a person, of any race, but negatively so in the case of people who are not white.
The impact that these influences have on the people they apply to is profound. Racial discourse like this is considered a major contributor to the ethnicity-based discrepancies in social and financial conditions, “The persistence of economic and social inequality along racial lines is supported by racial ideologies – generalized belief systems that explain social relationships and social practice in racialized language” (Doane, 2006, p. 256). These ideologies both explain and perpetuate the status quo, which many people would consider to be prejudiced and oppressive. The problem is that it is communicated so fundamentally that it is difficult to correct. According to Doane (2006),
“Racial ideologies and racial politics are in a state of constant flux, as intellectuals and social movements challenge and defend the status quo. This political struggle is played out via racial discourse, which I define as the collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race” (p. 256).
In the case of these images, the discourse is subtle and passive, but unmistakable. The dominance of white images on magazine covers, virtually regardless of the magazine’s content, and the implications of “poor” and “wealthy” imagery leaves little room to doubt which side of the racial discourse is favored by mass media.
The status quo
Social institutions set a precedent
A major cause of biased racial discourse is that it has been the way it is for so long. White people do represent a disproportionate amount of the powerful and wealthy and their influence contributes to perpetuating the stereotype, “Dominant groups enjoy disproportionate access to the vehicles of transmission for discourse, including government, educational institutions, and the media” (Doane, 2006, p. 256). It does not matter how many people challenge the status quo or, in the case of social workers, how many individuals are helped back onto their feet after succumbing to the oppression of their social identity. The only real change will happen when the system is acknowledged as the problem and challenged at its highest levels, “adopting a system racism framework entails recognition that the ultimate solution to racial inequality involves major changes in social institutions and sharing resources and power” (Doane, 2006, p. 268). (Learn more about systemic racism.) So the role of social workers must extend both to those they serve and to the system that they represent; and in turn, that system must respect and listen to those social workers who have firsthand knowledge of what the practical effects of contemporary racial discourse are.
The problem of subtlety
It is difficult to affect change in a system that is so contented with itself and so skilled at covering up its prejudices. As Dijk (2004) stated in his article on racial discourse, in reference to older and more extreme expressions of prejudice, “Since today just blatant forms of verbal discrimination are generally found to be ‘politically incorrect,’ much racist discourse directed at dominated ethnic group members tends to become more subtle and indirect” (p. 352). As has been suggested, images like these, both in bookstores and on the internet, do not overtly attack or esteem any particular race, but they indirectly indicate clear divisions of image. Dijk (2004) described this phenomenon as a specific strategy, “According to the overall strategy of positive Self-presentation and negative Other-presentation, neutral or positive topics about Us are preferred, whereas the negative ones are ignored or suppressed” (p. 353). This kind of social arrangement creates still more difficulties for social workers because it clearly aligns them against the people they are trying to help.
Institutional and cultural socialization
In terms of the Cycles of Socialization and Liberation, these images fit neatly into certain stages. They actively contribute to Harro’s (2000) “Institutional and Cultural Socialization” step of the Cycle of Socialization (p. 46). This step represents the first exposure a person has to mass media and general public perception, outside of their own home. Since a child’s parents were likely exposed to the actors of this step, it is likely that a child is already familiar with the stereotypes perpetuated by the media, but once a child encounters it firsthand, in a bookstore or on the internet, in the case of the cited images, it becomes a part of his or her social identity (Harro, 2000, p. 48). Both sides of this coin dictate the challenges that social workers face when coming up against issues of social identity that have been instilled by racial discourse. Not only do they have to work against the pressure to fit unfortunate stereotypes that the people they work with are stuck in, but social workers themselves will be perceived according to the standards of social discourse. A white social worker would be perceived as wealthy, privileged, and generally alien by people of other races who have had their image of white people shaped by the media.
The battle ahead for social workers
These images also represent an opportunity for change. In Harro’s (2000) Cycle of Liberation, they represent a component to the ‘Getting Ready’ step about which he wrote, “Once we know something we can’t not know it anymore” (p. 54). This basic principle indicates that, once a person becomes aware of the problem, it becomes obvious that there is a problem. While a person might walk by a magazine rack or run a Google search dozens of times in a week, he or she might not consider the racial discourse of those mediums until becoming aware that such a thing existed. And then he or she would spot it every time. The prevalence of the systemic prejudice might one day become its own enemy in this way, because as subtle as it is, it cannot hide its effects from an informed eye.
In a system like the one that exists in modern America, social workers are fighting a losing battle. Racial discourse is so fundamental to modern media, and so heavily biased in favor of the white power structure, that changing it seems an impossible task. But great social change has happened before and it can happen again. The need for social workers will never go away because there will always be members of the population down on their luck or faced with crushing obstacles; but if race could be removed from the equation then their load might be lessened and the challenges they face on the job might be reduced.
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Dijk, T. v. (2004). Racist discourse. Routledge Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies. Ellis Cashmore (ed.). (pp. 351-355). London: Routledge.
Doane, A. (2006). What is racism? Racial discourse and racial politics. Critical Sociology, 32, 255-274.
Harro, B. (2000). Cycle of socialization. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism. Adams M., et al. (eds.). (pp. 45-51). London: Routledge.
—. (2000). Cycle of liberation. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism. Adams M., et al. (eds.). (pp. 52-59). London: Routledge.
Poor – Google Search. (2012). Google. Retrieved October 21, 2012, from http://www.google.com/search?um=1&hl=en&safe=off&biw=1525&bih=741&noj=1&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=poor&oq=poor&gs_l=img.3..0l10.59017.59349.0.59505.4.4.0.0.0.0.110.301.1j2.3.0…0.0…1c.1.ndIsvY1cl8o
Wealthy – Google Search. (2012). Google. Retrieved October 21, 2012, from http://www.google.com/search?um=1&hl=en&safe=off&biw=1525&bih=741&noj=1&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=wealthy&oq=wealthy&gs_l=img.3…123149.123648.0.1237184.108.40.206.0.0.0.0.0..0.0…0.0…1c.1.qJTyjLr03wA
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