Q: “How can white media write about the oppression of black and brown communities without further exploiting those communities? I am not asking for a critique of language or a discussion on how the way frames might reflect an inherent bias or even an unconscious, underlying racism–those discussions have been had. I am concerned that I might be taking my white privilege for granted every time I write about the black/brown struggle for liberation. I’m worried that I am turning the human beings in my stories into consumable commodities, into soundbites and headlines, thus dehumanizing the people who are fighting for their lives.”
White media professionals have the obligation to give voices to communities of color to tell their stories. Often times in media, you’re right- the soundbites and headlines do steamroll the full story. Most notably recently is the image of Toya Graham, physically beating her son during the Baltimore protests. The media quickly made her a hero, and that image went viral almost instanteously. Graham’s actions were lauded as the best example of a parent during an exceptionally tense moment in the Baltimore direct actions by the majority of the (white) media. But only later did they give Graham the opportunity to tell her story, her fear of her son becoming the next Freddie Grey… or allow other parents within that community express their reactions to the direct actions of their teenagers. Instead, Graham was simply lauded for what the media read as her dissaproval of her son participating in rioting actions. It was presented as an approval or her aggressive reaction–while simultaneously shaming a communities’ aggressive reaction to police violence.
I think the trick is that the white media shouldn’t be writing about the black and brown community struggle at all, unless it’s an accurate run-down of facts. For example- time, date, place, rough number of people present etc. Rather, the white media should be creating opportunities for those folks to tell their own liberation stories. Some of the most damage can happen in the editing room, which I think you alluded to within the context of your question. If we are going to create those opportunities for the Communities to tell their story, we also then have the ethical obligation to check back with them once edits are made to make sure they feel their words are being represented fairly and to provide any resources they may need to feel comfortable telling their story. We should ask questions that promote the ability of interview subjects to clarify their positions, and perhaps even provide story-telling tips that we have learned along the way. I’m not talking about making a story more palpable for a white audience, but rather media training tips we have had that could be helpful. Many organizations and campaign efforts teach volunteers how to communicate their stories in 30 seconds, and help them practice those skills. White media probably doesn’t have the resouces to offer media trainings for every writing they produce, but they can ask questions that helps remove their gaze, and stop themselves from asserting their own voice. For example, a question like, “What is the most important thing for viewers to hear from your story?” rather than making that judgement call ourselves.
I totally understand that in a world of deadlines and what not, this makes getting a media story done efficiently very challenging. But the truth is, we can’t tell those stories as effectively as those people living them. And if we have the tools or resources to allow black and brown people to tell their truth themselves- that should be our goal. We should be empowering those communities to use media effectively, rather than trying to tell the story through our own eyes.