This Spotlight originally appeared as the We the People column in the January/February 2021 issue of Information Today.
If the image in this article seems familiar, it’s because Information Today, Inc. editors placed it on page 13 of the October Information Today issue as the art for the article “Rolling Out the Welcome Mat at Broward County Library.” The image, titled “Group of Diverse Hands Together Joining Concept,” came from Shutterstock and is credited to Rawpixel.com.
At first glance, the photo seems to be a perfect choice for the story. But take a closer look. Study all of the hands. Did you catch that even with the diversity of the people in the circle, the hands on the top are white? Had I not attended a 1-day seminar in 2012 called “Racism in the Obama Era,” I doubt I would have noticed this right away, if at all. The seminar was eye-opening. At the time, I recognized that racism still was prevalent in our country, but I was shocked at all of the extremely blatant forms of it that persisted, especially from a populace that had elected a Black man as its president.
The seminar featured disturbing videos of Tea Party rallies showing President Obama’s head on an image of a gorilla as attendees chanted hate-filled rhetoric. It showed pictures of postcards that depicted caricatures of Black children clinging to a tree above a swamp while alligators eagerly waited for them to drop, which were in stores in Florida. Those were examples of in-your-face racism. But another part of the seminar dealt with a more subtle type of bias. In a print ad that had adults sitting on and gathered around a sofa, I did not see the covertness in the way the people, white and of color, were positioned until it was pointed out by the moderators. It’s how I spotted the white hands on the top of the pile in that image from October.
I knew I had an excellent resource in the person who invited me to that seminar, Debbie Vermaat, who agreed to answer questions about media bias. Debbie was born in Georgia in 1955 and grew up in Gainesville, just outside Forsyth County. As she describes it, “Georgia, like her sister southern states, was very racially segregated. I suspected some of my neighbors were Klan members.” In 1975, she and her husband, who met each other while attending the University of Georgia, moved to New Jersey. “I didn’t even consider marrying and staying in Georgia, as I knew I wouldn’t want my children to grow up in a place steeped in racist rhetoric and practices of discrimination and historical segregation that felt wrong in every corner of my heart.”
A Sad Family Secret
When Debbie was young, her “Granny” had taken her to visit the location in Forsyth County where Granny’s oldest sister Mae had been brutally attacked and left for dead on Sept. 8, 1912. Granny said that while Debbie’s Great Aunt Mae had been going to visit her aunt, she was attacked by Black men, and she died as a result. Granny also told Debbie “not to let hate make a place in [her] heart,” as many members of her family had done after Mae died of her injuries. Thirty years would pass before Granny would share anything else with Debbie about Mae’s death.
It was in the late 1990s when Granny told Debbie that as Granny’s mother was dying, she said she believed that one of the young men who had been hanged in a public, legally sanctioned lynching had been innocent of Mae’s murder. Debbie thinks that is when Granny decided she would not take what she knew to her grave. Instead, she cooperated with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the creators of an internet series about the events of 1912 as well as with a documentary filmmaker before her death in 2007. Debbie says, “She modeled for me what courage looks like.”
Debbie’s Call to Action
In 1987, The Oprah Winfrey Show did a segment on Forsyth County’s history, and national news outlets picked up the story. What followed after the episode aired was the largest civil rights demonstration since the civil rights movement. It was then that Debbie began to piece together details of what happened in 1912. In August 1987, 8 months pregnant with her fourth daughter, Debbie visited Georgia and decided to take her three daughters downtown to Gainesville’s “Square” to witness a Ku Klux Klan rally from the fifth-floor office where her mom worked. Debbie explains, “For some who might think me crazy, I would counter with a couple of thoughts: What better way to get my daughters to understand why we couldn’t live close enough for them to see their grandparents, whom we all loved very much, way more often? What better way for them to understand the hate that drove me to leave than to look into the face of hate and hear hate on a loudspeaker? Looking out over the crowds gathered that day, I remember seeing some people who had turned their backs to the stage, and I knew in that moment that it wasn’t enough for me to turn my back on my family history. I needed to fully face the history, or it would haunt not only me, but would continue down the ancestral line.”
Debbie continues, “I became obsessed with uncovering information about my family history, and with the advent of computer technology, research was now possible in new ways. I also co-founded a nonprofit, working to teach conflict resolution and mediation in schools, community organizations and law enforcement.”
Debbie earned a B.A. in sociology and criminal justice, with a concentration in conflict resolution and management, from Rutgers University. She has been a certified mediator and was a member of the Camden County Human Relations Commission. Through her involvement with an organization called Beyond Diversity Resource Center, Debbie attended her first white privilege conference in 2010. At that event, she was approached by the social justice coordinator at a state domestic violence agency to help build a network of allies to work on racial and social justice intersections in providing more culturally relevant and targeted services.
The following is an edited version of our conversation, with my questions in bold.
HOW IS RACISM EXPRESSED IN THE MEDIA?
I think it looks a lot like how racism is expressed in our own thinking, conversations, and interactions in our daily lives. Stereotypes are the mortar that builds racist structures. Before we can see/recognize examples of stereotyping or racism in the media, we need to look for stereotyping in our own thinking and lived daily experiences.
None of us are immune to stereotyping. When you first see an image or a news report, begin to notice what’s coming up and what you are working to keep submerged in the “subliminal tank” of unrecognized stereotypes and messages you may hold about groups of people based on race, culture, religion, economic status, family/country of origin, etc. Until we unpack what is stored in our unconscious minds, we cannot recognize how our thinking, decision making, and actions are guided by stereotypes planted without our informed consent.
I also believe that before we can understand racism and media, we must do more to understand the history of racism. How much do we know about the history of inclusion and exclusion in America and the messages we have gotten around who belongs, who has “earned a place at the table,” who is “entitled” to the fruits of labor, and who has been historically denied access to “belonging,” to the “table,” and to the “horn of plenty”?
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN MEDIA BIAS WHEN IT IS FOCUSED ON RACE?
At the seminar we attended, there was a presentation of racist images and advertisements from early America. I had seen some of them before, but the presentation was particularly powerful in driving home how the media has historically played a role in perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing oppression of nonwhite Americans, planting seeds of doubt about who really deserves first-class citizen status in the U.S. Pictures appeared alongside derogatory language, and just because the language has been “cleaned up” as time has passed, that hasn’t translated into less powerful messages of second-class citizenship and “othering.”
DOES MEDIA BIAS TIE INTO WHITE PRIVILEGE? IF SO, HOW?
If advertisers and company executives making decisions about ad content are mostly white decision makers, then there would have to be a “tie in,” as they may be relying on their faulty unconscious stereotypes to sell their product or services. There has been progress with gender and racial diversification in media “birthing rooms,” but I still see media stories and ads that harken back to the dark messages of those early American images and messages of people of color, especially in 2020—the year of racial reckoning.
The best approach to business has always been to get to know your customers as well as you know yourself. Unless decision makers creating ad campaigns, print media layouts, and media stories have mined their “subliminal tanks” and spent time looking at the history and legacy of racism, there is a good chance their creative spark could be infected by buried stereotypes and unacknowledged and undervalued historical contributions of people of color throughout American history.
DOES LOOKING AT THE OTHER SHUTTERSTOCK ENTRIES FROM RAWPIXEL.COM GIVE YOU ANY INSIGHT INTO WHETHER THIS PARTICULAR PHOTO WAS INTENTIONAL BIAS?
Looking at the photo does not automatically make me an expert in knowing the “intent” behind the image. I am of the mind that with most images like this, the photographer has no “intent” to send a subliminal message to viewers other than the one intended of showing “unity in diversity.” The same holds true of those individuals who have their hands extended for the photo shoot. How can we really know if any of the white hands were extended and placed on top, without any real thought, because of their own submerged thoughts of white people being “above” others whom they might believe are “below” them in status or racial hierarchy?
Discussions about intent indicate there is to be blame, and I would rather concentrate discussions around impact and talk about how unintended consequences can be spotted earlier in the process before going to print or going to commercial airing. Other images from this photographer include ones in which people are gathered in groups and seated around tables, some looking at the camera, some looking up and some looking down, and settings where employees are mingling and talking with one another. How much discussion happens in the rooms where decisions are being made about which picture to choose for an ad campaign? Who is included in those discussions? Are the right questions being asked in choosing which pictures will work best to accomplish the goals set forth? Whose goals are prioritized, and who is tasked with setting the goals?
HOW CAN PEOPLE GET BETTER AT SPOTTING RACIAL BIAS? WHEN IT COMES ACROSS AS BEING INTENTIONAL, WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO ADDRESS AND HANDLE IT?
- Who’s in the room to ensure more eyes on first impressions to capture any unintended messages? Are there ways to capture feedback from the larger employee base or target audience before going forward?
- Offer workshops/trainings/resources around “excavating/mining” of buried and unmined stereotypes that all humans carry with them every day. It can be difficult for us to admit to holding beliefs and thoughts that might alter the way we view ourselves, but no one is immune to holding assumptions and stereotypes in the most remote places in our minds. Normalizing discomfort around revelations of our own internal struggles with coming to terms with our own tightly held beliefs based on what was planted in us early in life, by people we loved and trusted and in the communities and periods of history in which we grew up and over which we had no control, could be healing and make us more aware of how we put things out into the world and into our work.
- Ask the right questions: Who is included? Who is not included? Who is centered in the picture? What messages are we attempting to send with the image? Do these images depict what is really happening in our workplace or what we aspire for it to be? Spending time making sure questions are framed from diverse lenses and the discussions are inclusive of input from the organization and the intended audience/consumer will help to suss out any potential harmful impact of unintended negative messages.
WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO ADDRESS AND HANDLE SITUATIONS IN WHICH MOTIVATIONS COME ACROSS AS INTENTIONAL?
- Instead of choosing defensive postures such as “Denial, Push-Back, Shifting Focus and Blaming the Victims,” give yourself another route to “Listen, Review and Reflect,” and then put together a team to draft ways in which “Leaning into Discomfort” is normalized so accountability can be accessed and moving forward can highlight that we are all capable of making mistakes, but we are also capable of learning from our mistakes. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is a great example of how a company worked to understand how its intent did not match the impact.)
- We have all been trained to be “finger-pointers” to blame one or a few instead of acknowledging the yoke of responsibility across the shoulders of many. Even in the ideal situation of having what you term to be the “right people in the room” making the decisions and asking what you believe to be the right questions, unintentional impact can be a reflexive response to carefully thought-out ad campaigns. We also live in dichotomies of we/them, right/wrong, black/white, positive/negative, intended/unintended, etc. So, we think in these terms when attaching intent and blame. In truth, we live and work in the in-between areas, not the extremes. We need to get more comfortable with seeing ourselves as “shoulder-to-shoulder” in our efforts to send messages that truly reflect the realities of historical underpinnings of oppression and how they have impacted our respective positions in the present world.
BEYOND RECOGNIZING MEDIA BIAS, HOW CAN WHITE PEOPLE BE EFFECTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN SUPPORTING AND FIGHTING FOR RACIAL EQUALITY AND EQUITY?
I ask myself this question on a regular and ongoing basis. In 2010, I was asked by two women of color (one of whom I knew from working with people she knew) to assist with a project around affinity group formation at the place where they worked. The conversation going on inside my head was whirling with self-doubt questions such as, “What do I know about affinity groups?”; “How can they hold confidence in my capabilities when they don’t even know me?”; “What experience do I have that could possibly [help] me with this new concept?” It was a dizzying few minutes, and then I realized that my experience to this point had also provided me with a realization that if these two African American women were approaching me with an invitation to come on board, they would for sure be working alongside me during the “learning curves” phase and assisting me with resources and opportunities to catch me up to where they needed me to be. Out of this story are the key takeaways:
- People of color need to be the ones planning, strategizing, and directing white people as to where and how to support their efforts in fighting for racial equality and justice. They are in the position of deep knowing and vast experience to guide the outcomes.
- As a white woman who descended from a community of lynchers, I have done much research and a ton of internal work. None of that qualifies me to spot racism and stereotyped messages in the same way as people of color do instinctively. With that said, decision makers in ad campaigns and in media companies need to be heavily diversified in every way we tend to separate ourselves in America.
- Learning curves around racial and social justice come with issues we don’t see up front, and we need to all get better at recognizing the signs on our roads that warn us (usually with self-doubt, as in my example) we are approaching an area where we are not able to drive due to our unfamiliarity with the horizon. Turn over the wheel, ask for directions and insight, try putting on someone else’s glasses and see how the view forward changes, and ask others to take the lead and assure them you will back them up and stay on the road with confidence in them.
Because these questions dealt with race, I stayed with that lens. There is some work done by the Maynard Center around understanding and analyzing the complexities in diversity, which lays out a framework for assessing diversity, which I think is helpful. It says that people are a totality of their “Fault Lines” rather than any one Fault Line. They lay out five Fault Lines: Race (which also includes ethnicity), Gender (which includes sexual orientation), Generation, Class, and Geography. They make the assertion that one person’s obvious Fault Line is another’s Fault Line that they can’t see. In reality, these invisible and visible Fault Lines intersect to establish your identity and your perspective. Individual perspectives are shaped and affected by your race and/or ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation, your age, your financial circumstances, and your geographic location.