Michael Eric Dyson: Black Underclass' Most Unlikely Enemy May Be Black Middle Class
But I more often compare Black History Month to Valentine's Day. Sure, you love your special someone every day, but does it really hurt to have an occasion when you make sure to pay tribute?
So far, this Black History Month, I've been priviledged to participate in a wide-ranging debate on black leadership with NPR correspondent Juan Williams and Saturday I heard hip hop pundit Michael Eric Dyson lay the smackdown on some social issues at a special boule held by the Tampa chapter of Sigma Pi Phi.
I was there because the group I lead, the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists, received the boule's first annual Award of Excellence for our work supporting diversity in area media. it was an awesome feeling, facing some of the sharpest black leaders in the Tampa Bay area and having our work lauded. But it paled in comparison to the reaction I would have upon hearing Dyson speak.
Part college professor, part Baptist preacher, part rapper and singer, Dyson regaled the crowd with his plea for the black middle class to drop its "Afro-amnesia" and resist condemning poor black people for the negative choicces they make. Instead, he encouraged leaders to reach out and encourage -- acting as "trojan horses" by bringing the sensibilities of black culture inside the boardrooms, classrooms and newsrooms where we all tread.
i've always found Dyson a bit too willing to blame institutions for individuals' actions when I've seen him do the pundit thing in places such as Tavis Smiley's radio show or Bill Maher's HBO talk show. But speaking at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa Saturday, Dyson echoed a lot of the ideas I've been writing about recently: taking issue with black celebs such as Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey looking down on members of the black underclass for failing to access the mainstream in the way they have. (he's kicking that issue with my old pal, Bill O'Reilly, here).
People in the underclass aren't stupid or insane: they've heard all the talk about what dropping out of high school gets you; what having a baby out of wedlock gets you; what unprotected sex gets you. But still, many of them are making these choices every day.
And even though I have no idea why -- and Dyson didn't really seem to, either -- I do know that Cos and Oprah and O'Reilly will never get them to make different choices by insulting their culture and their lifestyle. What they will do, is please all those middle class folks -- black and white -- who want to pile easy blame on a complex problem.
Dyson left the boule audience with a lot to think about along those lines, I left feeling I really was onto something. Great minds, and all that...
Questions Every Student of Media Should Ask About Race
As someone who has spent more than a little time trying to teach, I consider it the highest honor when someone tells me they've used my work to teach others something.
So I was particularly jazzed when a former student who teaches at the University of Georgia asked me to write a post on this topic to help spark discussion in his journalism and media classes. So for his students -- and you, dear reader -- here's a few questions I always try to ask:
What assumptions am I making -- or not making -- about a potential story or issue involving race and media? Often the biggest problem with understanding race issues is getting at the core of the story, free from assumptions which may cloud the reporting process.
Am I assuming white culture is the default culture? One notorious Philadelphia Daily News cover featured a photo of the all-white cast of the Philadelphia-set family TV drama American Dreams wuith the headline "Just Like Us." But you have to wonder what that might mean to a black, Hispanic, Asian or working class family. What is the newspaper saying about who they define as "us" and who is defined as "them."
Am I seriously considering perspectives which don't mirror my own? Diversity in your information doesn't count much if you don't consider that people who don't agree with you might have a point.
If media images don't matter, why is a billion-dollar industry based on them? I have often dealt with media executives who shrug off stereotypical images presented in their shows by saying "It's just TV." But free TV is based on the notion that showing viewers images repeatedly spurs action; making you buy a partcular soda or try a particular product. So why wouldn't that affect your perception of a people?
Does the drive for "positive" media images also handcuff artists of color? While people of color are understandably sensitive about how they are portrayed in films and TV, some artists of color say the drive to avoid "negative" images keeps them from fuly exploring their creativity or playing meaty roles. Sometimes the question of whether a particular portrayal is positive or not is more complex than it seems.
Am I recognizing that stereotypes are seductive and entertaining? People sometimes assume that because racism is so ugly, media which perpetuates and utilizes stereotypes must also be awful. But some of TV's most entertaining shows were also the most stereotypical (Amos N' Andy, Sanford and Son), often producing large audiences, even among the groups who were stereotyped.
Do I understand the true importance of challenging stereotypes in media? Stereotypical images in media have long been used as mechanisms to further the subjugation of minorities. It happens in two ways: white people, many of whom will never have meaningful contact with minorities, are given a false vision of their culture which justifies their second-class status. And people of color are convinced they deserve their place by stereotypes in media which emphasize their deficiencies.
Do I understand that a media outlet or a person can present a stereotypical image without being racist? Another problem I often encounter is that people think they can't possibly be presenting a stereotypical image or problematic program because they are not rracist. and they assume that, because I'm highlighting what I think is a mistake they've made, that I'm calling them racist by implication. But anyone can stumble on these issues without joining the KKK.
If any of you in blogland have your own questions -- serious efforts only, please -- feel free to share in the comments section.