On racism in media

The time is near, the mission's clear.

In 2017, after the #MeToo dam burst open, the media industry was one of the first to face a reckoning with the bad behavior from men in power. Lists were made and whisper networks moved from text and email threads into the open. An air of accountability swept through media companies and ad agencies and tech platforms. 

As 2020 unfolds, the media industry once again is a front-line industry, as media companies and ad agencies and tech platforms trip over themselves to right the wrongs of decades of systemic racism. 

Executives and editorial leaders at publications from Refinery29 to Bon Appetit have resigned in recent weeks because of creating toxic work environments while perpetuating both implicit and explicit racism. Vulture has a running list of “everything you need to know about the media’s reckoning with racism.”

Though it’s interesting to see who gets held accountable and who doesn’t; which racist “indiscretion” gets swept under the rug and which gets punished by the fullest extent of the court of public opinion.

Take the Jimmies. 

Over the last couple of days, Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s late-night comedy show Jimmy Kimmel Live! has been trending on Twitter as clips have resurfaced of him using the N-word in a Snoop Dogg parody and wearing blackface in several sketches from his Man Show days.

Kimmel, who on Thursday announced that he’s taking the summer off from doing his show, which has been shooting remotely since the coronavirus outbreak, has yet to comment on these old clips. 

The comedian is slated to host this year’s Emmy’s. You may recall that Kevin Hart had to bow out of hosting the 2019 Oscars when old homophobic tweets and a 2010 bit recirculated.

Then there’s America’s moppet talk-show host, Jimmy Fallon, who apologized at the end of May for wearing blackface in 2000 as part of a Saturday Night Live sketch that popped up again, where he impersonated Chris Rock.

"In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface," the comedian, 45, wrote on Twitter. "There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable."

The New York Times took a look at his apology:

Fallon’s public reckoning drew some praise as a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. In a turbulent period when numerous institutions are grappling with systemic racism and how their own failures and inaction have contributed to it, performers and viewers alike are looking to see if “The Tonight Show” — and late-night TV more broadly — is ready to make good on its promises, or is simply paying lip service to a cause.

“Right now, white America is in the middle of a work-in-progress moment, and black America is like, yeah, we’re going to keep checking on your progress,” said the comedian W. Kamau Bell. “We need you to show your work.”

Last night, Tina Fey and NBCU sent a note to the streaming platforms to remove four episodes of her hit show 30 Rock, which had characters in blackface, in an attempt to show their work.

Variety reports on the note:

“As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation. I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for the pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honoring this request.”

According to Variety, the episodes will be gone by the end of the week and will also no longer run in syndication.

Entertainment in America has a long and troubled history of racism; which should be no surprise since America has a long and troubled history of racism. 

In a 2015 paper from Jennifer Bloomquist, a Gettysburg College professor:

While the practice is common in other postcolonial empires, America, in particular, has had a protracted history of Whites creating Black caricatures. Although Blacks served as amusement for White audiences on plantations throughout the enslavement period, the national White fascination with African American life as popular entertainment began with the proliferation of minstrel shows in the late 1820’s. 

These traveling variety shows (mostly featuring music and comedy) dominated American entertainment until well into the 1880’s and featured so-called “Ethiopian delineators” who were all-White, all-male casts in blackface. Their comedy hinged on gross misrepresentations of what the actors determined to be (southern) Black culture, including singing, dancing, and delivering comedic speeches. In the early days of minstrelsy, more often than not, the actors had little or no real contact with African Americans, so their version of Black culture was almost entirely grounded in racist stereotypes. 

This is the foundation that our entertainment system is built upon. As entertainment moved from variety shows and plays to radio shows to television and film, these racist stereotypes traveled with the mediums. 

Television stars, whether news anchors or late-night comedians, sit on a different perch of the media tree than others. Part of it is the one-way relationship viewers have with them; we allow them into our living rooms or bedrooms night after night, week after week, year after year. We grow up with them. We learn from them. But we also see them as other-worldly. 

And as the nation wrestles with our past in order to have a more equitable future, there is no sacred cow here. If we really want to have the conversation, if we really want to change peoples’ thinking and behavior, depictions need to stop. 

Take, for example, local TV newscasts. In a 2003 paper, researchers at the University of Nebraska, Omaha write:

Media images may be seen as representations that contribute to the social construction of race in the United States (Gray, 1995). Historically, for example, network television used Black characters and themes, despite the fact that Whites tended to control programming. 

Positive and negative representations in media may reflect ideology and attempts to encode meanings for audience members (McQuail, 2000). Representation of race also may lead to discussion of social class and structure in the United States. Mass media portrayals construct social reality for individuals and groups. Surette (1992) argued that our collective view of crime is shaped by entertainment portrayals and that news coverage appeals to voyeurism. Ultimately, such a portrait supports law-and-order policies and becomes an accepted version of social reality. 

The imagery of television news may contribute to racism and discrimination through promotion of various stereotypes (Campbell, 1995). 

This is what it means for racism to be systemic. Our thinking is cultivated through various touch-points, and media—both entertainment and news—is one of the most influential, if not pervasive. How we show the world causes viewers how to see the world

With more representation, more world views sitting across media companies, from the senior to the junior levels, depictions of implicit and explicit racism (as well as sexism, classism, homophobia, etc) will diminish. 

And maybe we won’t have so many Jimmies. 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox. If you have tips or thoughts on the newsletter, please drop me a line! You can also follow me on Twitter.

Childish Gambino, “This is America”

Some interesting links: 

  • A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists (NYT)

  • Protests fuel record traffic to donation sites (Axios)

  • Madison Avenue’s Latest Diversity Promises Hinge on Accountability (WSJ)

  • How conspiracy theories about the NYPD Shake Shack ‘poisoning’ blew up (New York Post)

  • TikTok teens and K-pop stans don’t belong to the “resistance” (MIT Technology Review)

  • The End of the Girlboss Is Here (Medium)