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Beyond the News

White Privilege and the Media

Tobin Miller ShearerTobin Miller Shearer

A white privilege in the media is that white people can expect to see people like themselves in positions of authority and respect in a variety of settings in the media whether that’s newspaper, whether that’s on the radio, whether it’s in TV. On the radio it’s more a matter of tonal qualities. Apart from stations owned by people from other ethnicities, the voice you hear on the radio is most often a white voice. The modulated tones that are used come from that cultural context.

We can of course list examples of people of color that have made it within popular media but they’re very limited examples and we know when they’re different. For example, the Bill Cosby Show was a groundbreaking experiment in the media because it did not conform to the typical “understanding” of what a black family should look like. There were some problems there but basically we as a general population have certain ideas of how people of color should be, what stereotypes they should be fitting into. Our privilege as white people is that we don’t have those similar stereotypes for ourselves as a whole.

As far as beauty and fashion are concerned, when I think of a beautiful person the first image that pops in my mind is something out of a glamour magazine. In this case, just to be honest, what comes into my mind is a shapely young white female with long blond hair. I’m not alone in that. The images of beauty that our culture has brought about most often are of white females. That is reflected in numerous ways in our assumptions about who is beautiful.

I recently heard an Asian American talk about friends of hers who had undergone surgery to alter their eyes to conform to this standard of white beauty. African American friends of mine have talked about the pressure they feel sometimes within their community to straighten their hair, again to conform to that standard of beauty. People are beginning to realize that it is inauthentic and unrealistic, and it’s very important I think as we talk about issues of beauty but when we describe people who are beautiful, or pictures that we see that are beautiful. I think of it particularly with my children. If I’m talking about another child I see, of another person that I see that I want to be giving as much aesthetic value as it were to people from other ethnic groups as I would my own.

I recently heard an Asian American talk about friends of hers who had undergone surgery to alter their eyes to conform to this standard of white beauty.

I remember a story that Brent Foster tells of who works for Mennonite Church General Board. Brent talks about a time that his son and a foster son were watching TV and some models came on the TV. His own son said that the women were beautiful. I believe that they were African American. His foster son, who was white, told his real son that they were ugly and they got into an altercation. Brent came out and talked about this with the boys. He told them how they would probably be more attracted to someone of their own ethnic background but that you couldn’t place a judgment or a value of beauty upon one group or the other simply because of your own preference. Still, those are awfully strong images that we’re constantly inundated with.

The people that put together the 100,000 Faces display depicting how many people were killed during the Gulf War noticed that in the course of cutting out picture after picture there were very few pictures in mainstream magazines of people of color. Particularly, people of color that were being lifted up as being beautiful. If you ever get a chance to walk through that display you will see that it is predominantly “beautiful white females” that are being pictured in not only glamour magazines but advertising any number of consumer goods. Those messages are deep and they’re strong and they influence how we treat people. I think we all know pretty instinctively that we differentiate how we react to a person we meet that we think is beautiful or who we find not so beautiful. That affects how we react to people who don’t conform to those European or North American standards of beauty.

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