Normalization of Whiteness a Vital Issue in Race and Media Studies

Much of the scholarship in sociology and other fields about the relationship between media institutions and the phenomenon of race in western societies is from the perspective of the negative impact media have on racial minority communities. Research about negative racial representations in films and television programming (Gray 2004; hooks 1992; Rodriguez 1998; Wilson & Gutierrez 1995) charts for us the history of these representations and their relationship to socioeconomic and political developments in the formation of the racialized model of capitalism in the United States. Research about the selection process of representations in news media content (Campbell 1995; Entman 1992; Martindale 1986) focuses on media’s internal organizational structure and social processes that reproduce racial hierarchies. There is also research on the internal organization or structure of media institutions and its relationship to the external social order (Chancer 2005; Hall et al. 1978; van Dijk 1993a) on the impact of media on audiences or society in general (Entman & Rojecki 2001; Shohat & Stam 1994; Wilson & Gutierrez 1995).

Regardless of the focus of the research, the often underlying premise and stated conclusion are often that media play a significant role in the construction and maintenance of the subordinate position of racial minorities in western societies. But there is little research on the role of the media, in the initial development of white group domination. What we have learned about race using social constructivist analysis is that the phenomenon of racial groupings materialized and was reproduced through social interactions, governed by social practices that grew into an ideology of group domination that generated socioeconomic and political laws and policies that would reproduce existing hierarchies (Bonilla-Silva 2006; Fields 1990; Omi & Winant 1994; Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva 2008).

This reliance on an ideology of group domination for the reproduction of racial groupings suggests that media institutions, whose products—newspapers, films, books, and so on—dominate the public sphere, likely play a significant role in the social construction of race: not just that of the “otherized” but of those whose race have been normalized. This likelihood was raised more than fifty years ago by prominent sociologist Herbert Blumer. In a speech in 1956 at the dedication of the Robert E. Park building at Fisk University—one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities—Blumer merged notions of racial group consciousness, racial group position or domination, and the role of the media:

My thesis is that race prejudice exists basically in a sense of group position... . [This approach] shifts scholarly treatment away from individual lines of experience and focuses interest on the collective process by which a racial group comes to define and redefine another racial group. A basic understanding of race prejudice must be sought in the process by which racial groups form images of themselves and others. This process ... is fundamentally a collective process. It operates chiefly through the public media in which individuals who are accepted as the spokesmen of a group characterize publicly another racial group (Blumer 1958:3).

Blumer’s level of analysis—group consciousness—suggests that it would be appropriate to investigate how people construct discourse—the frameworks people use to view the world. The production of discourse is one of the most important processes in the development of racial group consciousness.

Racism, defined as a system of racial and ethnic inequality, can survive only when it is daily reproduced through multiple acts of exclusion, inferiorisation or marginalisation.

Such acts need to be sustained by an ideological system and by a set of attitudes that legitimate difference and dominance. Discourse is the principal means for the construction and reproduction of this socio-cognitive framework (van Dijk 1993b: 192).

The research of scholars such as Teun van Dijk, who analyze media discourse in the public sphere, suggests that the imbalance of power between the media and individuals or groups privileges media constructs. Van Dijk (1993a) argues that the media managers in western nations like the United States construct all aspects of media content—sourcing of information, rhetoric, and story subjects—to support the racial dominance of whites. But, media’s discourse on race comes not only from editorial content, as described by van Dijk, but also from advertising. Since much of the research on how media discourse shapes relationships of race is based on studies of editorial content, it behooves us to understand how the development of advertising possibly advanced white racial formations and in the case of this study white racial group consciousness.

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