Tag Archives: Bias

Offensive


I’ve been in exactly one play in my life. I was in the eighth grade, and I no longer have any idea why I tried out. In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising:  I was an awkward, introverted teenager…being in a play wasn’t remotely who I was. I vaguely remember being encouraged to try out by a teacher. I did, and I got a part. It wasn’t a lead part, but at least I got to participate.

After weeks of practice, we gave three performances…one during the day for the school, one in the evening for our parents, and one at a regional competition. I learned a few things from the experience. The main thing I learned was that I could pretend to be someone else. That was hard for me, not just because I was shy, but because I’m pretty logical and fact-based. I’m not creative, and taking on a role really stretched me. I learned to put myself out there in public. I can’t exactly say it changed my life, but it was a step on the journey I underwent during high school to come out of my shell. And I enjoyed being part of the troupe, included at an age where exclusion is often the rule. I’ve always looked back fondly on the experience.

Except. I’ve long forgotten the name of the play, its plot, or any of the other roles. What I do remember is my character. You see, I played the comic relief, pretty ironic for me. My character had the best lines, generating laughs in all of our performances. I  also had the best costume and was the most memorable. It was an awkward role to learn, but once I did, I knew I’d done it justice by the audience’s reaction. It was a blast. Except that now, with the wisdom of adulthood, I realize that my character was offensive…highly offensive. You see, I was the black maid, Mammy.

I wore an old dress, an apron, a kerchief over my pinned up hair…and blackface. Just walking out onstage in my small Kansas farm town got laughs. I got even more laughs when I delivered my well-rehearsed lines in a high-pitched shriek. Let’s just say that my character was not the brightest bulb in the box. Looking back now, I’m mortified. I was a naive 13-year-old, in an all-white, rural community. We had one black student in my entire school career, and she stayed only a semester. Obviously, the play was an overt indicator of an uninclusive culture in the late ’70’s. I had no idea that I was being offensive.

I’ve been thinking about this experience over these last couple of months. No matter whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this ugliest election, it’s held at least one undeniable lesson for our country:  that any belief that we’d evolved to some post-racial America was a delusion. The signs were there all along that prejudice is still very much alive. But fifty years after women’s liberation, the first black president, and the increasing heterogenization of our country’s demographics, some of us had been lulled into a false complacency that we’d moved past all of that. That illusion has been shattered; the ugliness is still very much among us. 

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


News


I noticed a stark contrast in the last several weeks’ news coverage of two important world events. The first was the prominent, above-the-fold front page coverage of the horrific Brussels terrorist attack that killed 35. Five days later, cowards bombed a park filled with families celebrating Easter Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan, killing at least 70. Both attacks were equally heinous. What wasn’t equal was their news coverage.

It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that what led to the difference in coverage was that one was in Western Europe while the other was where South Asia meets the Muslim Middle East. Complaints about American media bias have reached a crescendo in the 25 years since the advent of cable TV changed news from an objective public service into infotainment feeding a 24-hour cycle. Much of the criticism is aimed at biased political coverage, both ways, which has clearly damaged America’s grasp not only on the complex choices facing our country, but also our grasp on reality, as more of us listen only to voices who support what we already believe. Yet another equally dangerous evolution in news coverage receiving far less attention is the media’s selection of which stories to cover, as well as what resources they maintain to do so.

An American friend of mine living in Italy wondered which of three other stories unfolding simultaneously with the Lahore bombing was playing in the U.S.:  China’s visit to the Czech Republic; protests in Japan over legalizing their first defense forces since WWII; and the Egyptian hijacking. From where I sit as a daily news follower, only two of the four stories was covered, and one I would argue inadequately. Prophetically, the protests in Japan became suddenly relevant here only days later when Trump proposed Japan and Korea to not just build their own defense forces, but also add to the world’s nuclear arsenals, a stark reversal of U.S. policy since at least Reagan. When what we hear about the world is filtered before it gets to us, we’re not allowed even the opportunity to stay informed. Not only is the media deciding which stories are newsworthy, there is also less coverage than there used to be, as I learned when the horrific tsunami triggered the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011. We had a team scheduled to visit Korea within days, and we needed to decide if it was safe to send them. As I followed the extensive coverage unfolding hour by hour, I quickly realized that the coverage wasn’t nearly as extensive as it appeared. Most U.S. news sources only repeated verbatim the same couple of sources, as staffs have been cut back around the world. I discovered that Al Jazeera has quietly developed and maintained extensive global assets for gathering news; they were by far my best source of up-to-date information on the nuclear tragedy.

I assume that we deserve our biased and filtered news as well as the reduced coverage our media now brings us. It’s a business after all, and they are catering to the (reduced) demands of their customers…us. We no longer want to think and wrestle with the complex problems facing the complex world we live in. We flock to media sources which give us short sound bites with which we already agree. Solving the issues we face will not only require us to be less polarized, but willing to compromise and listen to both sides of the issues. I hope we’re up to the task; the future that we leave our children depends on it.

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”  –Malcolm X