My News Headline – Does press, media and entertainment industry perpetuate people's racial prejudice?
Are media stereotypes perpetuating prejudice?
My father in his quest to ensure his sons would not be trapped in ‘ghetto’ mentality took the relatively brave step in the early 1970s to obtain a mortgage and buy a house in London’s suburbia. We would at that time become one of a handful of Caribbean families within this particular area. I recall my dad’s complete bafflement when shortly after we moved in, there was a knock at the door and on opening it he found himself faced with a large proportion of the street’s kids simply curious to see black people and presumably how we might live. For my brothers and me, all under the age of 8 at that time, it was a heavenly moment to see so may potential playmates. The question of cultural or colour differences had no bearing on us at that age.
We had moved from the rented ground floor of an old rundown Victorian property where we shared a crowded living space with my mother’s sister’s family and one of my dad’s brothers. I recall frequent arguments at the foot of the stairs between my dad and the landlord whose family lived on the top floor of the property. I can also vividly recall, as do my brothers, the regular morning rat-run where on waking up we were often faced with the heart-stopping challenge of getting from our bed to the bedroom door after seeing several rats scurry across the bedroom floor. The sense of fun this gave us at our tender ages was not shared as you might imagine by our parents, uncles and aunt.
My father was a hugely charismatic Jamaican character who enchanted anyone who encountered him with his accent, charm and remarkable wit. His recollections were always engrossing and emotive and he painted a magical picture of his upbringing such as the huge breadfruit tree outside their family house where they would sit and listen to stories or sing songs to a guitar accompaniment. They caught fireflies, swam in the swift river and ate exotically named custard and star apples. He only once mentioned the bitterness of the last days he spent with his heroic father who returned to Jamaica with horrendous shrapnel injuries and lived the remainder of his life in agony as a result of his voluntary services in the 1st World War. You could feel his sense of betrayal when a cold, grey winter reality welcomed him to London against the ‘streets paved with gold’ image that had been portrayed to him by the British spiel back in his beautiful homeland. He described how he cried quietly in the dingy room he shared in shifts with strangers and I sensed the embarrassment he would have endured had he returned to his family, who were reluctant for him to leave. His passion shone through when he recollected on more than one occasion the story of how he purchased the family home to which I alluded at the beginning of this piece. You would see the cheeky glint in his eye turn to steely determination as he described how he recognised the racially motivated lies of the Estate Agent who told him the house was not for sale, how he knocked on the property owners door to confirm his suspicion and how a Jewish assistant at the agency decided to arrange the purchase without his bosses knowledge.
Why am I telling you this story you may ask? Well I wish to portray the real story of most migrants to new shores. I want to express their pioneering ambition to fit in and make a better life for their children like myself. Through my parent’s considerable endeavours my brothers and I have managed to negotiate the large obstacles faced by early immigrants to a new land, particularly as black boys in a world of horrendous stereotypes. I was fortunate to have an ethnically mixed group of friends who shared my realisations in our early 70s upbringing. They enjoyed with me the parties and clubbing of our teenage years, the traumas of adolescence and endured the sporadic racist incidents and attitudes of that time. They grew up with me to witness a more tolerant and accepting society where our children have little concept of the issues we lived through. It is at this point I would like to further share a particular recollection that took place one evening as a teenager in the 70s and its profound impact on my attitude to life.
A friend of mine’s family were heading off to the USA and held a gathering at their house which was a few moments walk from where I lived. I would have been 15 years old at the time and attended with my two younger brothers who were 14 and 12 respectively. Many other friends attended the small party which took place the day before our hosts were due to jump on a plane and as such the house was all but empty, with food and drink at a minimum. As the evening drew on, two friends, the younger of my brothers and me decided to walk down to the Chinese takeaway approximately 10 minutes up the road to get a snack. We chatted and joked along the way in the dimming light of a late summer evening oblivious to all around us. However, one of my friends, the only white one amongst us, noticed a menacing group of men driving past us. On seeing the car stop and turn around, he alerted us to the potential of trouble and by the time we had acknowledged what he was saying, the car had pulled up alongside us with doors flung open and five men armed with varying implements came towards us threateningly shouting racist remarks. Immediately we took flight in the direction of the Chinese takeaway that was now a couple of hundred metres ahead of us. I managed to get inside the premises and hoped that with it being particularly busy our assailants would be deterred from coming after us. No such luck, within moments the group were outside banging on the windows with their makeshift weapons and before I knew it, the crowd of customers had parted in front of me and I found myself cornered by the group. Four of the men created a barrier from the crowd while one individual began to throw punches and kicks at me, fortunately unarmed. Despite the intensity of the situation, I somehow managed to keep my wits about me and controlled my instinct to fight back in the knowledge that the armed individuals in the background would probably become involved. As such, I simply did my best to block and fend off the blows being reined upon me.
Then in a sudden moment, the assault stopped and by the time I had gathered my thoughts, the premises were all but empty bar my white friend and a woman crouched over a man lying prostrate on the floor. It transpired that he had come into the store and attempted to use his martial art skills to stop the attack only to be hit by a weapon from one of the attackers. At this point my friend who had been overlooked by the group informed me that he had told my younger brother to run and get out, only for him to be hit on the head by one the assailant’s weapons as his dashed through the door. Also our other friend who had been with us did not even make it to the takeaway store. As my head cleared my blood began to boil with the thought of my friend and particularly my younger brother’s plight. We hastened back down the road contemplating their fate whilst still slightly paranoid that the attackers were lurking in wait somewhere. As we got halfway back towards the house, we suddenly caught glimpse of a mob moving towards us in the murky distance and our hearts began to pound. However to our relief, the group approaching were in fact everyone from the party who had found out about the incident and were racing to our aid. We soon came to hear of the drama of how our other friend who was caught outside appeared with a black eye and the sudden call to arms when my brother removed his hand from his head to reveal a hand cupped with blood from his wound.
You would be correct to now picture an angry baying mob of teenagers. Even with a minority group of white friends in our midst, a regrettably sinister red mist had fallen over the mob to inflict immediate revenge on any white person in our vicinity. As the blurry heated atmosphere became even more whipped up, I suddenly caught sight of the white friend who had endured the horrors of the attack with me and in fact had alerted us to the situation and stuck around for its duration. In this moment of clarity another very close white friend approached me. His face was contorted with a pain and disbelief like that I had never seen before and as if taking on the responsibility for the demeanours of the white race he simply uttered the words “I am so sorry, I’m so sorry”. For a moment I was confused by why he felt the need to apologise and I reassured him that “this is not your fault and you have nothing to do with it”. As I became aware again of the mayhem around me, the stupidity of the situation suddenly hit me and I felt almost heartbroken for the white friends among us who certainly did not deserve to feel embarrassed or sense any disloyalty to them. At that moment my senses returned to me and any ridiculous desire to eek out revenge on some innocent white by-passer was immediately defused. It was a profound moment for me and one that manifested itself just in time. At that point a bus had pulled up to the stop near which we were standing and off stepped, of all people, a heavily tattooed, skin-headed guy and the absolute stereo-type of a racist of that time. As it was, I had encountered this lad fairly recently in a local shop who was of similar age to our group. He was relatively new to the area and I recall being a little taken-back by his particularly menacing appearance. However, he chose to make conversation with me and showed himself to be a remarkably friendly and pleasant character. Being that I had effectively become the signal for any attack, I quickly pounced to deflect any anger towards him and then set about defusing the whole situation with as much reason and good sense that I could muster. Thankfully, everyone began to come to their senses and while a deep burning anger persisted, any justification to seek revenge purely on the basis of someone’s colour was soon recognised for what it was - pathetic.
Thankfully, my brother only required a couple of stitches to his wound, my friend suffered nothing more than a black eye and sore ribs while I somehow managed to avoid any significant injury. Certainly, the mixture of anger and paranoia took some while to dissipate and a major part of our innocence was taken away from us at that moment, probably for the better in the long term. The irony for me at least, was that the experience instilled in me a rational understanding that prejudice and hatred has nothing to do with race and everything to do with ignorance and misguided perceptions.
It is for this reason I come to my main point. Whilst the general public in the major towns and cities of the Western World now live amongst people of all ethnic backgrounds and have come to see people as people, our press, media and entertainment industries continue to perpetuate old stereotypes purely for the purposes of readership, viewing figures and cinema seats/DVD sales. As do our Western leaders appear to retain the desire to maintain a certain pecking order. It might be stated that the US president is African American but, stepping into the arena of conspiracy, I felt there was an inevitability that he would take up office after the foreign diplomatic disaster that was George Bush. In fact, I recall my now deceased father being convinced that Bush would become president prior to his own election as he sensed the imminence of war and his family’s political background would fit the bill. He had barely been in office for a few moments when the TwinTowers came down followed by a vicious assault on Iraq. Read into that what you wish. Of course, this was accompanied by the required propaganda which at one point reached the hysterical levels of the wholesale portrayal of Muslims as terrorist enemies of the West. This has since been toned down to isolated factions being ‘hate preachers’ and ‘insurgents’.
Is it fact that gun crime is committed by youth gangs of a particular colour, that certain nationalities are prone to swindling and cheating, that people of a certain religion harbour a hidden desire to overturn Western infidels and that some races of migrants have the sole desire to exploit social benefit systems of their host country. Well subconsciously, I think we all hold a picture in our minds of what these people might look like, even if you do not know any such person yourself. I am not aware of any gun slingers amongst my very large extended family or friends and all the people I know from these perceived stereotypes are nothing other than decent hardworking citizens. Cultural and religious differences are the new obstacles that our ever shrinking world needs to overcome and every bit of energy should be focussed on this reality. Yet, so many subliminal messages continue to be transmitted through irresponsible organisations whose images effectively control the hearts and minds of the masses. I cannot recall a fictional blockbuster movie where the starring role such as a political leader of integrity or a high powered company director was of African decent. Asians are commonly portrayed as mysterious or smart but very rarely heroic leaders. Hispanic people are regularly portrayed as tough and brave foot soldiers while Arabic roles often seem to have a sinister edge to them.
In the UK, newspaper and TV media stories, images involving crime, social deprivation, low education standards etc… are disproportionately associated with ethnic minorities. I have commented on several occasions to friends and family that our news media regularly seem to find the one ethnic face in the crowd to interview or photograph whenever the aforementioned stories come up. It was a surprise to me recently when this fact hit home to my partner whilst watching footage of the student protests in London. She had rang me at work to tell me how the scenes had turned somewhat ugly on the news and was fascinated to see the vandalism and crimes were being committed by hoards of white, well-to-do youths which is something very rarely portrayed. No sooner had she mentioned this observation, she was annoyed to see an on-the-scene reporter shoving his microphone under the nose of the sole ethnic minority onlooker for his comments. In another report, the footage showed a decent well educated white girl student bravely standing up to the hooligans in an attempt to stop the trouble. The next clip completely un-associated to the original scene suggested the flipside of the protest with an ethnically mixed and vocal group of youths being provided as the image of those with less peaceful intent.
On occasions where this apparent contrived stereotyping has been questioned particularly in the entertainment industry, a common answer has been that ‘people’ (I guess that excludes me) are somehow not convinced by alterations to what they are used to seeing. Like using ethnic models on magazine covers, it is suggested that readership will fall otherwise. I have heard through a very reliable source who has worked in the news media industry that they worked under the silent rule that a crime story involving ethnic on white would always preside over the reverse scenario as it made better headlines. The argument that we as readers and viewers dictate what is shown and reported is a complete myth to me as the media, more often than not, dictate our view of the World. What is stopping these powerful industries from having the integrity to change our views through more responsible reporting? For me they have no desire to change this perception of social order and as consequence remains the major barrier due to the prejudices caused by their subliminal stereotyping.
Prejudice and discrimination are not physical forms. They are exaggerated perceptions of other people and cultures instilled in us through the perpetual stereotypes of our press and media. If a quiet and private family moved next door to you tomorrow where the men wear long robes, have large beards and pray vociferously at a certain time of the day and taking it that this was not your shared culture, how would you feel and what would be the basis of your opinion? Think about it…