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Is the Media Overtly and Inferentially Racist and are Outsiders Produced for Minority Groups?

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Last week, James Lull’s “Hegemony” and Stuart Hall’s “Deconstructing the Popular” discussed how dominance is asserted over other cultures, both actively and passively. As I mentioned in my response last week, Lull tends to favor a more passive model of hegemony, while Hall describes the process as “active marginalization.” This combination of active and passive dominance over minority groups was demonstrated in several of this week’s readings.

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In “The Whites of Their Eyes,” Stuart Hall describes these active and passive processes as “overt” and “inferential” racism. Overt racism fits the definition of marginalization Hall gave previously, where favorable coverage is given to those advocating for openly racist positions. Inferential racism, on the other hand, fits closer to Lull’s passive model, where unquestioned assumptions create racist undertones, often without the speaker even realizing what they are doing.

Various examples were given fitting both of these definitions. “Reel Injun” described the homogenization of various Native American cultures into a stereotyped Plains Indian, regardless of where the setting of the film actually was. This effectively stripped most Native American groups of their culture and national identity. The film explained that this choice was mostly utilitarian, to allow Native Americans in film to become a highly recognizable archetype, rather than a deliberate assault on Native culture, making this an example of inferential racism. More overt examples, closer to Hull’s definition, came with depictions of Native Americans and African Americans as savages and villains nearly exclusively, a trend which began in the early to mid-20th century and continued through the Civil Rights movement. As described in both “Reel Injun” and “Beyond Ferguson,” this was done actively to minimize the atrocities of slavery and colonialism committed against these people groups, and downplay their calls for civil rights.

As one would expect, minority groups resisted these depictions. One of the main means of resistance was through the establishment of Native and African American media. “Talking Back, Moving Forward” explains that this process allowed Native Americans to control how they are depicted by employing Native actors and directors, even making films specifically designed for the Native audience. A similar process was described in “New Heroes,” where African American writers created comics with black heroes specifically targeting black audiences.

There is significant debate within these groups as to whether minority-centered media should target an exclusive audience, or make the film accessible to “outsider” groups as well. While the exclusive films can be valuable to preserving culture, as described in “Reel Injun,” I believe that in general, these products should be accessible to outsiders. Simple economics is a primary motivator for this. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” cost $280 million to produce in 2015. If, to take an example from “New Heroes,” a superhero movie with a black protagonist was produced for an exclusively black audience with little carry over into outside groups, even if all 41.7 million black Americans bought a ticket, the film would turn a rather meager profit. One of the strongest arguments for these types of films is that minority children deserve to be able to see heroes like them on the silver screen. To accomplish this, the film must have a broad enough appeal to generate the revenues studios look for. The recent release of “Wonder Woman,” which depicts a non-American, female protagonist, used this broad appeal to help propel itself to the top of the box office.

Beyond this, some feel that they can more effectively advocate for their people groups with a broader appeal. By inviting in outsiders, they are able to reshape the stereotypes held by these groups, as was shown in the works of Sherman Alexi, among others. Some filmmakers reject titles like “Native filmmaker” for this reason; they find the term puts an undo amount of pressure on them to “speak for their tribes” and pigeonholes their works. They prefer to simply describe themselves as artist who make films about things they are passionate about, which includes the proper depiction of their people groups. This trend is not an uncommon one in groups that appeal to a small, specialized audience. Artists like U2, Paramore, and Twenty One Pilots, for example, identify as Christians and incorporate Christian themes to various extents in their music. All three of these artists reject the label of “Christian band” for many of the same reasons minority filmmakers reject their labels – they feel it narrows their audience, ultimately hindering their ability to express what they believe in their music.

My two questions this week center around the contrasting ideas I discussed above. First, in what ways is media today both overtly and inferentially racist? Where and how does overt racism take place in a society where many like to believe such things are “behind us?” Second, how do you feel about appealing to “outsiders” in media produced specifically for minority groups, like Native cinema?

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