- In News
- By Andrew Barnes
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Again there’s another headline in the news – “Racist Tweet” or similar. Again there’s a lot of noise and hyper reaction.
Do we face our societal reflection and deeply interrogate our innermost flaws? Or do we implicitly revisit old racial stereotypes, …. stereotypes we explicitly know are damaging?
Is the motivation behind the “news report” of any use? Does it move us forward or does it re-inforce the status quo and hold us back?
Headlines and news reports such as this are sensationalist. They unashamedly seek to provoke public interest. Via cavalier scrounging of social media verbiage “reporters” seek literally anyone that provides suitably controversial outbursts that fit the current agenda. In this case the news, more so than racism itself, is a “less than 140 character” Tweet outburst or something slightly longer on Facebook by an estate agent. Sure, this has curiously morbid value on social media, but in paid-for, curated and considered media, treatment of such news should offer society far more than scandalous “copy and paste” reporting. Note that “sensational” news is often conveyed at the expense of accuracy.
Is the sensationalised racist report seriously offered in the guise of helping us as a society move forward? And if so, does it succeed?
To understand fully we need to turn to Social Identity theory and how it relates to racism. Racism is a form of “extreme” prejudice rooted in stereotypes and arising from our need to boost our social identity. We do this by adopting favourable perceptions of our own group (the in-group) and often unfavourable views of out-groups. This dynamic changes as we implicitly and explicitly view out-groups, either as superior or inferior to our own group. We do this, it is said, to boost self-esteem.
Here’s an extract from an essay on the recent killings of black individuals by USA police: “Implicit bias – an unintentional action rooted in prejudicial cognitive bias – causes more trouble than it should. It’s the root part of your brain that assesses everything you absorb from the world around you — smells, tastes, people, feelings — and categorizes them into experiences — good, bad, scary, happy — for easy recall. For example, if you smell something yummy, see a chocolate chip cookie, eat the cookie, taste it, and realize it’s delicious, your brain shortcuts remembering all of those individual stimuli by saving the whole experience as “cookie = yummy.” That ingrained memory becomes a preference, and that preference helps you make future decisions when faced with another cookie much more quickly than by going through the whole sensory information gathering process. Implicit bias is your brain’s autopilot for decision making.”*
Stereotypes and implicit biases work hand-in hand and are the same in some instances. These necessary aggregations of accumulated experience help us simplify complexity and promote the emergence of a “mindset”. A mindset is a psychological construct which filters all external data that comes at us. The most important characteristic of the mindset is that it only admits data which agrees with our current view of the world. Put another way, it self-selects data that re-affirms our stereotypes. Our mindset defines who we are. We cannot wish it away – it is fundamental and integral to our identity.
The interesting point arising from this, and there are many, is that implicit biases and especially stereotypes are re-inforced in the media, which in turn we generally select on the basis that it affirms our own in-group perceptions. You may choose to disagree but the media choices we make (what we want to see and hear) already reflect our mindset (biases and stereotyping of others). Here’s the rub – we engage with media that favours our in-group because our mindset drives us to do this.
When our chosen media reports on “racism” it does so using stereotypical narratives that validate our in-group bias. In essence the “news report” itself assumes a racist mantle under the guise of seeking magnanimous ubuntu. It does this through the replay of stereotypes impacting us primarily at an implicit (subconscious) but also at an explicit level.
In other words at a deeply subconscious level the sensationalised news report reiterating an un-curated social media outburst, serves merely to confirm the very unfortunate racial profiling we seek to correct. This happens because it confirms our most recessive racial stereotypes even in the face of our conscious repudiation.
The racist “news” report does not directly challenge social constructs such as language, behaviour, culture, ethics and morality which is needed to move society forward. It fails to offer guidance. It is thus unhelpful, even damaging, as it endorses the status quo using tired racial stereotypes and idiosyncratic isolated events as major news happenings.
The only way that a prevailing mindset can be changed is through authentic encounter and real life experience that is strong enough to offer a compelling alternative to the mindset predisposed towards prejudice. Of course this is possible – but not through the prevailing “140 character” Tweet mechanism. The media – especially in the form of “long story” journalism – can present an alternative narrative, but “cut and paste” ersatz journalism, under-curating social media sources adds little value.
Take your own Racial Implicit Association Test here and find out your score (this is built for USA society but will provide some use in an SA environment): Implicit Association Test Race . I tried it and in all honesty it is remarkably difficult, tiresome and frustrating!
Partner at NOTED Thinking
- Identity Theory Jan E. Stets Washington State University.
- Social Identity Theory by Sabine Trepte Universitat Hamburg.
- A Decade of System Justiﬁcation Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo by John T. Jost Department of Psychology, New York University and Mahzarin R. Banaji Department of Psychology and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University and Brian A. Nosek Department of Psychology, University of Virginia and Social Identity Theory by Peter J. Burke
- The Science Behind Why Cops Kill Black Men – And How to Fix it by LAURIE VAZQUEZ