On Race and the Media
On Race and the Media
The question of how race is represented in the media remains as pertinent as ever. Most notably, the social media campaign #Oscarssowhite has highlighted the continued racial imbalance within the Hollywood film industry, but this low level representation of racial difference, as well as its misrepresentation, are issues that cut across all forms of mainstream news and entertainment media. In his new book, Race and the Cultural Industries (Polity, 2018), Anamik Saha explores the politics of racial representation in popular culture. He focuses especially on how cultural industries, such as music, TV and film, actually function to exclude or stereotype racial minorities, often by following capitalist logics. Here, I discuss with him some of the central points he raises in the book.
Anamik Saha is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London. Anamik’s research interests are in race and the media, with a particular focus on cultural production and the cultural industries. He has had his work published in journals including Media, Culture and Society, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and European Journal of Cultural Studies. With David Hesmondhalgh (2013) he co-edited a special issue of Popular Communication on race and ethnicity in cultural production, and with Dave O’Brien, Kim Allen and Sam Friedman (2017) he co-edited a special issue of Cultural Sociology on inequalities in the cultural industries. His new book Race and the Cultural Industries came out in 2018, published by Polity Press.
In your recent book, Race and the Cultural Industries, you analyse how commodified mass media represents or constructs conceptions of race. Could you briefly summarise the importance of your approach, and how it enables us to understand the mechanisms of representation surrounding race and ethnicity in popular culture?
Anamik Saha: In a nutshell, I am interested in the production of representation of race in the context of the cultural industries. That is, how cultural industries make race. This I feel is a neglected area of study. In media and race research, the main concern is with how racial and ethnic minorities are (mis)represented in the news or in popular culture. Such research mostly entails examining how a particular representation of racial or ethnic minorities works at the point of reception/consumption. But there’s little understanding of how that representation came to be made in the first place. And surely that should have some bearing on how we understand that particular text?
For instance, while this may not be their main motivation, for many cultural producers from minority backgrounds – whether an author, a scriptwriter, a filmmaker, or a musician – one aim is to challenge a particular racial or ethnic stereotype through the stories they are creating. But very often they will encounter (white) creative managers, for instance an editor, a producer or executive, who, armed with sales data, market research, or even just a ‘gut feeling’, will attempt to steer the author/filmmaker/playwright into reproducing the very trope they were trying to undermine in the first place, on the basis that it will work better with the ‘mainstream’ audience. This explains those instances where we find minorities behind the making of what we deem problematic representations of race.
I argue that having this insight into the production process, at a basic level, will shed new light on how we read and interpret the cultural commodity in question. But more than that, it points us to the question of where exactly we need to stage interventions: during the process of industrial cultural production itself. A key argument of the book is that we need to couple a ‘politics of representation’ with a ‘politics of production’, that is, a focus not just on the stories we want to tell, but how we make them.
One of the main points you make is that, although there are more people of colour visible in the media now than previously, the range of representations of racial and ethnic minorities is still limited, and ‘minorities continue to be represented according to particular tropes that appear to emanate from colonial times’. Presumably, however, the forms of these representations have changed in recent decades – for example, the kind of crude ethnic stereotypes seen in UK TV comedy in the 1970s are now deemed unsuitable for broadcast. How are colonialist racist tropes manifested in today’s ‘neoliberalised’ media?
AS: Clearly, the representation of racial and ethnic minorities have objectively got better since the 1970s. In fact, as you suggest we now find a ‘hypervisibility’ of difference in media such as television. If you were to flick through the channels (if people still do that) on any week night during prime time, you will almost certainly encounter a black or brown face – often more than once! As Sarita Malik says, the type of television formats that dominate our channels rely on having a range of social types. Masterchef would look so bland if all the contestants were just white, middle-class men; it’s much better to have a mix.
Yet as media scholar Melanie Kohnen puts it, diversity in this case often becomes a veneer to look at rather than something to actually explore. Put another way, we may see a lot more black and brown faces onscreen, but how much do we actually learn about black and brown lives?
When we do eventually find a TV show or film based around a particular minority character and experience, I think its uncanny how often they fit within the dichotomy that first emerges from the early colonial encounters: the Other as something that is desired/feared. Whether you’re studying newspaper stories on migrants, black-cast sitcoms, or the representation of East Asians in Hollywood film, it is genuinely amazing the extent that they reproduce historical constructions of Otherness. It is astonishing how little they veer from these tropes!
The question that follows is, what is shaping the changes (and continuities) in media representation of race? As your question suggests, a ‘neoliberalised media’ – that is, a media that is becoming increasingly marketized and commercialised – is having a paradoxical effect on minorities. On the one hand it is placing more constraints upon minority producers who are seen as a riskier investment. On the other hand ‘diversity’ is seen as a value that can give a cultural commodity a competitive advantage within an over-crowded market. Neither of these outcomes are good, as racial difference is once again denigrated/disavowed or fetishised.
But also, we need to take into account the changing politics of multiculturalism. In recent years we have reached a supposed ‘crisis’ in multiculturalism and the sense that Western society has been too accommodating, there’s too much difference. Media workers go to work every day shaped by these broader social, cultural and political forces, and this will affect how they approach how they work with issues of race and difference. One of the key aims of the book is to see how capitalism and legacies of empire come together to shape the cultural industries and industrial cultural production itself. I am trying to think through why certain patterns around the representation of race recur, while at the same time avoiding a simplistic reductionist account of the media as ideological state apparatus.
You also discuss in your book how a modern focus on ‘diversity initiatives’ in media, both in terms of who is employed to produce media and who features in its content can ‘actually serve an ideological function that sustains the institutional whiteness of the cultural industries even while they claim (often genuinely so) to do something more inclusive.’ Are diversity initiatives in commodified media doomed to reinforce ‘institutional whiteness’? What alternative approaches might media organisations (or government) take to potentially avoid these pitfalls?
AS: Diversity initiatives – whether quotas and targets, training schemes, internships or educational partnerships – have been in place in the cultural industries for several decades now. Yet the media remains overwhelmingly white. Many within the industry believe that the lack of impact is because such initiatives haven’t been implemented properly. Industry leaders are criticised for only applying these initiatives in a half-hearted way, without proper investment. For some, they only ever amount to a tokenistic gesture.
I argue that diversity initiatives in fact serve an ideological function. They are a way of meeting the demands of minorities while keeping the status quo intact. Quite simply, for diversity initiatives to work we rely on them being implemented by the dominant culture, who, if they were to apply them in the correct way, would in effect be undermining their own position! Not that I am saying that there is a conspiracy involved. I think there are plenty of well-meaning people in the cultural industries who would genuinely like to see more diversity – as long as it does not affect their position. As I said, diversity initiatives are a way of appearing to address the problem of inequality while keeping racial hierarchies in place.
How to fix this problem is a difficult question. I propose some starting points. Firstly, we need to focus less on merely increasing the number of minorities in the cultural industries, and more on equality in onscreen representation. After all, it is the very symbolic quality of the media that is so important to us in the first place. As I argue, minority cultural producers actually find their practice constrained in the context of industrial cultural production that prevents them from crafting the stories they want to tell. One reason for this is that minorities are seen as a riskier investment, whose products will have limited appeal to the mainstream (i.e. white) audience. As such, the next step is putting into place strategies that help ensure that minority cultural producers attain the same creative freedom as their white counterparts.
At the macro level this might entail forms of regulation that facilitate and enable independent cultural production which gives minorities the most autonomy and freedom for self-definition and self-representation. At the micro level, it is about enlightening minorities themselves about how the production process will attempt to steer them into reproducing particular racial tropes and how best they can evade these forces. As far as diversity itself goes, I think we need to replace this discourse with a more radical language of reparations. But I’m saving this particular argument for the next book!
Are recent right-wing political shifts, such as those which led to Brexit in the UK or the election of Trump in US, in part testament to the way in which a focus on diversity and a ‘post-race’ attitude in mass media fails to articulate and confront ongoing social antagonisms?
AS: If we stick to the British context, the Brexit campaign clearly played on and took advantage of anti-immigrant feeling. While studies in urban sociology have shown that people’s actual everyday encounters with difference are mostly mundane and ordinary, and at times, even convivial, nonetheless many of these people voted to leave the EU. While wanting to avoid a simplistic model of media effects, I argue that the media plays a powerful role in sustaining and then exploiting the dull pain of the nation’s postcolonial melancholia. You see this in news stories where refugees/migrants are painted as a contamination of the nation’s body politic, or in the banal nationalism of English popular (media) culture. And the Brexit campaign benefited from this.
Neo-liberal post-race discourse effectively decouples race from racism. It does so in order to produce the lie that society is now a level playing field where individuals can compete in terms of merit alone – no-one should receive a step-up as that’s against the rules of the game. Diversity initiatives theoretically should be antithetical to neoliberalism but are rationalised in terms of their supposed economic value: ‘diversity is good for business’. Needless to say this could not be further from the idea of the cultural industries engaging in what Catherine Hall calls ‘reparatory work’, exposing the injustices produced by empire and its legacy, and reversing the symbolic violence committed in its name. If we believe in the media as a truly independent, autonomous sphere, then why shouldn’t this be its role? This can only be good for British society.
At the same time, how does commodified media react to such a political shift? Have you noticed a change in media output in the last year or so, in terms of catering either to this right-wing populism or to the backlash against it?
AS: In news media we are seeing the continued demonisation of migrants, and rampant Islamophobia. Migrants and Muslims are seen as the biggest threat to society and news media continues to stoke these flames (as this is what helps sell papers). In popular culture we are seeing more people of colour but it is no more than a superficial version of cultural diversity. More colour-blind casting appears progressive, but the way in which racial minorities feature in these texts (with very rarely any discussion of racism apart from a one episode story-arc) perpetuates the idea of society as a level-playing field – what Jo Littler calls a post-racial neoliberal meritocracy.
In your book you discuss the concept of ‘industry lore’, or the assumptions through which media distributors and producers define what kind of content will appeal to audiences domestically and internationally. To what extent do ‘common sense’ preconceptions about what audiences find acceptable hold back more diverse representations of ethnic and racial minorities? Does the economic reasoning behind such preconceptions cover for racist ideological motivations?
AS: I take the concept of ‘industry lore’ from Tim Havens. For Havens, this is the knowledge and understanding that creative managers use to make decisions about black cultural production. They are forms of ‘lore’ as even though they appear as common sense, they are quite literally nothing more than stories or indeed myths. And this clearly has a power/knowledge dimension when it comes to race. Common forms of lore assume that ‘a film with a black lead won’t sell abroad’, or ‘a magazine cover with a black person on it will sell fewer copies than a cover featuring a white person’, or ‘a song not sung in English can never be a hit in Anglo markets’.
The thing about these different types of lore is that they are often based on an economic rationale – ‘I’m not being racist, just look at the figures’ – and this is what hides their ideological/racist dimensions. All three of the different types of lore I just mentioned have been challenged time and time again, but they are so entrenched that they are hard to budge. The global success of Black Panther should transform the lore about the inability of black cast films to perform well abroad. But it will probably instead reinforce the lore that says audiences still love big budget action hero films. Get ready for another deluge of such films this summer….
Black Panther certainly has shown that an almost entirely black cast (and black director and writers) is not an obstacle to huge box office success, not only in the US but internationally as well. How do you view its significance, either in terms of its cultural impact or its potential to redefine what a major mainstream movie can be?
AS: I am not cynical enough to deny the significance of Black Panther especially for black audiences around the world. What I think it demonstrates in particular is the affective power of race in film. You could imagine a black kid walking out of that cinema feeling five inches taller… This is why popular culture matters in my view, especially for race.
What I find fascinating about Black Panther is that, apart from the casting of the movie (which admittedly is a massive deal), there is nothing radical about the production itself. The movie is no different from any other superhero films, from the huge budgets and special effects, to the storyline, to the marketing, and the use of the star system. If I put my cynical hat back on, you could say that Marvel, looking to inject new life into the superhero film, used race to reinvigorate the genre – and audiences.
Saying that, I hope it can challenge lore around black and brown film production, particularly regarding its global appeal/profitability. I’m not sure it will though. We’ll see a couple more sequels, but it’ll fizzle out again, as has been the case before…
Is there a sense that the massive and generally celebratory liberal media reaction (including online and social media) to films such as Black Panther, Get Out or Hidden Figures tends to return questions of race back to diversity and ‘positive’ representation, which detracts from actually examining the ongoing social antagonisms and tensions that the films may depict?
AS: Speaking in the case of literature, the author Rajeev Balasubramanyan refers to ‘multiculturalist’ fiction – that is, books that produce a very liberal-friendly form of difference that white readers find exotic and even slightly challenging, but not so much to put them off reading. I think those films you mention might reproduce that ideology, and is why they get produced in the first place. (Though saying that, I think Get Out is truly subversive and it is no coincidence that it is the only film out of those three made independently.)
I think as well that the praise from the establishment that follows can frame how these films are interpreted and read afterwards, subsuming some of the radical potential. For instance the postcolonial theorist Graham Huggan discusses how Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children felt like a truly radical voice that subverted the Eurocentricity of literary fiction, but after it won the Booker Prize it got reframed as exotic magical realism. I think the same thing has happened to the film Moonlight. What began as a quiet, yet radical depiction of black sexuality, has, post-Oscar victory, become fetishised and somewhat decontexualised/divorced from the community it set out to engage with.
Throughout the book you highlight the ambivalence of commodified media, whether independent, public service or corporate. As such, no matter how narrow and prescriptive the rationalizing effects of neoliberal marketization become for the representation of race, the need to produce original media products always leaves room a level of creativity and risk. The question then is whether this small room for manoeuvre can have politically significant effects, or whether it first relies on cultural movements external to commodified media creating new demands that cannot be ignored (for example, the social media activism of #OscarsSoWhite). How do you see this relationship between commodified media and social media in terms of changing how race and ethnicity are constructed in popular culture?
AS: The first part of your question deals with perhaps the key theme of the book. While wanting to avoid a celebratory account of the media I think it is important to note, or indeed, value those moments where we encounter a cultural commodity that offers a truly radical, or alternative, or beautiful depiction of blackness/brownness that goes against the grain. Not only do those moments actually happen (recent cultural commodities I have enjoyed consuming include the BBC sitcom Man Like Mobeen and the album ‘We Out Here’ which is a compilation of the new multiracial/multi-gendered London jazz scene, and I cannot wait for the new season of Atlanta to drop), but they can at times be produced in the most corporate or commercialised of settings.
As you allude to in your question, it is not a simple case of acknowledging that the cultural industries are occasionally capable of making these products, but rather, we need to understand how it is the very logics of the cultural industries and industrial cultural production led to them in the first place. In other words, the commodities I mention are not just flukes or aberrations but a product of the very system that ordinarily gets in the way. The question is how we can transform the system so it produces more of these goods, which in turn can lead to social transformation in some way.
The increasing marketisation and commercialisation of the cultural industries as we have discussed in many ways makes things worse for minorities, constraining their practice and placing limits on their creative freedom. However, while I want to temper utopian accounts of the ‘revolutionary’ potential of the Internet, the impact of social media has been transforming. Put it this way, a studio is going to think twice now before casting a white actor to play an established East Asian comic book character. Having a diverse cast is high on the agenda now for the producers of television drama. Publishing houses more than ever before understand that their workforce is way too white and middle-class and they are rightly embarrassed about the fact! And all these outcomes have come from campaigning and activism, especially on social media.
Now of course, that is not to say that the cultural industries have or will fix the problem of their own accord – as I said earlier, they will often do so to look like they are addressing concerns of minorities while actually keeping existing power structures in place. And as I said, for me, colour-blind casting rather than radical seems tokenistic, which is why we need to keep media companies on their toes, and be ready to offer sharp critique when a situation demands. This is never going to be a battle that is won outright. But it is about popular culture as a battlefield, or a war of position, to paraphrase Stuart Hall-citing-Gramsci. And social media technologies have certainly enabled minority culture. Which is why as much as I am depressed by the reductive ways in which racial and ethnic minorities continue to be represented by the media, I am always excited too about what might come up next.