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The Power of Media: How It Shapes Gender, Race, and Class Perceptions

The Power of Media: How It Shapes Gender, Race, and Class Perceptions

Introduction

Media is a powerful tool that defines life’s realities. Media influences race, gender, and class, three of the most important organizing principles of society. In the current media-focused society, much of what people understand about race, class, and gender is based on the media’s narratives and images about these topics. While the media has promoted positive change in society, its depictions of race, gender, and class have resulted in discrimination. Therefore, people are judged based on their race, their gender, and their social class. Over the years, media has created negative racial stereotypes that have encouraged racism. As racism directly impacts social class, race, and gender, it is vital to understand how media has propagated this prejudice. Understanding how media influences racism is the key to creating viable solutions that can help solve this problem. Media is central to what represents class, gender, and race realities.

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Influence of Media on Gender, Race and Class

Today’s society is hooked on various forms of media. People constantly consume media content through print, broadcast, and the internet. The endless consumption of media content has made it such that media institutions are in control of the narrative. Everything people know, identify, and are concerned about is based on the images, texts, and symbols media institutions provide. Media shapes the way people identify themselves and their notions of gender, class, and race. Therefore, the narrative of what it means to be female or male, black, Asian, Latino, white, and poor or rich is a direct construct of media portrayals. Today’s social realities are narratives created and spread by the media.

People’s understanding of race, class and gender is rooted in culture. Culture encompasses the social behaviors, beliefs, norms, knowledge, and customs of different groups of people. People use culture to give meaning to identity, relationships, and experiences. As media influences culture, it also influences the meaning of gender, making it a social construct that dictates what it means to be a man or woman and the responsibilities and expectations tied to that title. Race is a social construct that has little basis in science. People use skin color, hair texture, and hair color to identify race. Racial categories are based on a region’s political, social, and economic dynamics. Class is a social construct in which people are grouped in hierarchical categories. Occupation, heritage, income, wealth, and education determine the hierarchical position people fall into. Individuals with these factors have greater access to power and resources, which places them higher in social ranks.

What people watch and read in the media is the source of stereotypes people have about individuals with seemingly distinct features. These perceptions are the root of racism, and they determine the kind of treatment different groups of people receive. The cultivation theory shows that long-term media exposure makes it difficult for people to distinguish reality from media fiction (Wright, 2018). For instance, black men have long been portrayed as violent and dangerous in the media. This depiction has built the belief that black men are dangerous and are to be feared. The associative priming theory shows that beliefs influence people’s interpretations (White, 2017). Therefore, the long-term portrayal of black men as dangerous reinforces the belief that black men are to be feared, resulting in a society that constantly blames black men for violence. Although crime statistics do not support the overrepresentation of black people in prisons with criminality, the constant portrayal of black men as criminals strengthens negative perceptions of race and crime. This image affects how society interacts with black people (Isom, 2017). African American women also fall prey to this stereotype. Of all the depictions shown of women in media, the black woman has long been portrayed as overbearing, aggressive, and ill-tempered (Cheers, 2017). This image is the basis of “the angry black woman,” an image that has negatively impacted the way society treats African American women.

The stereotypical media depiction of black people being dangerous has given way to racial discrimination. The media has created a culture that conditions the general population to view black people as dangerous; hence, it is common for black people to experience hate and discrimination. The US population is one of the most diverse globally; however, people are judged through a binary system that categorizes them as either black or white. The closer one’s skin color is to white; the more favorable they are treated. Dark and brown-skinned individuals are treated discriminately by society. For instance, due to the preconceived idea that dark-skinned individuals are criminals, neighborhoods with a large population of black and brown people are neglected as they are seen as dangerous. In contrast, areas that white individuals predominantly occupy are seen as safe, and they branded the title “suburban American dream.” Regions with this title are well maintained and have various social amenities. This form of discrimination is detrimental as it reinforces resentment and hostility.

Class discrimination is another form of bias that the media propagates. As stated earlier, the media depicts black neighborhoods as dangerous and poverty-stricken. This image paints the picture that these regions are dirty, and their inhabitants are low-income earners that lack education and manners. Children that grow up watching movies and films that depict black neighborhoods in this light develop a permanent bias against living in communities with black people. Also, the image creates prejudice as society associates poverty with black people and black neighborhoods. Most popular movies have shown that people living in black neighborhoods are poor. This imagery is a form of class discrimination as it directly associates poverty with people of color.

The lack of diverse representation has also contributed to the prejudice media has depicted over the years. Until recently, media institutions excluded people of color from creating media content. This exclusion impacted media representation, resulting in inaccurate depictions of black people. For instance, in 1915, the film “Birth of a Nation” portrayed black people as morally degenerate delinquents that needed to be dealt with through groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. This film justified racism and created a tradition in which future films cast black people in limited, demeaning, and stereotypical roles that further stressed that they were dangerous (Garrett, 2017). Over time, negative media about black people has resulted in racial profiling. This form of discrimination affects the public’s view of people of color, fostering institutional bias. For instance, racial profiling is prevalent in the modern-day justice system. The criminal justice system often presumes that people of color are guilty of crimes without proof. This assumption has led to the fatal shooting and killing of several unarmed and innocent black men by police (Mesic et al., 2018). The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castille, and Botham Jean are examples of high-profile cases in which black men senselessly lost their lives due to racial profiling and mistaken identity.

Racial profiling is detrimental as it places people of color in a situation where they constantly need to explain and justify their identities in a manner acceptable to the white society. In response to the increased racial profiling cases, social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter have emerged. Black Lives Matter has coined phrases such as driving while black and living while black. These phrases show how white people and law enforcement officers harass black people as they go about their daily lives. The prominence of these phrases in media highlights how racial profiling affects the lives of people of color.

Racism In social media

Social media is the most popular form of media to exist. Close to half of the world’s population use social media. Some of the most popular social media sites include Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019). Each of these sites has more than a billion users. Though each of these platforms has unique ways in which users interact and share information, all social media platforms provide users the power to say what they want at the time they want. In addition to free speech, social media platforms also provide users with anonymity. While social media has enabled the ease in the spread of information, it has also turned into a platform that promotes racism. Anonymity has enabled users to create toxic online spaces that abuse and attack people due to their race, gender, and class (Linabary & Corple, 2019). Both overt and subtle racism thrives on social media. Overt racism in social media is most prominent among adolescents, and it involves the spread of rude texts and images that attack specific groups of people (English et al., 2020). Adults often make subtle racists remarks, and they mask these remarks as harmless comedic jokes. An example of subtle racism is the use of made-up names. These made-up names represent people’s assumptions of what a black person should be named. Other than racism, these made-up names are also used to indicate class disparities. Phrases such as “go back to Africa” are commonly used. As Africa has been depicted as a poverty-stricken region, individuals who use this phrase do it to tell black people that they belong to poor regions. These made-up names and phrases categorize black people as odd and low-income earners. They also tell black people that they belong to the bottom of the social class.

Racism In Film and Television

During the early to mid-1900s, white actors would apply black paint on their skins to depict black people. These actors would then portray their characters as lazy, illiterate, and uncivilized. This portrayal dehumanized black people and set the stage for modern biased attitudes and perceptions about black people in media ( ). Between the 1960s and 1970s, media networks started featuring black actors. By the 1990s, black families were portrayed in some media stations, with shows like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gaining national attention. Despite these advances, the representation of black people on media shows was skewed, and only a few actors got the opportunity to act in roles that did not depict media stereotypes.

Today, many media shows have black actors; however, the negative image of black people persists. For instance, modern sitcoms and reality shows perpetuate stereotypes such as black people being on welfare, black women being angry, and young black girls being prone to sexual promiscuity and early pregnancy (Dixon, 2019). For instance, reality shows such as I love New York, the Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Love and Hip-Hop commonly show that their black female casts are always aggressive. Also, these shows are heavily scripted to elicit drama and increase ratings at the expense of black women. These programs also depict their cast as being too loud, promiscuous, and materialistic, traits that negatively affect the image society has of black women. In addition to enforcing negative stereotypes, these shows also promote internalized racism. Internalized racism is evident in the adoption of behavior that mimics negative stereotypes (Speight, 2007). As black people watch these shows, they are likely to adopt these stereotypes and project the negative images they see of themselves.

Racism in Representation

People are influenced by what they see growing up. As children learn through visuals, their understanding of the world is based on the meaning their culture provides. Therefore, a child’s understanding of what gender, race, and class mean is based on the cultural representation their society and media provide. Positive representation results in positive attitudes, while negative representation results in negative attitudes. Over the years, American culture and media have used derogatory representation to describe black people. As a result, negative stereotypes persist, promoting hate and discrimination. Negative representation is a double tragedy as children of other races are taught to hate black people, and young black children equally learn to hate themselves. There is a need for increased representation of black people and black culture in the media to combat these negative effects. For instance, the Marvel Studios movie Black Panther introduced the idea that black people can be heroes. Black Panther also showed various positive aspects of black culture. This positive imagery showed black children that they could grow up to be anything they wanted. Therefore, positive representation is essential in changing people’s minds and reconstructing society’s narratives about people of color.

Conclusion

Media is central to what represents class, gender, and race realities. Over the years, media has helped create negative stereotypes about people based on their race. These stereotypes affect the way society views people of color. As highlighted above, the media has long portrayed people of color as dangerous, aggressive, and impolite. Black men are portrayed as dangerous, while black women are portrayed as aggressive. In addition, both black men and women have been depicted as poor and with low levels of education. The prevalence and acceptance of these stereotypes show that media significantly influences the meanings of race, gender, and class. As gender, race, and class greatly influence the lives and experiences of people, the media needs to start portraying people of color in a positive light.

References

Cheers, I. M. (2017). The evolution of black women in television: Mammies, matriarchs, and mistresses. Routledge.

Dixon, T. L. (2019). Media stereotypes: Content, effects, and theory. In Media Effects. Taylor & Francis.

English, D., Lambert, S. F., Tynes, B. M., Bowleg, L., Zea, M. C., & Howard, L. C. (2020). Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black US American adolescents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 101068.

Garrett, M. A. (2017). Contemporary portrayals of blacks and mixed blacks in lead roles: Confronting historical stereotypes of African Americans on the big screen (Doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University).

Isom, A. (2017). News Representation of Black Men, Post Black Lives Matter [Capstone Thesis]. Huskie Commons, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.

Linabary, J. R., & Corple, D. J. (2019). Privacy for whom?: A feminist intervention in online research practice. Information, Communication & Society, 22(10), 1447-1463.

Mesic, A., Franklin, L., Cansever, A., Potter, F., Sharma, A., Knopov, A., & Siegel, M. (2018). The relationship between structural racism and black-white disparities in fatal police shootings at the state level. Journal of the National Medical Association, 110(2), 106-116.

Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2019). The rise of social media. University of Oxford. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social-media

Speight, S. L. (2007). Internalized racism: One more piece of the puzzle. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 126-134.

White, S. T. (2017). Associative Priming and Implicit Bias Towards African Americans.

Wright, T. (2018). Cultivation theory: Television and how it affects one’s perception of culture.

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