Welcome! I am Jason Nguyen, a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington, and this blog is where I make observations about music, culture, and academic life.

The Media and Race

For those unaware, there was a recent robbery on the IU campus that, because the two groups were of different races, has been framed by the media as a racially motivated attack.  In one blatant example, headlined with “Blacks Attack Asian Students on IU Campus”1, we see an important journalistic concern: how to tell the truth while also contextualizing it.

The things people say inform the way they see the world.  To say “blacks attack asians” is to speak a truth of sorts, but it also carves up the world in a specifically racial way. And while post-racial narratives are nonsense, it’s equally nonsensical to hyper-racialize everything that could be potentially racial.

Foucault describes the structures that create a given discourse as a “discursive formation” 2. Put simply, we say the things we say in the way we say them because cultural conditions cause us to understand them in that way.  Because we live in a world where race is still an important way of identifying self and other–which is not necessarily bad–we come to understand and talk about the world racially.  Thus it is no surprise that someone who, wanting to hurt someone else, says something racial: it is an effective form of psychic violence as long as race matters to people.

In this crime, or the commentary on it, there is a tension.  The crime was in many ways not racial: the alleged robber was apparently known to be argumentative and violent to people in general, regardless of race.  But in many ways, it was also quite racial: when he chose to hurt someone, he did it physically, but also mentally, through racial slurs.  Responsible journalistic coverage of this and similar events must keep this tension in mind, rather than sensationalizing the latter as the media has done.  In the absence of responsible journalism, students must remember why they’re in college: to sharpen their minds to approach the problems of this world with a level head.

In short, truth always needs a context.  It might be true to say that a group of African American students attacked a group of Asian students, but if that is all one says, the decontextualized statement has space to be recontextualized by others, sometimes in ways that are counterproductive (e.g. reinforcing negative stereotypes people already have).

I am reminded about a timeless chemistry hoax, in which people are told that “dihydrogen monoxide” is a chemical that kills, is toxic, is used by industries, etc. and that it should be banned.  People go along with it, signing petitions and generally getting riled up.

All of that is true, but there’s one important contextualizing fact: dihydrogen monoxide is water. 3

  1. Associated Press. “Police: Blacks Attack Asian Students on IU Campus.” http://www.wibc.com/news/Story.aspx?id=1303847
  2. Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things.
  3. “Dihydrogen monoxide hoax.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax

2 comments to The Media and Race

  • Excellent commentary. My own conclusions are that those most vocal about racism are also the most bigoted. A good example of this are the the recent NAACP statements about the Tea Party members being racist. You have to wonder who the real racists are?

  • Well, there’s certainly SOME people in the Tea Party who are racist, but I think it’s counterproductive to whitewash (ahem) any group of people as being all one thing. There may even be a preponderance of racism within certain segments of the Tea Party, but you’re not going to get everyone else’s ear by calling them racist too. That’s unfortunate, because I think most of the electorate (Tea Party and otherwise) is plagued with ignorance more than blatant hate.

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