(De)Constructing Knowledge: "Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media"

by Abaki Beck

What are we reading?  hooks, bell. 1995. “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media.” Killing rage: ending racism. New York: H. Holt and Co.

Before we start, please note that throughout this piece, hooks uses the word “colonized” to describe the violences of white supremacy against black people in the United States. Check out this article, highlighted in last month’s (De)Constructing Knowledge segment, in which the authors argue that this is problematic and erases indigenous people.

What is the role of mass media in upholding white supremacy in America? How does this influence white people's views of people of color; or more necessary and profound: how does it influence people of color's view of themselves? This is the topic bell hooks explores in her piece “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media.” (Please note that in this article, hooks discusses black experiences and black communities specifically, not communities in color in general in America) During the era of legally encouraged and enforced segregation (which hooks categorizes as between the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement), hooks argues that black people were able to maintain an oppositional and subversive worldview - resulting, for example, in militant resistance - despite the fact that society and politics dictated that black people were inferior to whites. With an increase in mass media however, this was made more difficult.

According to hooks, as television reached more people than ever, white supremacy was able to seep into black households in a way previously unknown. This did two main things, hooks argues: it creates new enticement for “assimilation” and “longing” for whiteness, in the form of capitalism and the advertisement of material goods; and it enforces an extremely limited perspective on people of color, white people, and racism in America. Thus, the ties between racism and capitalism continue to evolve as we move through the ages. During the initial colonization and formation of the United States, racist, capitalist structures manifested themselves primarily through ownership (slavery, control of resources). Today, capitalism has a slightly different role: as hooks says, “the longing to have access to material rewards granted whites...was the greatest seduction” (110). Standards for nearly everything in our lives - from fashion to homegoods - are measured by white ideas of wealth and beauty, and most promoted to us through mass media.

Second, hooks notes how mass media, particularly television, impacts views of racism in America. Because of the extremely limited representation of black actors, writers, and producers, and the even more limited representation of non-stereotypical, developed characters for black actors, television upholds white supremacist beliefs. She further notes that in television, racism is not seen as structural, but in the “imaginations” of blacks; it does not hold white people accountable (which of course is not surprising, considering television production is dominated by white people). Though the article is strongly focused on the impacts of mass media on black people, she also mentions that because of media, white people are made to feel like they “know” black people if they are familiar with black characters, though the community is being grossly misrepresented and, in effect, erased.

Finally, hooks critiques responses to such representations, arguing that there has not been enough resistance to such images, though they reinforce white supremacy. She notes that though there have been a few films with more nuanced and realistic portrayals of blackness and black individuals, they have received little support. hooks argues that it is not enough to simply watch tv shows produced by people of color or listen to podcasts challenging media representations. We must also collectively organize against misrepresentation. hooks critiques broader resistance movements of the time as well - saying that challenges to mass media could spark a “renewed movement for racial justice” (118). She notes:

“Without an organized resistance movement that focuses on the role of mass media in the perpetuation and maintenance of white supremacy, nothing will change...Mass media are neither neutral nor innocent when it comes to spreading the message of white supremacy. It is not far-fetched for us to assume that many more white Americans would be anti-racist if they were not socialized daily to embrace racist assumptions.”

Granted, this article was written twenty years ago, before the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter, and improvements have been made in terms of (mis)representation of people of color in mass media. I wonder, to what extent has social media improved the representation of people of color and race in American mass media, and the ability to organize around it. Has the increased availability to engage with and create media produced by people of color, trans people, and other marginalized individuals made an impact on mass media? What is the importance of continually challenging mass media, while these alternative communities and media exist and thrive? What role does challenging representation play in broader racial justice movements, such as movements against police brutality? Can you have one without the other? (I will allow readers to discuss this with themselves)

Communities of color in the United States have been organizing against mis-representation of of themselves by white society and white supremacy throughout history (see Simon Pokagon’s speech “the red man’s rebuke” from 1892) and continue to vibrantly and actively do so in the present (see the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon campaign), seeing the connection between racist or narrow representations and other forms of violence and discrimination. Today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Congress of American Indians both actively challenge and call out media and popular culture imagery that erases the communities they represent.

As much as it is important  to write letters, protest, start petitions, and organize, it is equally important to create and thrive in your own media and communities when the “mainstream” refuses to listen and love. Here are some ideas of the types of media organizations to support and engage with:

  • Organizations that bring together and highlight POC media and cultural production such as the Necia Media Collective or Open TV , which is like Netflix but for stories that are not represented on mainstream television. Podcasts in Color have a list compiled of podcasts produced by people of color. It’s an extensive list to sort through, but there are great finds.

  • Less mainstream forms of media and cultural representation, like zines, that have historically been and are continue to be a platform for marginalized or silenced communities. Check out Brown Recluse Zine Distro or POC Zine Project to find some you may like.

  • Community specific groups, such as Red Nation TV or Native Women in Film and TV (both highlighting Native American film and television production).  

Thank you for reading and engaging, and tune in next month for a new segment of (De)Constructing Knowledge!

Follow up: If you don’t know much about bell hooks, read her interview in the New York Times about love, laughter, resistance, and spirituality. She also recently had a discussion about pop culture with Laverne Cox.

Abaki Beck