“I think the media lies.” blurted out Steven*, a 6th grader at the Nativity School of Harrisburg in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
It was the first of many candid and thoughtful responses that I received from my conversations with over 40 young African-American and Latino boys about their views on what is portrayed about them in the media. Their feedback ranged from feelings of acceptance from the way that media has depicted young males of color, to outright distrust.
For the past two weeks I’ve been conducting workshops in a small, private, all-boys school, made up of predominantly African-American and Latino youth from the inner city around the topics of media literacy and examining negative stereotypes of people of color in the media. I have to admit that when I initially had the conversation with the school’s principal about the necessity and relevance of having these kinds of conversations with our boys, while I wholeheartedly agreed that it needed to happen, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to conduct it. As an African-American female, I felt that perhaps they would be more receptive if it was another African-American or Latino male leading the charge; and perhaps I still feel this way in some respects. As I started writing the curriculum for the workshop and thinking about the questions that I wanted to ask to engage them in discussion, I started to think about how much the media influences the way Black men and women view each other, which inadvertently, affects how we see ourselves and relate to each other. At that moment, it became clear to me that both parties needed to be at the table.
Sure enough, on day one of the workshop, I did a poll among the group and asked them if they agreed with the statement that Black and Latino women tend to have more negative attitudes than White women. Overwhelmingly, the boys felt that this was true. When prompted for feedback on what shaped their perception, they quickly cited “fight” videos on YouTube that often depict Black women fighting each other. This, coupled with some of their own personal anecdotes involving negative interactions with Black females, seemed to confirm for them that the statement I made must be true. It wasn’t until we dug a little deeper, with me challenging them to find examples of Black and Latino women who overwhelmingly do positive things, that they started to see that perhaps they were only getting a one-sided view.
This experience started me to think about the way that we teach literacy in the classroom. Most curricula tend to focus on general comprehension and the exploration of classic literature, otherwise known as The Canon, which most certainly has its place in education. The more that I engage young people of color in conversations around what they see on social media and on TV, I would argue that there needs to be just as much time spent discussing their literacy of current events. They should discover how the hundreds of thousands of visual images they absorb and process each year are helping to shape their perceptions, not just of people who are different from them, but of themselves.
We may watch our kids aimlessly scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and think that they are only passively viewing information. They can’t possibly be absorbing anything substantial, right? Considering the following statement that a 13-year-old student shared only several days ago, I would beg to differ. Michael* shared, “I feel that White people gave us a chance to prove that we can do the right thing, but we keep messing up.”
As much as some may bristle at this statement, this is one young man’s truth, and he admittedly formulated it based on what he has observed in the news he sees, the music videos he watches, the social media he reads, the video games he plays, and the “reality TV” he consumes on a daily basis. Our children are coming of age during a time when there is more information available to them than ever before, but who is taking the time to sit down and help them dissect what they are taking in? We need more adult educators of color who are willing to show them the other side of the game, which is the industry that profits from constantly producing these images and negative messages. We have to show our young people that there’s “reality” and then there’s reality; they need to be shown that they have a choice to be who they want to be and create the lives they want.
As educators, we have a responsibility to purposely and thoughtfully develop our children’s minds. While it is not our job to tell them what to think, we should certainly be teaching them how to use their minds so that they don’t develop value systems based upon images that, in most cases, are warped or simply not rooted in truth. We want to teach them to strive for success on their own terms and not allow what they see on television to so heavily shape their sense of self-worth. But most importantly, we want to build strong communities where men and women can find a common ground and develop healthy relationships with one another without making assumptions based on one-dimensional caricatures. I look forward to continuing the dialogue with our young people, and I sincerely hope that others will consider joining me.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of students.