This piece is part of the Growing Up Amid the Rise of Racism Series
Education has long been at the center of movements for civil rights and social justice. In his famous Niagara Movement speech, scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois demands, among other things, access to adequate education where children, specifically black children, are taught to think, grow and aspire. Du Bois like many before and after him understood the fundamental importance of critical thinking and a relevant education in the shaping of young people’s lives and how that benefits the broader society. Although the backdrop of that 1906 speech has changed for some, for others the challenges remain fundamentally the same as they were over a century ago. Educators understand the transformational potential of our work and often find ourselves continuing the efforts of giants like Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper to keep open the doors for young people to grow into their full selves, even and perhaps especially in times when their very beings are under attack.
The current rise of overt racism in media and in all social spheres requires even more effort to equip young people with analytical tools to navigate the social world. I say overt racism specifically to mark that all forms of racism continue to exist and shape our lived experiences. In fact, despite how this narrative has been deployed in the past few decades, our society has never been color-blind nor post-racial. We have not achieved equality across all groups to the point where one’s race would be of no social, economic, political, or structural consequence.
How, then, do we teach our children to be engaged, confident, and critical citizens and thinkers in the face of extremism, in the midst of racialized, gendered, and classed violence and daily injustices? The challenges of this moment are magnified for some families and communities, especially those in more precarious positions living in pain, in fear, under incarceration, under surveillance, and on the edges, as borders are closing and tightening globally.
While there are multiple and overlapping social, political, and policy issues at play in this moment, this essay will focus on one in particular: education, specifically media literacy education.
Media Literacy Defined
So, what is media literacy? According to the National Association for Media for Literacy Education, it is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing.” All 50 states include media literacy skills in curriculum standards, according to the University of Florida College of Education. But there exists no standard for how to teach these skills or for how educators learn these skills. Individual states are working to improve in this area. For example, Colorado passed a law, HB19–1110, to create a media literacy committee in the department of education to report to “the house of representatives and the senate regarding the committee’s recommendations for implementing media literacy in elementary and secondary education.”
For me, the central question is: How do marginalized communities build and/or maintain self-esteem and group esteem in the midst of overt and sustained racist attacks promulgated through a range of media platforms? I appreciate how historians help us to understand the current moment, including the knowledge that history is not necessarily linear, events repeat themselves, and there is much to learn from the past, including how generations before us handled these particular challenges. One need only look at the ethnic cleansings and genocides from the past 25–50 years to learn that the everyday conditioning of average people to see their neighbors as “other,” less than, dangerous, undesirable, non-human, and/or disposable makes these unimaginable atrocities possible. It also takes everyday people’s courage to save their friends and neighbors under harrowing circumstances. So, learning and teaching history, not as a thing of the past, but as context that can give us tools to move forward, is critical to building a democratic future. Media literacy is equally critical.
Cultural Exposure and Knowledge as Foundational
In returning to the question of how marginalized communities can build and/or maintain self-esteem and group esteem in the midst of overt and sustained attacks, one possibility is to celebrate pluralism, while also teaching young people about their individual cultures. For those raised in what are popularly called “diverse” or minoritized households, specifically communities deemed “other” or “less-than” in mainstream media and political discourse, this education is part of daily life and often feels natural. As a young person in the U.S., I was annoyed by the Haitian music marathons during the weekends and being dragged to parties where adults danced and talked while kids entertained each other. What I learned much later is that it is these everyday experiences that cumulatively made Haitian culture feel normal to me. I assumed that everyone’s weekends and parties were like ours — as we were ordinary. I would go to a party fully anticipating Haitian patties and cake, which of course felt like a treat as we waited hours for them. I learned about customs and delicacies, and got to hear a lot of trash talking about Haitian politics. I remain grateful for this everyday exposure as it facilitated my understanding and appreciation of Haiti and Haitian culture outside of the mainstream media depictions.
The Need for Media Literacy
But cultural knowledge and appreciation are not enough primarily because they put the onus on the already marginalized to respond to and fortify oneself against a barrage of negative and disparaging images, stories, and political discourses about people of color. Building an equitable education system is perhaps one of the most powerful ways for us to move forward. On a smaller scale, introducing media literacy consistently across primary education can do much to equip all young people to navigate this social world and this saturated media world. This could include learning media grammar, for example: when and how stereotypes are deployed, the presence and absence of certain characters and groups in tv shows, and the use of experts in news. This should include learning media shortcuts so children can recognize for example that when the words, “urban,” “unruly hair,” and “lazy,” are used, it is often to deploy particular racial meanings. Also, images of people en masse, particularly immigrants and people of color, can depict crisis and invasion, and can invoke fear.
Media scholars, educators and some producers lobby for comprehensive media literacy education in schools because we know:
- Media touches all aspects of our lives and most hours of our days — we live in a media saturated world.
- There exists conflicting research on media’s exact impact or effects, but we know minimally that media, specifically news, tell us what to think about. Also, people learn about the world from media, and often emulate behaviors that they see being rewarded.
- Credible journalism is under attack, especially with the rise of informal blogs and vlogs where anyone can claim expertise.
- Hackers, trolls, and bots create and circulate “fake news” that then lead to discrediting legitimate journalism.
- Marginalized communities, specifically people of color, remain woefully underrepresented as producers and decision-makers (from reporters and editors, to television writers and actors).
With these overwhelming factors, can families and/or caregivers assist in negating the impact of media on young people? Absolutely. But people are busy. And for households where adults hold multiple jobs, it is nearly impossible to monitor, yet alone sit with children to dissect media representations. Media literacy as a part of regular education curriculum will offset the burden and equip students with analytical tools that they can use and share with their families and communities.
While general skill-building, as reflected in the first step taken by the state of Colorado is important, media literacy education incorporating race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and language is urgent. Youth need to be able to identify images and narratives that promote hateful ideologies, exclusion and intolerance. They need to articulate the difference between free speech and hate speech by comparing what is outlined by the U.S. Constitution versus what is represented in public discourse and media. Also, they should also be able to identify who is represented, who is representing, and who is missing. Who creates the image is just as important as who is left out of the image.
Media Literacy as Transformational
For young people who do not see themselves in media, or who only see themselves represented as outsiders, disposable, dangerous, unintelligent, poor, and as other similar stereotypes should understand that these images are created by people with particular viewpoints and biases, and economic interests. Much like in the Wizard of Oz, the ability to pull back the curtain to see that there are people creating these images and narratives is powerful. Similarly, accessing and creating alternative stories, stories of us in our own vision is equally transformational.
All children deserve to think, grow and aspire. We need to invest in them and in media literacy to reach that goal.
What Can You Do:
- Support existing organizations, such as Critical Media Project and National Association for Media Literacy Education.
- Lobby for comprehensive media literacy education- that includes teaching about identity and difference.
- Learn about media ownership and economic models that drive for-profit media.
- Search out and support media produced by and for minoritized communities.
*I thank Simonne Sequeira and Katherine Bell for their contributions.
Manoucheka Celeste is an associate professor at the University of Florida in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research with a shared appointment in the African American Studies Program. Dr. Celeste is the author of the award-winning book, Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the African Diaspora: Travelling Blackness (Routledge, 2018). She is currently working on a second book project, “The Wailing Black Woman: Interrupting Narratives of Life, Death, and Citizenship in Media and the Public Sphere,” where she centers black women to examine media portrayals of black life and death, and explores the implications of such representations.