Blind spots: The dangers of unchecked social bias in race and media
Unexamined prejudice is a bigger problem in newsrooms than outright racism. Only by looking inward to examine — and repair — our biases can we hope to achieve progress.
I was nervous walking toward the front door. A few moments ago I had been sitting in my car, double checking my camera gear, making sure my shirt was tucked in, my collar was straight, and watching the clock tick away as I waited for it to hit the sweet spot between “not too early” and “just right.”
It was my first assignment on my first day at my first internship — after years of planning for this opportunity, the day was here. The paper was a community weekly in an affluent small California town, and my first assignment was to report on a women’s book club meeting at the home of one of the organizers.
With one last check of my pens and a pat down of my hair, I made my way past the manicured flower gardens and gold trimmed address plate to ring the bell. Inside, tucked away from the warm spring afternoon, I could see a dozen women sitting around a teapot, dressed in intricately patterned dresses and flower-adorned hats in what could be best described as 1950s Sunday best.
The party host quickly ushered me in, thanking me for coming as she waved for me to rush past the room where the book club members were sitting and down the hallway toward her kitchen in the rear of the home.
“Thank you, thank you!” she continued, sharing how stressed the book club had gotten her and what a relief it was that I’d finally arrived. Not sure how to respond, I mustered up a “No problem” or “Happy to be here.”
“It starts leaking water everywhere when I turn it on, if you could work on it fast before the ladies finish tea, and…” she continued to trail on, and I stood there watching the puzzle come together. She thought I was there to fix her dishwasher. This is why I was whisked away to the kitchen. This is why we were talking in hushed tones and why she didn’t want the ladies of the book club to see me. This is why she was ordering me around.
How she missed the photo ID on my neck emblazoned with the newspaper’s logo and my name, the Domke bag over my shoulder filled with lenses, the cannonball-sized Canon D2000 over my sore neck or that I brought no tools or gloves, and wasn’t dressed to roll around in suds of greasy water, I’ll never know.
I was more Mormon than mechanic, but what she saw was a young man at her door who fit her idea of what a repairman was supposed to look like: a brown face, in this neighborhood, at this hour — a handyman. And I needed to stop dilly dallying because she had a book club to get back to.
When she realized her folly, the power shifted and suddenly she needed me more than I needed her. At this point I could have left, I could have asked for someone else to visit later, but I proceeded to be professional and carry out the assignment. Not out of some chest-thumping commitment to journalism or pride (although sure, I wanted to do a good job on my first assignment), but because it was useless to fight. Either I would have been chewed out as too sensitive by an editor, or the subject would have framed me as rude for leaving.
So, instead, I shut up and took it.
I was used to it. I had 20 plus years under my belt of conditioning, of being told I’m a sand nigger, towelhead, rag head, camel jockey, Gandhi dot, 7–11, hadji, caddie, Apu, doon coon, smelled of curry, ate snakes (fucking Spielberg), and that I’m somehow responsible for soldiers dying in Desert Storm and later for being anti-American thanks to 9/11.
Nelson Mandela famously said no one is born with hate — it is learned. As, too, are our ideas of what something or someone is supposed to look like. The same learning process that defines what a “cup” is or what “green” is also implants the “form” of what race and its associated stereotypes dictate in the mind.
Whether we choose to admit it or not, we all have these forms in our minds to some degree. They filter into us through our surroundings, society, family, pop culture, history, and all that we learn in our day-to-day lives. As journalists, we are challenged on why we know what we know, and are encouraged to have a skeptical mind — and speaking for myself, I try to question my own biases often.
The way I think can be attributed to my feeling like an outsider for most of my life — no one looked like me growing up, spoke my language, or shared a similar background. I come from a religion and culture that makes up less than 1% of the world population — but that’s a topic for another day.
Portrayals in media shape our understanding of the world and can have a long-lasting impact on society. The choices we make today regarding how to illustrate our stories have lasting consequences, affecting the way we view ourselves as well as the way we view people we may or may not know or interact with in our daily lives.
If you have ever crossed a street to avoid a group of young black males; if you secretly breathe a sigh of relief when a bearded, olive-skinned man is “randomly selected” at the airport; if you don’t get the Hispanic teller with the heavy accent at the bank and are happy for it — these are all thoughts that are driven by the stereotypes you’ve accumulated over a lifetime and never examined.
You may think it’s no big deal, no one noticed … but we noticed, we always notice.
Most people, if they’re honest, have these thoughts. But you’re probably not a racist. If you pause to think about it, the logical part of your brain kicks in to remind you how irrational you’re being, and you check yourself. But the gut reaction, the initial thought, the fight-or-flight reflex — that is always there, reminding you that we haven’t gotten as far as we thought we had in the United States with respect to addressing ingrained biases and bigotry.
I don’t think the woman I met at the book club, who looked at me and made a stereotypical assumption, did it with malice or racist intentions — but her unchecked and ingrained biases had already done real and lasting damage.
And that incident brings me back to the larger underlying issues: Some of the most problematic threats aren’t hate groups, the KKK, or Neo-Nazis — we know where they stand, and we know how to challenge their assumptions with education and dialogue. No, the most troubling offenders are often the well-meaning “allies” who are convinced they are on the right side and can speak with authority on the matter, but can’t learn anything new and are always shocked and defensive when challenged or questioned, twisting themselves into knots and reminding us that they can’t possibly have racist thoughts, and that we are too sensitive and should think twice about raising such concerns.
There is a very fine line between a racist and someone with an unexamined prejudice. Most newsrooms have some highly educated, experienced, socially-motivated, self-proclaimed “allies” who are not racist, but do have some unchecked issues to address. The challenge, however, is that these individuals do not think they have a problem.
“We’re not the bad guys,” “How dare you,” they say, as they become defensive and warn you that it’s dangerous to bring up these issues, unjust to accuse them, that they once bought a copy of “Native Son” that they intended to read, and that they studied in India after college. The list of credentials do not get to the root of the problem. What we need is for these so-called allies to look inward and have a heart-to-heart with themselves and question their blind spots.
These well-intentioned individuals are in every level of power. In many cases, without them, there would be no gatekeepers willing and able to open a dialogue in newsrooms. But they fail to examine their own biases and without that inward inquiry, all of our progress is stalled.
Some newsrooms have a blindspot for racial and cultural understanding, and without more diversity, these blind spots go unnoticed and unchallenged until they become a bigger and unignorable issue. The result is often jobs lost, trust lost, and reputations in disrepair. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Taking a moment to self-reflect is a big part of identifying trouble areas and blind spots in order to improve. When I meet young photojournalists and video journalists, I tell them to make a new portfolio each year and to be amazed at how much better they get every year. They politely nod, some groan, but years later I run into them and they show me their new work and acknowledge that they kept growing and improving.
In the same way that we have to keep building new portfolios each year, we also have to reflect on our own biases.
Your work is an extension of you. For it to grow, you must also keep growing. If you accept that you are always growing and improving, then you must also accept that you have more to learn. And to learn, you must research and talk to others to get perspective.
Challenge your notions.
There’s an old trope in journalism: If your mom says she loves you, check with your dad. And if you accept that trope as a kind of basic truth, you must accept diversity and varying perspectives in the newsroom as a core belief.
The incident with the dishwasher was nearly 15 years ago. Since then as I’ve progressed through my career from small newsrooms to large international publications, working my way up the ladder, paying my dues, taking my lumps—from Eastside San Jose, through the rainforests of Costa Rica and the “no man’s land” border between Pakistan and Kashmir, to the high-rises of Manhattan—I have been fortunate to work with some great newsrooms. But there have been some stumbles along the way as well.
Throughout my career I have had to speak up time and time again when blind spots go unnoticed. One such incident occurred while I was picture editing for a story about Serena Williams and her coach, the controversial Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou. It was a simple story about Williams’s return from injury and Mouratoglou’s efforts to help her regain her crown atop the sport.
Editors were working to finalize text and treatment, and usually I tried to be hands-off with their editorial directions. But they pushed my hand: below the photo I had laid out for the story — showing Mouratoglou’s stern, pale face, his gaze fixated on Williams, who is playing tennis in the foreground — was the headline “Master and Server.”
I do not want to leave anything ambiguous here: you can not have a story of a black athlete and a white coach with a pun headline that invokes the cruel history of slavery in the United States.
When I brought up the concern, I was met with the prerequisite denials, accusations of over-sensitivity, and cries along the lines of: “I’m not a racist, how dare you!” But cooler heads prevailed in the end. No one ever thanked me, and I got some flack for speaking up, but at least I wasn’t associated with unintentional racism and part of a lesson plan for future generations of journalism students.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to go on to work in an environment that has made it a priority to include more diverse voices and opinions, and is attempting to empower staff to tackle these issues. It’s a rare step in the right direction in the industry, so rare that I know I’m more fortunate than most.
Change doesn’t come overnight, but it gets a little better each time around.
But I’m writing this, you’re reading this, and maybe, before you click away to Facebook or Tinder, you’ll feel an itch in the back of your head.
Scratch that itch.
That itch is the lingering thought that maybe we all need to stop and think, have an internal dialogue, and ask ourselves what our blind spots are. And for the publishers and corporate level executives reading this, let me say, if you aren’t checking your blind spots, you’re leaving money on the table: If your reader/viewer can’t connect with you and starts to doubt your ability to be a reliable, authoritative, and credible source, they’ll go elsewhere.
We would do well to remember the power, privilege, and duty of journalism — to inform and record the first draft of history. Failures to recognize this truth have contributed to distrust of the media as a whole: When my hometown local TV station unintentionally aired racists puns for names of victims in an airplane crash, when a national news anchor assumed a spelling bee champ spoke Sanskrit because of the way she looked, when a news outlet promoted a false belief that gangs are using Black Lives Matter as a cover, or when one of the bastions of journalism described boba milk tea as an “exotic” treat from the “Far East” assuring readers that the “blob” in their beverage was normal.
To their credit, in nearly every case above, the publications realized their errors and made efforts to address the issue, but the damage had already been done and could have been easily avoided. To be blunt, operating with an unchecked bias is irresponsible and dangerous, a spit in the eye of anyone trying to do journalism the right way. Worse than that, though, it erodes our credibility and changes how the public perceives our profession. From the perspective of the reader/viewer, if we can’t get these simple things right, why should they believe us when we get the big things right?
A more diverse newsroom with empowered voices would help identify these blind spots and prevent public gaffs, preserving the integrity of the profession (yay journalists!) while bringing in revenue for the spreadsheet journalists (yay corporate interests!). And I know it’s possible, because I’ve seen it!
A lot is made today about allies for a cause, but this idea supposes you can’t be a part of something, only next to it in support. You have to be part of the change you seek. It’s important to think about what we do and the impact it has. Honor your ethics in the moment and beyond, and honor your responsibility to get it right.
Just as it’s a cardinal sin of journalism to misspell a name, so too is it to be short-sighted.
Shaminder Dulai is an award-winning photo and video journalist with 20 years of experience producing stories in newsrooms across the United States. He’s currently the Managing Editor for NBC Left Field, an experimental long-form documentary unit within the broadcaster. Formerly, he was Global Director of Photography and Multimedia for Newsweek magazine, where he founded Newsweek Films. Follow Shaminder on Instagram. And if you’re a hyper-creative journalists who cares about representing the experiences of a diverse audience and want to work with Shaminder, learn about his next project and send him a pitch: learn more.
Next in our series “Truth-Telling”: Andrew Quilty on his place as an outsider in Afghanistan and themes of reductionism. And don’t miss our previous article, “How we tell stories of conflict” by Elie Gardner.