- Contemporary Media Representations of Race and the Reshaping of the College Classroom Experience
Current, traditional college students have spent a lifetime with mediated representations of racial progress that facilitate the internalization of neoliberalist views on difference and inequality. Race tends to overlap with other aspects of difference to shape definitions of belonging and diversity (Wise). The current creation of diversity in media representations does not necessarily facilitate a more egalitarian and inclusive understanding of race (Orbe, "Constructions"; Orbe "Representations"; Dixon). Instead for many, and in particular for white Americans, media representations provide evidence that makes social inequality appear to be the natural outcome of variations in the culture of different racial groups (Goldberg 106–123). Sociologists identified this phenomenon as cultural racism (Enck-Wanzer; Giroux, "Living"; Giroux, "Spectacles"). Born out of the work of Oscar Lewis and transformed for use in policy and public discourse, cultural racism is based in the understanding that specific racial groups have a particular type of cultural pathology that not only undermines their collective assimilation into mainstream society but also presents a potential threat to the larger functioning of society (Lewis, La Vida; Lewis, Five Families). Such a perspective often appears in media in very covert, subtle, and context-appropriate ways. Another dominant postracial representation of race portrays issues of race as based in emotions rather than institutions. This framing often appears by way of interracial friendships wherein a "de-racialized utopia" communicates to viewers that racism would end if people could just "get over it" and move on from the past (Thornton).
Although the texts and images that become social cues for both normalizing and rationalizing social inequality may be difficult to recognize, studies show that they shape dominant understandings and opinions on race and social class (Dixon). In a nation with de facto forms of segregation, representations in popular culture provide a parasocial stand-in for social understandings and interaction.1 Mediated images work to maintain and justify the racial hierarchies that exist in Western societies.
What is unique about the current generation and their interpretation of such representations is their collective understanding of themselves and the postracial [End Page 106] world. This is due not only to shifts in policy and education, such as mandated affirmative action policies or the standard inclusion of a multicultural curriculum in many public schools, but also the creation of racial harmony tropes that include multicultural casts (Coover). These representations not only make the racial hierarchy appear natural but also give an impression of the world as more inclusive than it is. By creating the appearance of an abundance of interpersonal relationships among people of various races, the media-saturated millennial generation overestimates the amount of progress toward inclusion in the Western world (Gallagher).
Close attention must be given to understanding how race is articulated and racial hierarchies normalized in media, especially when teaching courses that address difference. I teach predominantly European American students from both conservative and privileged backgrounds about racialized, gendered, and classed media representations in a supposedly pluralist and postracial world. To address and respond to the particular ways that this appears in the academic environment, I argue that professors and instructors across academic disciplines must be aware of media's impact on the worldview of their students (Jenkins; Luther et al.). The heart of my essay then addresses how I've negotiated the reality of my position as a black, Muslim, and female academic whose scholarship and intersectional identity call attention to the experiences of gender, racial, and religiously marginalized personas via media (mis)representations. My reflections are contextualized within the existing body of literature addressing intersectionality, Othering, and media literacy. As an academic who may defy stereotypes about who occupies intellectual gatekeeping positions, I call on my students to renegotiate how they understand Islam, blackness, and womanhood in the academy. I achieve this by drawing upon my intellectual training and personal experiences to shape my pedagogy. Throughout this essay, I provide anecdotal accounts of experiences and celebrate the positive ways in which my presence as an educational gatekeeper requires students to reconsider what they take for granted about race, gender, social class, and religion. By challenging media...