Part One: Shaping Youth Interviews Racialicious on Pop Culture Cues

racialiciouslogo.jpgRacism is a loaded term that sends politically correct media outlets running for cover and well-meaning pundits into shaky quaky territory.

It’s no wonder that kids themselves can get confused, for media takes shortcuts to ‘typify’ characters because it’s quick, and easy. We’re all aware that when it’s reinforced in a daily diet of stereotypes, it can begin to ‘stick’ in kids’ psyches.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder of New Demographic, and media savvy blogger at Racialicious, joins us this week in a three-part series deconstructing messages and offering Anti-Racist Parenting tips. But first, here’s a snippet of my own experiences working with teens in this realm.

I led a workshop for Girls Economic Power Day (I’m doing it again in Jan. ’08) using Malcolm Gladwell’s “rapid cognition” method he wrote about in Blink, blended with teen magazine evidence of media stereotypes. We saw how fast snap judgments and portrayals transpired, and literally sat on stereotypes to ‘squash’ them, ‘blew them up’ and popped them with chewing gum, and deconstructed ads of fashionista ‘dragon lady’ personas and jungle clad sex symbols ripped from the pages of Teen Vogue. Then we used each other as a living lab of myths and legends…

“Ok, who do you think I was in high school?” I chided, in ‘bring it on’ style…(ouch!)

Turned out to be a lot of fun, but I’ve gotta be totally honest…

When I walked into the room and saw half the girls were college-bound Ivy leaguers from affluent neighborhoods padding their resume with practical financial life skills…And the other half were African American ‘at risk’ youth from East Palo Alto, ‘heavily encouraged’ (ok, forced by their schools) to attend the event on a scholarship stipend…

I literally tossed out my speaker syllabus and winged it in ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ mode, to break through the icy vibe in the room.

They’d already seated themselves in segregated style which I promptly shook up to everyone’s discomfort and hesitant smiles. But guess what? We learned a LOT about each other that day. We broke through fears. We cut to the chase. We were bold and it was beautiful. We did get uncomfy and squirmed a lot, but we all left the room better people.

At Shaping Youth we’ve written a bit about how media’s depiction of gender, race, and stereotypes ignite the pop culture zeitgeist and foul up the works, whether it’s Survivor the Race Edition, or MTV’s Where My Dogs At, with Snoop Dog…but now let’s hear from Carmen, one of the top pros in media myth deconstruction. (who we continually ply to recruit onto our nonprofit board for Shaping Youth)

Carmen Van Kerckhove is the CEO of New Demographic, the lead author of Racialicious, (the intersection between race and pop culture) and the founder of both Anti-Racist Parent, and the popular podcast series, Addicted to Race.

Her exceptional core belief system and insights into media portrayals and their impact upon kids, serve to open new dialogues for more meaningful conversations. Even though we kicked off our segment with sexism rather than racism yesterday, it all kind of mushes together in the “damage pot” stirred together inflicting harm on kids’ psyches.

To be brutally honest, I ‘set up’ Carmen with the first question about whether kids are more “colorblind” than previous generations, knowing full well from reading her work that she completely disdains the term, and would no doubt need to correct me. Sure enough she did…

Here’s part one of our interview with CARMEN:

Shaping Youth: Do you find media (broadcast, print, advertising, digital) has improved or diminished in its representation of expanding beyond ‘black and white’ thinking? (er…literally & figuratively!) Specifically, are people of color being represented better/worse factoring in:

· Quantity (tokenism, pc efforts to be colorblind OR toss in a rainbow POV, etc.)

· Quality (stereotypes, depth of character/cultural/behavioral thin-slicing)

· Depth (Indian, Filipino, Puerto Rican, vs. ‘lump sum’ Asian/Hispanic, etc. & Role Models

Carmen Van Kerckhove:

I think that the quantity and quality of media representations has definitely improved.

We see more people of color in the media, and the depictions are often “race-neutral” in the sense that characters are not necessarily written to be Asian/black/Latino, etc. However, the most complex and interesting representations can be found not in mainstream media, but in the works of independent media producers of color.

Shaping Youth: Similarly, do you find kids to be MORE or LESS ‘color-blind’ than prior generations? (If so, do you feel media/mktg. has contributed to this/how? If not, explain various nuances—environmental exposure, burying prejudices, typecasting, etc.)

Carmen Van Kerckhove: Let me first say that being colorblind is not possible and it should not be our goal.

As NAACP Chairman Julian Bond says, colorblindness means being “blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.” So, I’m going to rephrase your question to:

“Do you find kids to be MORE or LESS racist than prior generations?”

I think that kids today THINK they are less racist because they grew up with hip hop, The Chappelle Show, and other forms of African-American pop culture. Because they think they are less racist, they are less introspective about race and assume that nothing they say can be construed as racism.

But given the recent rash of blackface parties and racist newspaper articles on college campuses across the nation, I would hesitate to say that today’s youth is free of racism. (see top 10 trends on Racialicious’ blog here:)

Shaping Youth: How have media/marketing depictions of various races changed over the years? Does it differ by age? (kid culture/cartoons/tweens vs. teenagers/young adults, & seniors?)

Carmen Van Kerckhove: The biggest change has probably been that we’re seeing more characters who are neither black nor white. The black/white paradigm is still strong, but a little less all-encompassing than in the past.

Shaping Youth: What are your five top picks (shows & actors) for positive media role models and why?

Carmen Van Kerckhove: I would hesitate to label any TV characters or celebrities as “role models.”

But some of the TV shows I think are doing a good job of portraying people of color as normal human beings, as opposed to walking stereotypes or tokens, are:

Lost
Dexter
Girlfriends
The Office
Grey’s Anatomy

Shaping Youth: Similarly, what are your five most offensive media representations that pop in your mind? (e.g. either shows, ads, trends, statements made, tokenism, setbacks, etc.)

Carmen Van Kerckhove:

The Magic Negro: Think of Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” or Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” or Don Cheadle in “The Family Man.”

The “Magic Negro” is a black man (usually) who appears out of nowhere, possesses mystical powers, and helps the white protagonist achieve enlightenment. He exists only to serve.

White Teacher in the Ghetto: Think of Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” or Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers.”

Why do we see so many movies about heroic white teachers working in inner-city public schools and inspiring their mostly black and Latino students? Why do we rarely see similar movies about teachers of color who do the same?

MADtv recently did a brilliant video spoof of this genre, and my blog Racialicious has analyzed the elements of each one of these movies here.

Asian Buffoon: From Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” to the Asian storeowners in the recent Stride Gum commercials, Asian men are often portrayed as bumbling buffoons who cannot speak English or get dates.

Colorface: Hollywood is still oblivious to the fact that blackface, yellow face and brown face is offensive.

Just this year we have seen Angelina Jolie play the Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl (A Mighty Heart), Brian Dennehy play Kublai Khan (in the Hallmark Channel movie Marco Polo, Eddie Murphy play a Chinese man (Norbit), Nicolas Cage play Fu Manchu (Grindhouse). And I just read that Jessica Biel may play the Chinese character Chun Li in an upcoming movie remake of the videogame Street Fighter! Clearly Hollywood is not spending much time thinking this issue through.

Oh, and then there’s Norbit—The whole movie, basically. If you’ve seen the trailer, you can understand why…

More with Carmen Van Kerckhove tomorrow as she previews her “five top Anti-Racist parenting tips,” tackles some of the hip-hop misperceptions within that media genre, explains inter-racial faux pas, and has lots and lots to say on a wide array of kids’/race media topics. Stay tuned…

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