We Are Not Generic
It has been an unusually colorful spring – even in the news. In recent headlines, we read about the racist comments by an NBA team owner. The tragic sinking of a ferryboat in South Korea. The horrific abduction of nearly 300 girls from their boarding school in Nigeria. A major television network's intentional move to diversify its fall lineup with shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish.
But amid the nonstop coverage on our TVs and Twitter feeds came a couple blunders in the depictions of people of color. In the case of the South Korean ferry tragedy, Fox News ran a photo of a woman who, as the story was set up, appeared to be waiting for news on survivors. She wasn't. She was mourning the Mount Everest avalanche. And as #BringBackOurGirls went viral, so did the image of a young woman staring at the camera. The problem? She wasn't one of the Nigerian girls who escaped capture. She is from Guinea-Bissau.
Images that should have been specific and accurate were replaced with "generic." The photo of one sad South East Asian woman was good enough to represent a South Korean woman. The photo of a girl from Guinea-Bissau was close enough to one of the more than 200 abducted Nigerian girls. When it's convenient, we women of color are generic. We all look alike. But I'm supposed to understand that it was an honest mistake, right? (I was a newspaper reporter for five years, after all. I know mistakes can happen.)
Mistakes are always costly, but in today's hyper-connected, image-saturated culture where tweets with photos will drive up traffic better than words alone the costs ought to be higher. In these two cases, I'm not sure there was a cost. The women in those photographs remain anonymous, generic and conveniently left as an image associated with a tragedy.
This happens in other ways to men of color, particularly black or brown men. When two white teenage boys shot down classmates at Columbine High School, parents of young white men did not tell their sons to stay home and stay out of sight. Parents of black boys have that talk regularly with their sons about tone, body language, crowds, the police, and neighborhoods. When the shooter at Virginia Tech was identified as Korean American many of my Asian American colleagues, scattered across the country, emailed one another concerned about retaliation. In these cases, even though an individual may be the perpetrator, the act or threat of the act being repeated gets assigned to the whole. Again, an entire race or ethnic group becomes generic, assigned value or intent.
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