I recently spoke with a reporter about the history of white supremacy in my hometown. For the purpose of this narrative, we’ll call him Steven. Steven’s assignment was to investigate the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, and he asked me how the decline of their activities had led to a more socially equitable community in Denver. My short answer was that it hadn’t. The lack of burning crosses in the front yards of Black families hadn’t shifted the considerable imbalance of wealth and social power caused by centuries of white supremacy. Black people in Colorado today face many of the same prejudices, systematic abuses of power, and experiences of othering that they did in the early 1920s.
The more we talked, the more questions Steven had. Although a seasoned journalist, he could not fathom the idea that marginalized racial groups still suffer the same social disparities that they did one hundred years ago. This ignorance is indicative of a much larger problem in our media today and is a direct result of the lack of diverse representation in mass media leadership and coverage.
Mass media have traditionally omitted or neglected marginalized voices, and that omission has influenced American perceptions in ways that hinder our country’s social and political progress. Due to intense gatekeeping by those in charge, our national narrative emphasizes one particular point of view – that of white, cisgender males – at the expense of all the rest. However, those who wish to foster change, and artists in particular, have the tools to drastically disrupt this narrative. Arts and culture, when deployed in mass media, have the capacity to inspire democratic engagement and encourage society to find unorthodox ways to approach and solve contemporary problems.
Film, television, radio, social media apps, podcasts, YouTube, and e-games – these platforms define popular culture and articulate our social experience, yet the current media narrative of our reality is severely limited and thus lacks credibility. When experiences other than those of white, cisgender males are acknowledged, they are often shown by way of offensive stereotypes. This portrayal impedes the audience’s ability to make sense of challenging, complex ideas related to social issues. The work of media leaders who support these stereotypes becomes canon; this canonized ignorance permeates our culture; and we are then conditioned to accept that narrow, oppressive narrative as truth.
Even media leaders who value the decolonization of the media often tell incomplete stories of marginalization. They ignore the necessary context of systems of oppression because they frankly do not understand the language of oppressed groups. They cannot identify the diminutive effects of systematic oppression and cannot draw correlations between the large splashes of macro-oppressive concepts and the droplets of anti-Blackness and misogyny that affect the everyday lives of marginalized people. The erasure of these stories, either by malicious intent or ignorance, leaves a gap in consumers’ understanding of our culture, or what poststructuralists (or postmodernists) call the grand narrative.
Marginalized social groups and their experiences are not deviations from the model and should not be relegated to mere special interest stories. Just as white, cisgender maleness is not the defining criterion of humanity, any deviation from this archetype is not an aberrant, inconsequential other. Humanity’s current genetic diversity derives from thousands of years of recombining dominant and recessive gene alleles through reproduction. Thus, it is mathematically impossible for the earliest humans to have expressed phenotypically recessive alleles – those that are contemporarily valued as whiteness.
The exclusive focus on whiteness in the media affects how we perceive not only our culture, but our political landscape as well. Any truly democratic republic depends on public accessibility to information. Despite the seemingly innate accessibility of the internet, mainstream media companies increasingly exert control over that access. Today’s citizens receive a schema of society from media leaders who establish the relative importance of any piece of information through its breadth, or lack, of representation. When these leaders fail to cover crucial information regarding social issues, these issues are then othered in public consciousness and become inconsequential in democratic decision-making processes.
The celebrated art critic Clement Greenberg theorized the phenomenon of confronting the other in his analysis of the valuation of abstract art versus representational art: “We cannot yet see far enough around the art of our own day; that the real and fundamental source of the dissatisfaction we may feel with abstract painting lies in the not uncommon problems offered by a new ‘language’” (Greenberg 1961, 136). In other words, the discomfort we may feel when we’re exposed to new ideas and perspectives is the discomfort of frustrated ignorance. Relief from this discomfort will not be obtained by ignoring the truths communicated by the new language, but instead by acknowledging them. The public cannot democratically seek solutions for problems from which they are shielded. By “public,” I specifically mean the cisgender, white audience that wrongly purports to be the base of American society. By “shielded,” I mean privileged in a way that prevents this public from confronting these problems.
The pervasive influence of mass media gives artists a powerful means for inspiring systemic change by providing opportunities for people from isolated backgrounds to experience varying perspectives and thereby deepen their individual understandings of reality. Art is a societal enzyme that can synthesize diverse narratives of reality into truth. It inspires imagination and creates fresh meaning for old philosophies. The way to inspire change and drive progress is to accurately reflect complex social perspectives through our creative work. The persistent bias in our media must be ground zero in the fight for social equity. Only then will we be able to advance an anti-racist, anti-sexist social structure.
For historical context on how this might be accomplished, let’s take a look at the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, inspired by global reverberations of revolution in Africa, Asia, and South America and the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Patrice Lumumba. The 1970s saw the pinnacle of the mobilization of art in Black politics, and that decade produced some of the most progressive music, art, drama, and poetry of the time, laying a foundation for modern spoken-word poetry, rap, and hip-hop. This movement placed Black voices center stage, propelled by the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of the visual artists associated with the Black Arts Movement were Abstract Expressionists, but their work was generally ignored by white proponents of AbEx painting. Even Clement Greenberg asserted that their work was too autobiographical in nature to be considered (Tate, n.d.). For Greenberg, any interest in representation or identifiable content invalidated the pursuit of true art. By this logic, the self-expressions of identity and liberation often found in Black art would invalidate the creator’s right to call the work “art” at all. As Greenberg’s narrow definition demonstrates, white, cisgender media leaders and artists have historically failed to address concepts found outside of their own community because they view their own experiences – and their own artwork – as the norm. Concepts that are antithetical to this white supremacist perspective fall to the wayside or – worse – become targets for ignorant condemnation as “too political.”
All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. . . . Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political [make their art] political by saying, ‘We love the status quo. . . . We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something. . . . That all started in the period of state art, when you had the communists and fascists running around doing this poster stuff, and the reaction was ‘No, no, no; there’s only aesthetics.’ My point is that it has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it. Anybody can make up a story.
Artists have the power and the responsibility to use media platforms to politically engage the public. Engagement with the arts invites people from different communities to share a single experience, even if they have drastically different worldviews and backgrounds. The empathy and understanding that can be generated from this shared experience can, in turn, motivate civic involvement. In the United Kingdom, the Arts and Humanities Research Council launched the Cultural Value Project to study the level and meaning of participation in community arts work. In their 2016 report, the Council found:
Participation in arts and culture may produce engaged citizens, promoting not only civic behaviours such as voting and volunteering, but also helping articulate alternatives to current assumptions and fuel a broader political imagination. All are fundamental to the effectiveness of democratic political and social systems. Arts and cultural engagement help minority groups to find a voice and express their identity. They can engage people in thinking about climate change when used not didactically but as a basis for reflection and debate (Crossick & Kaszynska 2016, 7).
The artists surveyed in these studies were active in health, education, criminal justice, youth, and community work, and they viewed their artistry as having equal value to their civic practices (60–63). Indeed, in many cases, their civic practices directly informed their artistic practices, creating an inseparable cycle of service, creation, and influence.
In a very real sense, the arts provide us with the vehicle we need for social change. We have the means at our disposal, but we must confront our history as well as our present, recognizing that the stories we have constructed have omitted the voices of many. We must take it upon ourselves to reach out and create spaces in our practices for all voices to be heard, to put an end to gatekeeping and expand the one-sided narrative. As my interview with Steven demonstrates, we must continue to speak harsh truths. Only when America confronts the inequities inherent in our stories and our systems, will we finally be ready to become a truly equitable society.
Crossick, Geoffrey, and Patrycja Kaszynska. 2016. Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture: The AHRC Cultural Value Project. Swindon: Arts & Humanities Research Council. https://ahrc.ukri.org/documents/publications/cultural-value-project-final-report/.
Greenberg, Clement. 1961. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nance, Kevin. 2008. “The Spirit and the Strength: A Profile of Toni Morrison.” Poets & Writers Magazine (November/December): 1–2. https://www.pw.org/content/the_spirit_and_the_strength_a_profile_of_toni_morrison.
Tate. n.d. “Spiral.” Tate.org (website). Accessed August 8, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/spiral.