Using Media Literacy to Combat Racism

Boston has a storied past, and race has played an important part in a number of those stories. From abolitionists and the early NAACP to the ugly scars of bussing, Boston has a reputation. Even with about 50% of the population made of people of color, Boston remains a segregated city. For years, many community groups and initiatives have worked toward racial amity. How Boston learns to overcome barriers of racism and come together in a new era of race relations can have important lessons for other communities as America approaches its own majority-minority shift.
For example, in the spring of 2003 I was teaching media literacy classes once a week at a small charter school in the Mission Hill area of Roxbury. We had been talking about stereotypes and magazine ads one afternoon when Nancy, a young girl, normally boisterous, came creeping back in after the others filed out. I could tell she had a secret question that she didn’t want her friends to hear. She sidled up to the desk and covered her mouth when she informed me, “I want to ask you something,” in a low voice.
“What am I?” she said, eyes intent on mine.
Confused, I asked, “What do you mean what are you. You’re you, you’re Nancy.”
“No, but I mean, what am I? See, my mother’s white but my father’s black so I wanted to know what that makes me.”
We talked for a while about this question present for so many “mixed race” youth, but before she left, I had a question of my own: “Why ask me?”
“Because I always wanted to know, and you were the first person I found to ask.”
I was floored by her comment. Her parents had different responses to issues of race, and outside the house, she had no opportunity to talk about the issues of race. From a media lit class, for the first time she found the space to dialogue with her peers about race, what it meant to act white, or be too light or too dark. But she wanted to examine not just how race was represented in the media, but how it showed up in her own life and family.
What does media literacy have to do with race?
Teens spend hours a day consuming media, much of it with messages about race and culture. What does it mean to be black or white, who are the heroes and villains? Without the ability to understand these messages, powerful political and corporate press machines too easily sway teens. Many like to think of Obama’s ascension to the presidency as the herald of a post racial America. But a look at media in 2009, from Professor Gates, to the guidettes of Jersey Shore showed us that prejudice and racism are still alive and well. How can we expect youth not to repeat the prejudices of the past if they are consuming the same stereotypical messages that have existed for years?
Organizing to address media content is important to creating lasting change, but in the meantime, we have a responsibility as educators to aid our students in thinking critically about how race is constructed, and prepare them to participate in shaping the conversation about race in this country.
Media can powerfully shape ideas about people or groups. Media messages are too often a poor substitute for real world multicultural experience in a society still as segregated as America.
Like Nancy, many students have no place to talk about race. Because mainstream media is rife with the stories and stereotypes that support racial prejudice it provides a perfect opportunity for students to examine and create messages about race. Since so much of the national debate about race takes place in the media, media educators have a special opportunity—and responsibility—to help students understand the way that ideas and beliefs around race are socially constructed.
Addressing Race in Afterschool Programs
I began my work in media literacy at Youth Voice Collaborative (YVC), a nonprofit youth serving after school program. YVC was created in 1991 by Marti Wilson Taylor, who had the vision to see that youth of color would need—and love—programs that helped them understand and make media. When I became the program manager in 2000, my job was to recreate YVC with renewed focused on media literacy to better connect to the YWCA’s larger mission of addressing racism.
With grant funding to support development, I created the Media Minds curriculum: an eight session media literacy curriculum designed for after school programs. The curriculum, which we continued to adapt over the years, has served as the core content for YVC.
YVC helped teens understand how media shapes the way they see themselves and the world around them, especially around issues of race and gender. We begin the program cycle for our on site after school program in the summer, hire a group of peer leaders and train them in media literacy, cultural competency and community organizing. During the school year, the peer leader works with adult staff to facilitate groups for teens at other programs, in addition to producing media and hosting events such as talent shows, poetry nights, conferences and discussion groups.
I also train small cohorts of teachers and youth workers to identify ways media literacy can advance their work, and each trainee choses to use the curriculum in different ways. For example:
• Start the school year with a section on critical analysis that becomes the framework for examining text and media throughout the year.
• Hold weekly media lit groups that apply critical analysis to class material.
• Create documentaries and community PSA and newsletters that increase cultural awareness
All the trainees reported that students enjoyed thinking and talking about media, making critical analysis skills fun to build. The challenges in training staff are numerous, from time and resources, to turnover and resistance, but the potential payoff makes addressing these challenges worth it.
Media literacy is an important strategy to open a dialogue on race and culture. Teens are hungry for a place where they can think and talk about issues of identity and the important role race and culture plays in their lives. Our discussions about the news reporting of youth violence, or the latest music videos, were inevitably discussions about the teens and their values.
By examining media, we examine ourselves, and the experience is life changing. One teen leader, Jamal, starred in YVC’s feature length docudrama on civil rights and the Voting Act, called Selma 2050. After researching, interviewing politicians and activists, and editing the film, he found—like his character in the film—a new awareness around race: “I used to think that being black was some kind of curse or something. Making this made me feel better about not just being a black man, but about black people period.”
Prepping Educators to Facilitate Race and Media Programming
As the director of the communications and media literacy program at Wheelock College and a trainer for Culture Shop I help train the next generation of media literacy educators. I can see their anxiety around addressing race and culture in their work with youth. While the issues of race and culture are real and complex, we can address these issues in simple ways.
The following are tips for any educator interested in addressing race and culture with youth. I call these Zen tips, because they’re simple, but take reflection and practice to make them work.
Check yourself: Race is still a taboo topic in many ways. You may be afraid to offend someone, or just unsure about how to talk about it. Take a deep breath, relax, and give yourself permission to talk about race. Reflect on your own ideas, experiences, and attitudes. No matter what your intentions, attitudes and beliefs about people of different backgrounds may be uninformed. That shouldn’t stop our work or make us feel guilty, but it means we must constantly debunk these messages and stereotypes internally.
Ask yourself questions to begin to get a sense of your own starting point:
• What do I mean by race?
• Do race and culture play an important role in my life or the lives of my students?
• What stereotypes and limiting beliefs do I hold about different cultural groups?
• How are my beliefs shaped by news, movies, and blogs?
Remember, race includes whites as well as “minorities.” Answering questions like these in a thoughtful reflective way can prepare us and make us feel more confident addressing issues of race.
Get real: Now that you are ready to begin talking and teaching about race it’s time to set some realistic expectations. If charge your group with eradicating racism in your community this year, you are setting your group up to fail. No matter how hard we work, none of us should expect that we can dismantle the system of racism on our own. When you honestly talk about race in a meaningful way you should expect that it is not going to be easy or get solved in a week. Be prepared that members of your group are likely to disagree when talking about their racial attitudes and assumptions.
Just talk: If it is going to be hard, and your group may not be able to affect widespread social change, you may be wondering what you can accomplish. Just by opening up dialogue and giving students the tools to think and talk critically about race and representation is creating a space for awareness. Many of the college students I see in classes have not had the chance to have thoughtful critical discussions about culture and race during their high school experience. When you develop an environment where youth are actively talking and thinking about race, you are making a difference. The conversation is enough to affect social change on the personal level.
Create culture: With your expectations clear, set a culture in your program that supports deep discussion around personal values. When we talk about personal values naturally it gets personal, so facilitators must be able to make the group feel safe. Educators should take the role of a neutral facilitator to be sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and to allow the students to carefully listen and consider each others views. Make sure that you have strong ground rules that are clearly and fairly enforced. Participants should be willing to speak and listen to each other respectfully. Without disagreement, your group will lack the chance to explore alternative viewpoints. The group should agree to disagree, leaving room for dissenting voices.
Keep calm: Finally, once your group begins to talk, think and create around issues of race, you may find you run into some opinions that you just do not like. Resist the urge to tamper with youths’ values. No matter how strong your own personal view, your role is not to tell youth what is right and wrong, but only to give them the tools to search for the truth themselves. Create an environment that encourages and accepts multiple viewpoints. You can stay neutral and be prepared to relate the historical, social and political context the message is created in. Helping students understand the societal factors that contribute to media messages will give students the information they need to make their own informed decisions.
Next Steps
Issues of race can be layered and complex, but there are small actions each of us can take each day to improve awareness in our own environment. Youth need tools to begin to peel back the layers now while they are still developing their own values around culture and diversity. The very idea of race is socially constructed—race is whatever we say it is, and mass media is where we say what it is. Media literacy and youth media production can provide a powerful pair of skills that work together to help youth analyze the way that race is represented in American culture, and participate in creating change through youth media production.
Armed with her new critical analysis skills, Nancy got her own surprise: the answer was hers to give.
Media literacy, critical thinking, and media production are powerful tools for youth to combat racism. Whether we have the chance to address it in the classroom, after school program or community, we have a responsibility as educators and citizens to work toward that more perfect union—a truly post-race society.

Susan Owusu was born and raised in and around Boston. She started working with young people in 1993 at the Charles Hayden School, a residential placement site for boys with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She supervised a 12 bed unit for students with ADD and trauma histories for 5 years before seeking a more empowering pathway to supporting youth. After two years organizing youth leaders in the Boston Public Schools, she had the opportunity to mange Youth Voice Collaborative. Susan joined YVC in 2000 and spent 10 years rebuilding one of Boston’s first youth media programs. She worked to develop the Media Minds curriculum, combining media literacy with cultural awareness for urban teens. Now as director of the communications and Media Literacy program at Wheelock College, Susan hopes to inspire a new generation of teachers, youth workers, and independent producers to user the power of media to tell a new story the reshapes and supports our communities, making them stronger and more connected.