Representations of black men and boys
In a 2011 study entitled ‘Media Representations & Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys’, conducted by ‘The Opportunity Agenda’, revealed that negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men. The Opportunity Agenda study also showed that these media distortions are multi-faceted, especially relative to real-world facts. For example, there is an overall under-representation of black men as ‘talking head’ experts, users of luxury items in print ads and as reliable and relatable characters with fully developed backgrounds in fiction shows and films.
Last month, I confronted the outcomes of this research in our own backyard, in a TV story about murders of black people in Port Elizabeth townships. I was taken aback when the journalist moved from that cruel and saddening scene, to taking a leap to the other side, going to the suburbs to ask a white suburban psychologist to interpret these murders.
I found this to be a terrible contrast of black people’s ugly reality of the township camps that have become our reality against the heady breeze of a white world in manicured offices. I could also not understand how this white female psychologist was expected to have a credible and complete knowledge of what ails the people in the townships endure and what leads to these murders. Were there no black psychologists in the area, people who had both the expertise and lived reality, people who had broken the mould and knew exactly what are the lived experiences and nuances of a life in the belly of the beast?
This was an insensitive and an incomplete portrayal of black people’s reality and yet another portrayal of white people as our pace-setters and our masters who represent a world of our aspirations.
The issue was raised with the journalist who worked on the story. Her response was honest and a reflection of the enduring class and colour divide in our country, even when it’s no longer necessary.
The journalist acknowledged the concerns and also acknowledged that the said psychologist was not originally part of the story but was recommended by her bosses at the last minute. On our side, the journalist said, ”I think we need to get a database of black Psychologists, because we honestly don’t have any. We have a pool of white specialist in various sectors but very few if any blacks. It’s something we need to look into she added and thanked me for my advice. Confirming exactly the outcomes of the ‘The Opportunity Agenda’ study which noticed an overall under-representation of black men as ‘talking head’ experts in Media.
I appreciated her response and acknowledged her otherwise excellent work. Questions however were lingering in my mind. What are our responsibilities, as individuals, as workers, as bosses, as South Africans, in the project of transforming our country from the ugly past of socially engineered racial inequalities and its psychological impact? What sacrifices must we make today for a better tomorrow.
In an article for The Guardian, Leigh Donaldson pointed the executive summary of The Opportunity Agenda which said, “The idle black male on the street corner is not the ‘true face’ of black people, but is the dominant one in the world as depicted by the media”.
For most of the Apartheid era, sympathetic media to the administration at the time, particularly the Afrikaans media, tried hard to misrepresent a black man and create a negative public perception about him. Fortunately, there was enough media to counter that narrative, even as people like JG Stridjom were putting all kinds of laws to censor the Media.
The Media knew then that if a black man was defeated, drunk, victimized, broken, or ended up in conflict and killing a fellow black man in this inhumane environment of townships, the white men was the reason, the white men was the devil. If a black man, was educated, a lawyer, but could not earn as much money as his white counterparts and could not buy a house where he liked, the white man was the reason, the white men was the devil. If places like Langa in Cape Town or Alexander in Johannesburg became concentration camps of black cheap labour reservoirs, it was not because black people lacked any genius or were any less capable, white men was the devil. All this is because the very townships and prevailing social conditions of township are a result of carefully constructed systems and institutions that sought to keep the black man in a rut of futility
How did in a space of 23 years, without much change in this reality for white men, they still occupy a model spot? How are they the ones who are called upon to marvel at this reality, at our reality? How did the devil who is responsible for the township realities of our people now become the voice of reason? How is he being called from his cushy life, his wealth, his lifestyle, his better neighbourhoods- all unearned, all undeserved- taken from the sweat and tear of the very black people whose lives he is asked to interpret; how is he called to make sense of this as an unaffected and neutral person?
Lisa Wade, PhD, asks this poignant question, where does the cognitive belief that black people are dangerous come from? Partly, it comes from the media she says. A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.
Lisa tells us that each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting makes the neural links in our brain — it’s actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.
The Opportunity Agenda study has shown Overwhelming evidence of exaggerated associations of black men to drug-related crime, unemployment and poverty. This is despite the billion rand drug industry unlikely to be sustained by black money and appetites. But you will always see a black and coloured face as the standard bearers of drugs and its effects.
Yes, there is a lot that is happening in Black townships that is not happening in white suburbs and this makes black townships the easy targets for shock value news for the indulgence of the suburban buyer. However, as journalists of the 70s and 80s understood, the reality of black townships is a white man’s creation.
The constant reality that we must confront as citizens today is the undeniable fact that the genesis of our oppressive past and the prevailing perceptions that inform our identity and are rooted in our own conceptualisation of the black condition. Colonisation, and consequently Apartheid, were both about violent dehumanisation of our people. Part of this was to create a reality so begrudging of our oppressors that we could not develop a concept of our identity outside of them. Our identity, our psyche, became intricately woven as the contrary, lesser, agent of our oppressor. Apartheid and colonisation was a process of losing the self. For us to heal and grow, to find true meaning and freedom, we must return to the self.
“The oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an ideal which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.”
Buyile Sangolekhaya Matiwane the Chairperson of South African Students Congress (SASCO) in the Western Cape