Every time I see an actor who is not-white in a film clip, 10-second ad spot, whatever, I notice. I am, in fact, I am hyper-aware of media depictions of people of color. Anytime I see someone not-white in a video I start to question – are there stereotypes here? Is this positive representation? Why did I notice this but not pay attention to the white actor in the last ad? Am I seeing more PoC in media or just noticing it more?
Recently, I started wondering, is it good that I’m so hyper-aware of PoC in media? Isn’t my being more aware of race kind of a problem? I mean, the ultimate goal is a world where race ‘doesn’t matter’, right? (Or at least, that’s what I was always told and kind of internalized.. but is it? Scribbles note for a future blog) How can we ever reach a point of race not being a big deal by being ever more aware of race, analyzing it ever more closely?
Is it possible that conservatives are right? Is critical race theory making me… more racist!? (cue ominous music)
I’m not going to try to take on ‘how to cure the world of racism’ tonight. Nor do I think CRT is making me racist (though I’ve been wrong before, so I do try to keep an open mind).
I want to talk about something else –
Our Mental Diet and Relationship with Media
See, the characters that appear in my media, how they are depicted, whether they perpetuate stereotypes, etc, etc, is all part of the stuff we feed our brains.
And “you are what you eat.”
We all know this is true. If someone spends a couple of years listening to and reading nothing but alt-right podcasts and blog posts, they are almost guaranteed to move towards (or fully embrace) alt-right ideas and attitudes. If someone spends those same couple of years listening to and reading nothing by old Black Panther Party members, they are almost guaranteed to move towards (or fully embrace) BPP ideas and attitudes.
But the media most of us spend most of our time consuming? Many people think it doesn’t matter. ‘It’s just a show, what’s the big deal?’ ‘Oh come on, it’s a comic book character, let people enjoy it.’ Etc etc.
I’m fully behind ‘let people enjoy it.’ But it isn’t ‘just’ a comic book character or TV show any more than the food on your plate is ‘just’ a sensory experience.
We take that shit into us, into our bodies, into our minds, and it shapes us.
We Can’t Just Eat Whatever
We’ve learned that we need to be careful about what we eat and have a healthy relationship with our food. It starts with being aware of what we eat – but not obsessively aware. Counting calories (for most people) is a bad idea. But in the US and much of the ‘Western’ world, food is available in excess. Most of us can choose to eat our favorite foods, or whatever is in front of us if we wanted. We could eat as much as we like. Even those of us in poverty rarely have trouble getting enough calories. That doesn’t mean we can get a healthy diet.
We need to be aware of how much we are eating (generally), and that we are staying hydrated, and not overdoing it on sugar, and how many vegetables have I had today? Am I actually hungry or ‘just’ craving comfort food?
Do it long enough and that awareness becomes a habit, and you can stop paying attention to every bit of food you eat. But those first few months or years, you need to be aware of what you are eating, and why. Otherwise, you’ll miss an unhealthy eating habit or lack in your diet. You won’t be aware of your relationship with your food.
In the same way, we live in a media glut. Our problem is not getting access to stories, songs, etc to feed our minds. It’s being sure that we are feeding our mind the right stuff, that we have a healthy relationship with the media we consume.
And again, that starts with awareness. With ‘okay, why am I so drawn to stories with a lot of violence? Is that a problem?’ (probably not as long as you don’t ONLY enjoy stories with violence.) ‘I’m seeing a lot of gay-coded bad guys. I’m going to be aware of that stereotype and look for something different.’ ‘I don’t know any autistic people. How do I know that these books are giving an accurate depiction? Is what I am learning about autistic people from media accurate? Or am I getting fed stereotypes?’ ‘Why am I so stuck on trashy romances? I used to love hard-hitting SFF, what changed?’
But What IS Healthy?
The challenge, of course, is making sure we are analyzing and paying attention to the right things.
50 years ago everyone knew that fat was unhealthy and a lot of recipes and food companies started replacing fat with sugar. Oops.
Or the butter/margarine wars. Raging on to this day.
I could be wrong to pay attention to the race of characters and/or actors in the things I watch. Maybe in 50 years, we’ll realize that the most important thing for healthy mind-feeding is the narrative style. It could be dialog to scene-setting ratio or how long the media is that is critical. (“Don’t read that 600-page book! You’ll stuff yourself and feel sick later.” Nah, probably not. Most of us already know better than to read that much in one sitting. Those of us who read it anyway are either willing to pay the cost in lost sleep, have major hyperfocus, or both.)
Note: I’m not saying that everyone should be reading high-minded literature or serious nonfiction. That would be like saying only haute cuisine is healthy. I promise you, I am not giving up my trashy romances to read ‘lit-tra-ture’!
Like with food, a variety is better for most of us. A nice mix of light reading, challenging ideas, escapism, and catharsis. But also like with food, I expect you can get a healthy mental diet in a lot of different ways. You can be healthy on a vegan or pure carnivore diet. You just need to work at it.
This Isn’t for Everyone
Not everyone is going to be able to start paying attention to their media consumption. And that’s okay too! I have a good friend who lives on Boost, Mountain Dew, and ramen bowls/’add hot water and eat’ meals. Because of various mental and physical problems, that’s pretty much all that works for her. If anyone got on her case about it I’d bitch them out big time. When she can get through the night w/o a panic attack… When she can stand up long enough to do more than pour water over something… When she can swallow plain water w/o choking on it – then she’ll be healthy enough to start worrying about what she eats. Right now, everyone who loves her is glad she’s getting enough hydration and calories.
Reading/watching/listening to anything that isn’t outright poisonous (ie, neo-nazis, fascists, kkk, etc) is better than not feeding your brain at all. If all you have the time, energy, and health for is the local (not alt-right) radio station on the way to work and reality tv to unwind with after work – you do that. And more power to you.
Those of us who can? We should work on making that awareness of what we consume part of our daily lives.
Who knows, maybe as it becomes a habit I’ll stop being hyper-aware of PoC in media. I may reach a point where I’m aware, in a vague kind of way, that ‘yeah, I’m consuming media with a variety of characters from different backgrounds and cultures, so it’s good.’ I don’t track how much water I drink any longer. If I stop and think about it I have a sense of ‘yeah, I’ve had several cups of water and it’s just past lunch, I’m doing good.’
And I’ll still read trashy romances – because there isn’t anything actually ‘trashy’ about them. They’re fun and light and comforting. But I’m finally healthy enough myself to get back into the ‘hard-hitting’ SFF and poetry and philosophy and other stuff I’ve been on hiatus from. (Picture me looking over a fully-stocked buffet I can finally eat at after months on ramen and microwaved meals. That’s about my expression of ‘GIVE ME ALL OF IT!’ right now.)