Black out the media’s unbearable whiteness

On the day of the death of Robin Williams a few weeks ago, a friend was shocked by my refusal to sit through a movie marathon of the American comic’s oeuvre with her as her way of paying homage to the actor.

When I said how Williams-fatigued I was after hours of hearing about the actor’s death, she snidely remarked: “What’s wrong with you? What kind of a childhood did you have?”

I brushed off her questions but responded internally: “A childhood severely bombarded by whiteness – and the way in which the news of the passing of Williams was handled by the media was another example of this bombardment.”

Sure, as a youngster I had gone to the cinema several times with my elder brother to see films such as Jack, Jumanji and Hook, and Williams was a part of the popular culture of my time.

His death occurred a few days after a white police officer fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, but the actor’s suicide garnered more attention than the shooting that had residents of the United States city up in arms.

The problem goes right to the top
My own publication, the Mail & Guardian, wasn’t exempt from giving more attention to the Oscar-winning star’s depression than Brown’s death. It was only two days after we published two pieces related to Williams that we covered Brown’s assault and the subsequent protests and militarisation of Ferguson.

But the M&G wasn’t the only one to give Williams’s death a more prominent platform. CNN was accused of it and even US President Barack Obama overlooked Ferguson to talk about Williams. “Black” Twitter did not hold back from expressing their feelings:

I loved Robin Williams. So did my mom. But while the mainstream talks about him incessantly, our hearts are still in #Ferguson. #MikeBrown

– Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) August 12, 2014

I figure if the POTUS has time to issue condolences for Williams, it might be nice to say something about #Ferguson but that’s me.

– Black Girl in Maine (@blackgirlinmain) August 12, 2014

No offence to Williams but chaos is breaking out in #Ferguson and @CNN isn’t even covering it.

– Iceberg Slim (@sirHASHington) August 12, 2014

On the day of Williams’s death, American actor Will Wheaton even tweeted: “Hey Media? Maybe instead of sending cameras to Williams’s house to be ghoulish, you could send cameras to #Ferguson to be journalists.”

And the published an entire article, posing the question: “Is the Williams coverage overshadowing justice for Mike Brown?” 

Mizchif’s death was all but ignored
Yes, I work in the M&G newsroom. And, in retrospect, I should have said something, but that incident – a white personality garnering more attention than a black person – was just the first of many to come in just over one month.

Weeks later, on September 4, things came to a head when I found myself sifting through mounds of tweets and articles of comic Joan Rivers’s death to come across just one or two stories on the death of the legendary Zimbabwean-born rapper Mizchif, who died on the same day.

He was not just a small-time underground musician. According to the eNCA report: “Hechichamunorwa Mount Zion Kwenda, better known as Mizchif … was purported to have been the first to independently release a solo hip-hop album in South Africa and was also allegedly the first in the country to perform hip-hop with a live band.”

Sure, the death of Rivers, the Fashion Police host, was a loss; she paved the way for many a female comic.

But as someone who grew up listening to YFM in its heyday in the early 2000s and who relates to “black music”, Mizchif’s death resonated more than Rivers’s.

And I also couldn’t brush off claims about Rivers being a racist and transphobic.

Website tweeted:

Those writing glowing tributes of Joan Riverss: Hate she spewed about @MichelleObama: “We used to have Jackie O, now we have Blackie O.”

– Africa is a Country (@AfricasaCountry) September 9, 2014

Here’s video of that time Joan Riverss used a trans slur against Michelle Obama >>

– Africa is a Country (@AfricasaCountry) September 9, 2014

So, in a world in which the mainstream media’s reportage skews white news at the expense of important news of the “other” – flashback to the Oscar Pistorius trial overshadowing the case of Zanele Khumalo, murdered by her boyfriend Thato Kutumela, it might, once again, be a good time to question the lily-white state of our media and attempt to find ways to alleviate the unbearable whiteness of mass media from black people.

Whiteness and being white are one
When I took to Facebook to express my opinion – “Whiteness is everywhere (on my TV, my internet, the movie screen). So when I say I don’t care much about the news of Williams, Rivers and Jennifer Lawrence, please understand why” – it elicited scores of likes and interesting comments, some for and against my views.

Sure, bunching all three stars under the umbrella of “whiteness” could be viewed as insensitive and lazy of me. But all three stars are white, and it might not be a coincidence.

Commenting on my Facebook post, journalist Percy Mabandu points out that you cannot “separate the idea of whiteness (or race) from the corporeal bodies of white people … This is like the notion of crime that is devoid of criminals. Rivers, FW de Klerk, [Pik] Botha and white people are the effects and the process we call whiteness. Whiteness is real … Not some abstract theoretical formulation. To push back against whiteness is to claim space back from real people … like Rivers and the other dead funny white guy.”

Rivers and Williams are certainly more famous than Brown and Mizchif. And, for some commercially driven publications or news networks, prominently placing the deaths of the two white stars might be seen as being commercially beneficial for them.

But in South Africa, where black people are in the majority, surely this shouldn’t be the case.

So, when appropriated black music like Iggy Azalea’s blares through the radio and white artist Brett Bailey’s use of black bodies in his latest exhibition shows off his white privilege, I’m sure many black people are begging to know: When will the media’s white supremacy end? But the converse of that question is: When will our complacency as media consumers end?

The case in black and white
Weeks after Williams’s death and the Brown incident, naked photos of American actor Jennifer Lawrence were leaked. The media reported widely on this and feminists lashed out at people for viewing the images.

The Guardian even had an opinion piece titled “If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse” by critic-feminist Van Badham.

But at the same time of Lawrence’s leak, nude photos circulated online of Grammy award-winning singer Jill Scott. The musician’s naked selfies hardly got the same type of coverage or criticism evoked by Lawrence. Is this a coincidence? Maybe. Is it worrisome? Definitely.

Zooming in on the different responses to the leaks, Justin Moyer penned an article in the Washington Post last week in which he said: “While feminists rushed to Lawrence’s defence after this week’s leak of naked celebrity photos, an African-American singer and actress went undefended because of her race.”

Sure, this is a heavy statement to make, but the comments he attracted gave me insight to a thinking that probably feeds this unbearable whiteness of mass media.

Seek and report diverse news
“Is it because J Law is more famous than Jill Scott?” asks one commenter. Another shared similar concerns: “I am sorry, but I have never heard of Scott before this article. I am sure she is popular in some circles, but she is not as big a star as the others.” And another said: “Maybe no one stood up for Scott simply because they didn’t know?”

Both stars are on our screens. In fact, Scott not only sings, she acts too – and in well-publicised films, including ones by even more famous people, such as American movie director Tyler Perry. So what could be your excuse for not knowing Scott but knowing Lawrence?

In a way, what these commenters are asking is: If mainstream media constantly report on white Hollywood or white people, then how are we supposed to know who these black people are?

And to that I would respond: get out of your lily-white surrounds, seek diverse news and that might just start to encourage the production of more diverse mass-media content.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


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