Racism and the Media

As a major institution in society, the media play a critical role. They provide us with definitions about who we are as a nation; they reinforce our values and norms; they give us concrete examples of what happens to those who transgress these norms; and most importantly, they perpetuate certain ways of seeing the world and peoples within that world.

Himani Bannerji notes that the media provide us with images of prescription and description. They tell us how society sees us and at the same time, tell us how to behave in society. They promote a notion of consensus - that there is a core group of which we are a part, a core that defines the social order, and that it is in our interest to maintain. Through coverage of those that deviate from the consensus, we are constantly presented with the threat of a lawless society where chaos could reign.

The notion of consensus - that there is a common value system binding us, obscures the hierarchies that are present in Canadian society. The media tend to portray all groups as having equal power - equal cultural capital. In other words, all groups who are law abiding have an equal say, and any conflict that exists can be resolved at the level of discourse - through words, and finally, through the socially sanctioned route provided by another central institution - the judicial system.

The mythical notion that all individuals are equal in society's eyes, and that all possess equal access to institutions such as the media, helps to cement our notion of our society/nation as a liberal state. Inequalities if they exist, within this mythical notion, are translated into the responsibilities of individuals. In other words, if one cannot get a job, then it is a reflection of that individual's inability to find employment. Within this system of the imaginary, the barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia and class are all translated into individual actions. Social institutions that perpetuate these barriers are presented as being innocent of these actions. In fact, they are often represented as being too liberal in their intent.

In the same vein, the media see themselves as the "fourth estate" -reporting on issues of concern to the citizens of the nation. The defend their position on grounds of neutrality, objectivity and balance. They are there to present the "facts" as these are played out in any arena of social life; as being objective by virtue of their distance and nonpartisan relations; and as providing "balanced" coverage by presenting the different sides to an issue. The media claim that they provide the best possible explanation of issues that occur in society. In that light, they draw from society and return to society, interpretations of events and issues that make "sense" - that fit the prevailing definitions of these issues. At the same time, the media tend to report most directly, the comments, statements and arguments of other powerful institutions, as for example, the government. Definitions articulated by these social institutions are seen as more credible and hence less open to interrogation. The positions of the elite, in this case, powerful institutions, thus get perpetuated over time and become part and parcel of our definitions of social reality.


Media and Racism: How then do the media perpetuate racism?

The media do not stand in isolation from the society on which they report. In fact, they are an integral part of society. They utilize the same stock of knowledge that is part of that pool of "common sense" which informs all of our lives. It is common sense to expect punishment if one has committed a crime; it is common sense to have a system of law and order; it is common sense that some people will make more money than others. This pool of common sense knowledge is a reservoir of all our unstated, taken-for-granted assumptions about the world we live in. It is filled with historical traces of previous systems of thought and belief structures.

An inherent part of that historical legacy is the way in which the media positioned and represented peoples who were different; different from what was considered acceptable in Canadian society. That difference covered the entire span of peoples - Aboriginal peoples, people of colour, Jews, Ukrainians, etc. Any difference was constructed as a negative sign and imbued with connotations of threat, invasion, pollution and the like. People who were different were positioned as "others." "They" were the criminals; "they" were dirty, unkempt; "they" caused trouble and disease. "They" had to be kept out or contained in a separate area away from "civilized" society. Critical to the media discourse of the time was the opposition between "them" and "us." What "they" were, "we" were not and vice versa.

In her expansive study of the coverage of ethnic and racial minorities in The Vancouver press from 1907 to 1976, Doreen Indra identified the presence of an underlying 'moral economy.' Within that order, aboriginal people and people of colour were consistently portrayed in negative terms. In contrast, the Scots, English and other preferred groups rated high in terms of positive coverage.

The situation was no different in other colonies of the British empire. In Australia, New Zealand and even in the United States (which had ceded by the turn of the century), people of colour and aboriginal peoples continued to be portrayed in negative terms. They were most often associated with crime, deviance and the threat of invasion.

This is the legacy that informs the media's reservoir of images and filters regarding aboriginal peoples and people of colour. While Indra's study examined the coverage several decades ago, the situation has not changed drastically. In several recent studies of the major dailies, it has been found that coverage pertaining to people of colour and aboriginal peoples tends to cluster around particular themes - crime, deviance, exotica and negatively valued differences. The historical legacy continues to bear influence in the ways in which particular groups are represented.

There are other specific ways in which the media report on issues relating to 'race' and racism that fit the prevailing common-sensical definitions of these terms and serve to reinforce them over time.


Spotlight on Race and Racism

Even though biologically, there are no 'races', the social construction of race as a category is alive and well today. The classification system which racialized different groups - typifying them according to their skin colour and/or other defining features has a long history dating back to antiquity. Where racism and racialization came together was under periods when different groups were subjected to domination and colonialism in the name of empire and nation building. Under those circumstances, it suited the dominant group to disseminate and legitimize a view of the subjugated peoples as being inferior and as requiring domestication, containment, annihilation and/or assimilation.

With the advent of colonialism, racism underpinned the different and negative valuations attached to skin colour. However, the system was also used to rationalize the large-scale genocide of Jews and other minority groups.

The media in the form of novels, journals, diaries and the press used its powers to communicate the dominant interpretation of these groups as being inferior. Racism thus refers to a systemic phenomenon. It permeates the values, beliefs, norms, attitudes and behaviours of members of the dominant society. It is a group phenomenon which translates into everyday reality through the actions of individuals. But it is not confined to individuals. It is present in the institutional and cultural matrix of a society.

As Bulhan defines it, racism is:

...the generalization, institutionalization, and assignment of values to real and imaginary differences between people in order to justify a state of privilege, aggression and/or violence. Involving more than the cognitive or affective content of prejudice, racism is expressed behaviourially, institutionally, and culturally. The ideas or actions of a person, the goals or practices of an institution and the symbols, myths or structure of a society are racist if: (a) imaginary or real differences of race are accentuated; (b) these differences are assumed absolute and considered in terms of superior, inferior; and (c) these are used to justify inequity, exclusion or domination. (1985:13)

So how then does the media perpetuate racism? How does it in effect accentuate racial differences, evaluate these differences in terms of inferiority, and legitimize "inequity, exclusion or domination"?


Mediated Racism: By Omission and Commission

Mediated racism functions in several ways. The most obvious is the association of particular groups of people with specific actions. Numerous studies have pointed out that on the whole, aboriginal people and people of colour tend to be absent from the media in general. However, they are conspicuously present in stories dealing with crime or with problems in their communities. Their presence in certain categories of media coverage tends to underline the assumption that only "they" commit crimes, and that "they" are problem people. This suggests that the only resolution available is to ensure that "they" don't enter the country, or that "they" are not allowed to continue their cultural heritage. In fact, the recent trend to attribute actions to particular cultures marks a change in the traditional ways in which racism was communicated. What seems to be in place now is a more modified form of racism which has been labelled by various theorists as "cultural racism." Here, the cultures of particular groups are deemed as being problematic and as causing a plethora of society's ills.

Stereotyping is one very common and effective way in which racism is perpetuated. Thus, there is a preponderance of representations of these groups within circumscribed categories, e.g. athletics, entertainment, crime, and so forth. Stereotypes are one-dimensional. They only highlight specific characteristics and these are often used to typify whole groups of people. Other elements, absent from the stereotypes, are similarly absent from the coverage. This leads to a situation where assumptions are made about people on the basis of stereotyping. These assumption can perpetuate exclusion and in extreme cases, can justify forced internment and genocide.

From print to electronic media, the racialization of groups continues in a number of different ways. Primary among these mechanisms, is the identification of racial background when these are simply not warranted. Take for instance, the statement "The suspect was a black male....". Or, "the suspect is a Chinese man." Alternatively, if the racial identity is absent, the cultural background tends to be mentioned, as for example, "The body of the baby found in the ravine revealed her to be of South Asian origin." This association of cultural identity with a crime indicates that the cultural heritage is to blame for the way in which the person acted.

Another technique used frequently by the media is the heavy reliance on official interpretations of events concerning or involving ethnic minorities/people of colour and aboriginal peoples. In these cases, the people themselves are often not allowed to talk. Instead, an official, who is usually white, speaks on their behalf. The repeated positioning of non-whites as victims, unable to speak on their own behalf, lends to the perception that they are passive, unknowledgeable and ignorant of English language skills.

In some cases, the media turn to particular individuals within the communities, and position them as spokespeople. This indicates that the community itself is monolithic and that one person, chosen by the media, is seen to represent a community's opinions. That these communities are not monolithic entities but highly diverse in the range of opinions and interpretations that exist is negated by the mainstream media. For the media, the focus is on getting a story out and doing it in the most expedient way possible. The problem is compounded by the reality that newsrooms across the country are largely white and male. People of colour constitute only 2.6% of the total number of people employed by the major dailies in Canada.

When people of colour or aboriginal people are allowed to speak, their words are often surrounded by quotations, or preceded by words such as "alleged." The implication here is that their stories or perspectives are dubious. Take for instance, a photograph which appeared in a major daily, of two South Asian women walking. One is wearing a jacket and a turban, and holding the other one by the hand. The title reads 'DISTRAUGHT' SUSPECT. The quotations around the term distraught lead the reader to believe that the suspect is not distraught but is using an emotional appeal in an opportunistic manner.

Several other mechanisms are used to communicate the negative valuation of people of colour and aboriginal people in the print media and electronic media.

In print media, a common technique is to juxtapose different stories dealing with people of colour on the same page. Hence, there may be a story about a particular government program designed to aid immigrant women. Right next to it may be a story about a man of colour being arrested for some crime. Following this, there may be a story about a Third World country that highlights its poverty or lack of order. Taken together, all these stories communicate certain representations about people of colour - representations which indicate their inferiority, lawlessness, and their inability to progress without having a helping hand from the dominant societies. These stories, in a cumulative manner, legitimize a paternalistic attitude. They communicate that these people are not like "us"; that "they" need our help; and that "they" are inherently incapable of governing themselves.

This begs the question: Should the media even report on different ethnic/racial groups? Yet, this really isn't the issue. The issue stems from the practices of reporting per se. It is what gets left out of the story that is crucial. Presences and absences play a critical part in the construction of meaning. What is said has definite implications on what is omitted or not said. Think about pictures of the poverty of the Third World. As Hart puts it:

The problem so often glossed over or ignored is that these so called 'negative' images depict Third World suffering in a manner which casually jettisons the historical, political and economic context that has produced such suffering. The problem with images depicting starving African children is not so much the existence of an image but rather the absence of an adequate explanation of why the child is starving. This absence opens the door to all manner of mythical interpretations emanating from the flux of ideologies forming our individual 'common sense' view of the world. Consequently, racist and ethnocentric 'explanations' are inevitable amongst an audience with pre-existing assumptions about Black people and about the superiority of white, Western cultures. (1984:14, my emphasis).

This lack of an adequate explanation resonates with an audience's preconceived notions about other people and other countries, and culminates in the reinforcement of racism at all levels of society. This is particularly so when the society itself has a history of racism.


The 'numbers' game

As mentioned before, the media often perpetrate dominant definitions and interpretations of a given situation. For example, merely by reporting the statements and actions of those in positions of power, the media mediate elite racism. One common technique that seems to be pervasive throughout the European and North American media, is the fascination with and literal reporting of politicians's rhetoric concerning the number's game. For example, we often hear about such statements as "The Minister of ...., Mr. ...., has said that there are now 80 million people on the move worldwide. The government has to revise its policies in the face of so many immigrants and refugees." This kind of statement automatically evokes an image of hordes waiting to invade the country. It invites a response which condones the government's stance.

In addition to this, a government's action or lack of action on a certain issue communicates its position on that issue, the priority it accords to that issue. The media, by reporting this, also cultivate that impression. A concrete example of this is how the Mulroney government called the parliament into an emergency session when Sikh refugees were discovered on Canadian shores. This communicated a sense of urgency and danger. At the same time, the Mulroney government refused to call the parliament into session when the Mohawks were protesting against the encroachment of their land in Oka. The 'Oka' crisis as it later became known only reached international prominence after the conflict had escalated and aboriginal groups and supporters began a cross-country campaign drawing attention from the United States and Europe.


The unauthentic immigrant/refugee

Yet another commonly used technique on the part of the media is the labelling of whole groups of people as illegal immigrants and bogus refugees. There are numerous spins to this story-line. Periodically, one can see newscasts of 'illegal refugees' in a line-up at the airport, carefully being checked by the immigration officer for the requisite documentation. Interestingly, the only unauthentic immigrants appear to be people of colour. The coverage pertaining to immigrants and refugees from Europe hardly fits this filter. On the contrary, many of these 'preferred' immigrants/refugees are interviewed individually, are allowed to tell their stories, and the media generally work to evoke a sympathetic reaction from the audience. Not so for those who are people of colour. Most of them are shown in large numbers, as being unable to speak English, and as having dubious credentials.


The victimized but favoured minorities

Quite often, the filters used by the mainstream media dwell on people of colour and aboriginal people as victimized but favoured minorities. They are represented as receiving undue, and unfair advantages. The government, within this filter, is seen as privileging these groups above the "common" person. "They" are seen as people who sponge off the tax system creating an unfair burden on the rest of the population. "They" are the unassimable immigrants for whom the government has instituted special measures of protection so that they can carry on their cultural traditions and 'regressive' ways.

The coverage on employment equity legislation fits neatly within this framework. There is no notion of the historical context or the necessity for such legislation within much of mainstream media coverage. On the contrary, most of the coverage points to the unfairness of the legislation emphasizing how it is victimizing white males. The audience is repeatedly told how these minorities are "taking over" and how institutions are allowing them to do because of some deluded liberal thinking. At the base of most of this construction is the notion, again of a consensus, that all people and groups in society are equal, and hence, all have equal access to power and capital. Underlying much of this coverage is also the assumption that people of colour and aboriginal people are simply not qualified enough to assume the positions they may occupy. Thus, the system is seen as being too benevolent in allowing these people to take up employment in privileged areas. This assumption is often combined with another: that immigrants (which is usually taken to refer to people of colour) are "stealing jobs."


Cultural racism

Contemporary media coverage of people of colour tends to focus on their cultural backgrounds. In part, this shift away from an overt attribution to skin colour stems from the pressure exercised by legislation with the threat of litigation, as well as the possibility of a protest or boycott from organized groups. It also stems from news organizations' conception of Canada as a tolerant nation, one which is devoid of racism. However, this threat is somewhat diffused if the 'culprit' of a particular individual or group's action can be attributed to that vague, ill-defined notion of 'culture.' This sort of attribution resonates with 'common sense' knowledge - that widespread view that some cultures are supposedly more progressive than others with white, western cultures of course being at the pinnacle of this hierarchy. (See the article from the Globe and Mail in the appendix).

As a result of this tendency, there are now countless stories in the press and television news, and even in sitcoms and movies, about the barbaric cultures of people of colour. The emphasis is usually on specific rituals, rites, and of course, the abject status of women within these countries. This kind of coverage is never contrasted or juxtaposed with the abuses against women that occur in Canada, or the lack of equality between genders and groups within the Canadian vertical mosaic. Thus, when a South Asian woman commits infanticide, it is seen as a direct result of her oppressive cultural background. There is no room in this explanation for other factors such as postnatal depression, isolation, etc. The action is conveniently explained away under the rubric of an oppressive and 'backward' cultural tradition.


On positive coverage

Many groups have protested against the media's treatment of their issues. Their recommendations have often asked for more 'positive' coverage. But what is positive has to be seen in light of what dominant society values as being positive. If positive means coverage that highlights our contributions than it may be a valid demand to make. However, if positive simply means that we are shown to act like or be appear to be like the dominant society, then it takes on an assimilationist tone.

Many writers have observed that within cinema, the 'ethnic' or racial minority member is only acceptable if her/his cultural or racial characteristics can be 'bleached' out. In other words, if it is completely downplayed or removed from the scene. If this is the only gateway to acceptance, then it means that people of colour have to distance themselves from their cultures, and their realities. For an integral part of that reality is the burden of racism especially since it impedes an individual's life chances in the area of employment, housing, services and everyday interactions.


Coverage of racism

More than the coverage devoted to minority groups, the media play a critical role in defining and popularizing particular definitions of racism. For instance, racism is often presented in a personalized form, as emanating from the actions of a few extremists. Moreover, these extremists are often typified as belonging to a particular class (usually working class), as being ignorant and uneducated, and as coming from rural areas.

This definition of racism as an emotional phenomenon, stemming from ignorance and lack of contact serves three primary purposes. First of all, it deflects attention away from the systemic nature of racism, how racism inheres in the very institutional fabric of society in terms of the exclusion of aboriginal people and people of colour from positions of power and access to resources. Second, this definition of racism deflects attention away from elite racism - racism perpetuated by those in positions of power with respect to making decisions and policies that affect minority groups. Finally, racism when viewed within this framework suggests specific forms of resolution - (1) that with the necessary education, these groups can be made to unlearn their racism; (2) with increased contact, these groups can realize that people of colour are no different from themselves; (3) that racism is due to perceived threat and hence to manage that threat, one must limit the migration of people of colour coming into these areas. These solutions are grounded within a liberal framework which eschews the historicity of racism and which unmoors it from its institutional grounding. Racism is thus translated as simply an emotional phenomenon, not having any real (material), institutional consequences.


Organizing against Mediated Racism

Media organizations are one of the most difficult institutions to challenge. For one thing, many hide behind the camouflage of 'balance.' They construe balance as a means of representing different sides to the issue. But the notion of balance itself is mythical for it presupposes that all sides to the issue are 'equal.' Are racists and anti-racists equal? Does a single individual have the same credibility and access to media as an institution? Obviously not.

In England, Enoch Powell achieved media fame and notoriety because of the coverage accorded to his racist speech. In contrast, the anti-racist groups were castigated in the same coverage as betraying British values and tradition. How a message is read or interpreted depends very much on the context in which that message is articulated. If the environment is highly racist, then racist messages will gain a heightened significance, they will resonate with the racism inherent in the 'common sense' stock of knowledge of the population.

In Canada, some organizations have mounted protests against portrayals of their communities in the mainstream media. Thus far, these protests have not been very successful.


Example 1

In 1979, CTV's W-5 news program carried a feature story on foreign students. The aim of the story was to highlight inequalities in the education system in Canada. The report focused on the large number of 'oriental' students who were shown as occupying much needed space in Canadian universities. Visual evidence was supplied showing these students engaging in cultural activities and crowding lecture halls. The reporter explicitly stated that she was not being racist. Rather, she just wanted to show the unfairness of the system. In contrast to these students who were shown en masse, the reporter interviewed three other students separately who had been denied placements at an Eastern Canadian university. All of the three were white, and according to the report, all three had left high school with above average grades. They were portrayed as victims of the system, denied what was their's by right. The equation Canadian=white was explicit throughout the report. The connotations surrounding the portrayal of the 'foreign' students were more negative. It was implied that these students were a drain on the economy, that they were taking unfair advantage of the situation and further, that their actions were legitimized by government authorities who were obviously inept and unaware of the 'real' situation.

The inaccuracy of this coverage was pointed out by Chinese Canadian students who launched a massive protest in response to the show. They pointed out that many of the so-called foreign students were in fact Canadians. Further, the evidence presented in the report was found to be contrary to the actual reality of the foreign student population in Canada. CTV responded by issuing an apology, but this was months after the initial protest was launched.



Minority groups have consistently called upon the central regulating body, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to intervene in cases where the electronic media are racist. However, the Commission's position is that the Broadcasting Act

...does not give the Commission powers of censorship. Rather it states that programming should be of 'high standard', and that all persons licensed to carry on broadcasting undertakings have a responsibility for the programs they broadcast, subject to applicable statutes and regulations." (personal communication from Virginia M. Krapiec, Director General, Western Regional Office, CRTC, November 30, 1993).

Hence, the CRTC turns the complaints it receives back to the station, and the station is asked to respond to the complainants outlining its position. If there are numerous complaints, then these can influence CRTC's decision to renew the license of the particular station. However, this only occurs at the time of license renewal.

Aside from this route, groups can approach the station manager or the news editor with their concerns. The problem is that in most cases, groups have to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that the coverage was racist. When one is depending on societal factors such as the common stereotypes, racist assumptions inherent in the stock of knowledge within society, and the taken-for-granted assumptions that exist about minority groups and cultures, then it becomes increasingly problematic to prove racism "beyond reasonable doubt."

The other factor that militates against organized protest is that the protest itself becomes translated into a news item and in the process, becomes trivialized or coopted to prove a racist supposition.


Example 2

In July 11, 1992, The Vancouver Sun published a special series entitled "Women of the Veil" which was visually accompanied by a special graphic portraying a woman wearing a chador. The articles in this series were headlined as follows: "Women of the Veil", "From the Indian subcontinent to the shadeless deserts of North Africa, Islamic fundamentalists are fighting to keep a half-billion Muslim women in legal bondage to men." (July 11, 1992); "Prophet Muhammed set women free, Vancouver woman says" (July 11, 1992); "Sex and death: Islam's Code" (July 11, 1992), this was accompanied by a sidebar of statistics entitled 'Legal Chains,'and a subheading to the article which read as follows: "The penalty for her 'crime' is death, but this woman is lucky: she faces a prison term (or lashes) for having sex with her second husband. But if she is freed, the punishment will be far more severe." The bottom of this page was devoted to yet another article, entitled, "Veil: Islamic fundamentalists fight to keep a half-billion women in legal bondage." (July 11, 1992).

The series continued on the 13th and 14th of July with the following headlines: "Cultural Justice, Playing the Power game with Rape," (July 13, 1992); "Afghanistan, Women endure long treks to see female Mds" followed by a quote, "My husband let me come because of the lady doctors here, Armanalla, 13," (July 14, 1992). The top page of this article was devoted to yet another statistical table depicting the survival rates of male and female babies; average age of marriage; average birth rates; and maternal survival rates of women in Islamic countries.

Many of these feature stories were accompanied by visuals: for example, the story entitled, "Sex and death: Islam's code" was accompanied by a picture of a woman and her child behind bars. The caption read: "Kursheed Bibi and daughter Sannan: death threat from relatives." In the article headlined "Playing the power game with rape," the visual is a picture of a woman sitting on a single bed in a sparsely furnished room. The caption reads: "Criminalized victim: Kursheed Begum, a victim of a power rape by police who sought to humiliate her husband."

The Women of the Veil series sparked considerable response from the Sun's readership. However, what is interesting is the juxtaposition of these stories describing the perceived (and projected) barbarism of Islam, with stories about the local South Asian community. The impression upon reading these local stories and then reading about the Women of the Veil is one of direct attribution: Muslim men are barbaric, oppressive, cruel beyond belief and extreme in every way - even in terms of their allegiance to their faith. The women, by and large, are victims of this process. They are confined and oppressed; saddled with arranged marriages, burdened by child-bearing; they can only liberate themselves from this confinement if aided and educated by their Western counterparts and institutions.

A lengthy and critical response by muslim women entitled, 'Series only reinforced stereotypes' (August 1, 1992), was printed with the following preface: "Among the respondents to a recent Sun series on the oppression of women in countries where Islam is the dominant religion were seven young Muslim women, most of whom were born and/or educated in Canada." This type of prefacing effectively coopts the vital criticisms that muslim women launched against the Sun series. The cooptation is effective precisely because it locates the source of such criticism within the West, in other words, these women's perspective is recast as coming from that quarter of society which could be loosely framed as "westernized Islam" - or Islam robbed of its roots. More insidious is the argument that it is only in the West that women can acquire the skills needed to launch such a critique, and that only in the West are women allowed to critique a powerful organization such as the media.



Aside from taking complaints to the editors, groups can appeal to the press councils in their provinces. If this fails, an alternative is to approach the provincial ombudsman's office. There are very few other avenues by which groups can organize except if they take it upon themselves to engage in mobilizing a protest march outside the station, and/or forging alliances with other groups who are engaged in the same issue.


Example 3

In 1984, Carol Tator wrote about one particular strategy that the Urban Alliance on Race Relations had used in Toronto. The Alliance had determined that the flyers being sent to its members did not reflect the diversity of city and its neighbourhoods. It then organized a mail-back campaign wherein flyers were sent back to the respective department stores with a letter explaining why they were unacceptable. Within months, the models appearing on the flyers changed to reflect the diversity of the population being served by the stores.



As consumers, we have the power to be able to change the products that are directed at us. But in order to accomplish such change, we need to unite with other groups working in the same area of social justice. That means forming a committed collective/coalition, forging alliances with groups such as local businesses, politicians, religious leaders and the like who share beliefs about protecting human rights. It is only as a coalition that groups can exercise a substantial measure of power and influence.

By Yasmin Jiwani

Appendix A

Example of an article from The Globe and Mail which demonstrates inferential racism (where the argument is based on racist predicates). Here is a copy of the response that was sent to The Globe and Mail but never published.

Should Britannia rule again? No, Never!

I was shocked to read John D. Harbron's article in the Oct. 18/91 issue of the Globe and Mail. It is unfortunate that for many of us unversed in the history of colonialism and imperialism, Mr. Harbron's article makes so much "common sense." However, it must be said that "common sense" - that insidious tradition of knowledge, is itself full of assumptions and observances rooted in a colonial heritage. I would like to remind Mr. Harbron that Canada was itself a colony until the early 1920s.

Yet aside from this minor observation, there are other flaws in Mr. Harbron's otherwise logical estimation, that is, if one subscribes to the literate, chronological type of logic that is hallmark of Western societies. For one, Mr. Harbron states that the "rule of law and viable local economies left behind in the colonies of Portugal, Spain, France and Britain, have been debauched by a succession of corrupt and incompetent leaders." Given that Mr. Harbron is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, I would expect him to be familiar with the strategies whereby colonialism succeeded in subordinating indigenous populations. A key element in this strategy was the systemic destruction of indigenous economies by the introduction of wage labour and a money-based economy. Prior to this, indigenous economies were themselves "viable" and indigenous laws and customs maintained stability within cultural groups.

As for Mr. Harbron's notion that "corrupt and incompetent leaders" emerged as result of decolonization, I would refer him to the scores of texts written on the social and psychological consequences of colonialism. In all, the basic tenets is that corruption arose as a result of the escalating expectations spawned by Western cultural imperialism. This escalation was and is compounded by the economic plight of many of these countries which renders them impossible to meet even the basic requirement of life on the part of the populace. Furthermore, many of these "corrupt" leaders were trained and socialized in the West and through the educational process, imbibed Western models of statehood which they subsequently went on to impose on their indigenous peoples. Hamid Mowlana refers to this model of learning as "Westoxification." While these models espouse "democratic" values, their imposition is highly problematic given that it conflicts with traditions and mores within which a more interdependent model of relations inheres.

The whole notion of power, as we in the West are apt to believe and take for granted, is itself problematic when placed in the situation of the Third World. The top-down model of power that we view as commonplace, is itself an outgrowth of colonialism and imperialism. it suits the ideologies of empires whose raison d'etre is expansion and subordination. The rise of dictators is emblematic of the top-down model as is the extent to which the machinery of the army and the state is used to hold it in place.

While Mr. Harbron believes that the colonial empires exercised political stability and avoided wars, I would like to remind him that the wars that have since erupted within Africa, are themselves direct outgrowths of the callous ways in which the European powers cut up that continent into myriad pieces for themselves. That a continent should have been carved up in such a merciless manner and without any kind of sensitivity or awareness of the cultural and racial groups that would be affected is a telling sign of the ways in which the colonial powers perceived the colonizing world. Should Britannia rule? I don't think so.

As for the Nigerian case-study of failure in ascribing to a model of Canadian federalism, Mr. Harbron should re-examine the whole notion of federalism and the crisis it has engendered in Canada. We have the French in Quebec who are a distinct society. What about the multitudinous populace of Nigeria who belong to diverse cultural and religious groups? Whether Nigeria should or should not have spent its oil dollars is a moot issue and one that can be framed in quite a different context. It would be akin to discussing why the federal government in Canada continues to let farmers take the brunt of a glutted wheat market and the ravages spawned by a made-in-Canada recession. If we turn the entire issue around and follow the logic, Mr. Harbron should be asking whether Britannia should rule Canada again?

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of our legacy of colonialism and now imperialism, is that we tend to swallow the whole notion of white superiority - in this case, the superiority of those who engineered and reaped the benefits of the empires. Third World peoples have long been socialized to accept that notion of white superiority, although there is a conscious attempt to reject this at the present. Maybe, we in Canada should bid adieu to the idea of being a colony and being the colonized. Empires only serve the interests of colonizing powers, not the colonized masses.

In closing this litany of observations, I would like to point out that Mr. Harbron's greatest flaw is his inability to recognize the ways in which he treats relationships of inequality and attempts to make them synonymous with conflicts between political ideologies. It is impossible if not incredible to try and equate North-South relations, predicated on colonialism and neocolonialism, to the historical battle between communism and capitalism. Unequal powers and unequal ideologies are not alike.


Appendix B

Suggested guidelines and recommendations for reporting of racial minorities (see also guidelines of the National Union of Journalists in Britain as reported by van Dijk, 1991).

1. Less than 2% of the newsroom staff across the nation is composed of racial minorities, people with disabilities and first nations peoples. This has to change if alternative ways of seeing the world are to be included.

2. With the consistent invisibility of people of colour in normalized situations, any visibility that accrues because of conflict assumes a heightened significance. This can be changed by increasing the inclusion of normalized representations.

3. Rather than assume a moral tone in coverage of issues of racism, the media have to take an active stance against racism. That means locating the story within a legal framework, and not providing racists any platform from which to spout their rhetoric.

4. There needs to be a greater inclusion of contextual information rather than a dehistoricized and personalized perspective.

5. There should be no mention of a person's racial or ethnic background.

6. Stories should be vetted or told from a minority perspective.

7. There should be greater awareness among reporters of the power differential that is operative in society - who has access to cultural capital and symbolic resources.

8. Reporters should take it upon themselves to search out credible sources within communities of people of colour.

9. Use the principle of substitution, would this story be a story if the same thing was happening, or was being done by a white person from one of the charter groups?

10. Refrain from structuring an 'us' versus 'them' perspective in the news story. Are there other binary relations of this kind embedded in the story?

11. Be aware that the news plays a critical role in shaping a climate of opinion about a group of people.

12. Break the chain of associations between a group and an issue, e.g. blacks and crime. Immigrants and opportunism.

13. Beware of slipping into prevailing frames and their historical traces when writing a news-story, e.g., the refugee schema.



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