A few weeks ago Shonda Rhimes tackled the term dog-whistle politics in an episode of Scandal. It’s when people in positions of influence, usually politicians and the media, use loaded and general terms to describe something but those terms are targeted at a specific audience and not the general population. So like a dog whistle, only those the message is intended for, will hear the message loud and clear – everyone else may skip over and it and not recognize anything odd.
So let’s use a few examples shall we?
What does the word urban mean? When I was taught English back in the ’90s it meant opposite to rural, so of the city and of a metropolitan. Now however it has become code for black. So when we hear people talk of urban neighborhoods we know their talking about black communities because honestly in a city like New York, every neighborhood is urban right?
What about the word sassy? When is this word most often used? To refer to black women and their attitudes which are seen as “extra” or “too much” and basically just angry at the world. (See Alessandra Stanley’s sad story about Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times for an example).
What about when someone is referred to as well-spoken? What is the implication of such a statement? When you call a black person well-spoken, well-mannered or articulate you need to be very aware of the fact that it implies you expect less or different because of who they are. As if someone being articulate is something that should be a characteristic of their personality. As if you would ever tell a white person they speak really well. These are small triggers that speak volumes and we have to be sensitive.
You see, the thing is we need to be having very honest conversations about race and class in the newsroom and how we will cover these stories without using dog-politicking terms and offending and even alienating a whole group of people through our stories.
Today someone in my class said something so important. She said you need to differentiate between intent and impact. Your intention means nothing if the impact it has on a group is negative. So there’s where the work needs to be done, with us as people and our so-called good intentions. One day, it won’t be enough to say “oh but I didn’t mean it that way”. People will lose trust in you as a journalist because you don’t know how to empathize and you do not know how to be culturally sensitive.
I can only speak from the perspective of a black person because I hear the dog whistle when it’s blown at me but there are so many groups of people in a country like America who are alienated daily by the stories we tell. In my home country too, where we have more than two racial groups but often refer to either black or white without taking into account that people of colour have different backgrounds too. We frame people, without meaning to, in lights that are far from flattering and often when it is unwarranted. If you cannot justify your use of language then you’re doomed.
The fact is we need diverse newsrooms but the likelihood is that we won’t end up in newsrooms that are representative of all the people of the world so what we need is people who are aware of their bias, are willing to confront it and be well-rounded representatives of a changing media.
But where are we having these conversations? In vacuums. With people who already know and not those who need to know.