karnythia recently linked
to a news article
about people studying the effects of television on racial biases. There was an old bit on SNL's Weekend Update when I was growing up, where Norm Macdonald would read a headline about a recent medical study and then announce that it and other news could be read in the pages of the medical journal "DUH!
As others observed on her post, there have been studies about this sort of thing for as long as there has been television... while more attention given to it is not a bad thing, the thought behind this research (as presented in the article, anyway) seems somewhat naive.
The psychologists wondered how such biases could persist in a society in which racism is socially unacceptable and indeed publicly denounced.
I would submit that there is and always has been a difference between "this thing is not done in our society" and "this thing is not admitted to
in our society". What is socially unacceptable is to be openly and overtly racist, to admit
to racism... this is what makes talking about racism so difficult. If a person or group is doing something in a way that seriously disadvantages or negatively impacts minorities, attempts to discuss the very real problem they present frequently break down into protracted discussions of their motivations and their feelings.
Of course, people who shout "I HATE [epithet]S!" from the rooftops seriously suck. Seriously. But their ability to affect people on a day to day basis is severely limited because they are denounced so quickly and people are so quick to distance themselves from such overt racism. Such overt bigots can assault people, can injure and hurt them, but do not usually have the power to oppress
all by their lonesome.
(This isn't to say we shouldn't denounce them. If we don't make it clear that such things are intolerable, then they won't stay lonesome and they will get power. "Society" is a shoutocracy: loudest voice frequently wins.)
Oppression is a systemic problem. It comes from institutional racism.
Example: when a company sells only products that are primarily useful for or attractive to white folks or markets them in a way that makes it seem like they're only meant for white folks, it might be described as a pure number-crunching exercise. They might describe their target audience not as white (or hetero, or able-bodied, or cis, or English speaking) but as "mainstream
". And many people wouldn't argue with that.
But doing this is not only a response to our society where certain people and their perceived tastes are "mainstream" and thus more worth catering to, it perpetuates that perception, rebuilds it and makes it stronger all the time.
Take a look at this video:
Now, because some things are going to be raised as objections any time something like this is posted in an open forum:
1. Yes, the lighting conditions are not optimal and probably not in line with the manufacturer's recommendations or set-up instructions. It's certainly possible that with enough jiggering and a bit of poking, the man in the video could get the camera to recognize and track his face.
2. No, the HP engineers did not invent the laws of physics as they apply to optics.
3. No, no one is saying that Hugh L. Packard, president of HP, said "FUCK THE BLACKS. MAKE IT ONLY WORK ON WHITE PEOPLE."
The fact is that a major consumer electronics manufacturer released, shipped, and sold a device that at the very least works best for white people, works under a wider range of conditions for white people, and requires less fiddling around with your room's set-up out of the box for white people. That's charitably assuming it would work in a reasonable fashion for the gentleman doing the demonstration, if he dimmed the backlighting and put a light source in front, as some commenters on the video suggested."That's not racist, that's just how lighting and cameras work."
... except... can anybody imagine this being considered a viable commercial technology if it worked the other way around? If the technology for using facial tracking on white folk was such that it would require a level of finicky fiddling about with ambient lighting that the old ROB robot that was bundled with the NES in the 1980s did, would a computer manufacturer actually bundle it with a computer webcam package on the cusp of 2010? Or would they be going "It's an interesting concept, but the technology is not really 'there' yet. Let's keep trying to improve it."
Some people will probably look at that and wonder if I'm suggesting that nobody should be able to buy this webcam product unless it works perfectly for everyone. I'm not. I'm suggesting we wouldn't be able to buy it... at least not as a feature with an HP media center computer rather than a quirky toy for techno-hobbyists who don't mind the fiddling around... if it didn't work well for white people. Because it does, it has "mainstream commercial appeal".
This is systemic racism, institutional racism in action. I'm sure some people are going to roll their eyes and say things like "Oh, life is so hard for people who can't get a webcam to follow their movements. It must be nice if that's the only problem they have to complain about."
To which I say: yes, I'm sure it would be nice if that were the only thing that someone had to complain about. But this is not some weird random example of something that goes against the common trend. The "mainstreaming" of whiteness is pervasive and so are its effects.
Shows and movies (and books and magazines) centered around white actors/characters are marketed as the default. If a character with a different skin tone is cast white in an adaptation to broaden the appeal, it's a main character... characters who become minority in translation ostensibly for the same reason are almost always background characters or sidekicks (There are exceptions. They are played by Will Smith and Morgan Freeman. And Obama is president. And Sammy Davis, Jr. played at the Copacabana Club. The existence of minority superstars are one of the best examples of the hoary old chestnut about "the exception that proves the rule".) We judge the cleanliness and "professionalism" of people's hair based on the way white folks' hair looks when it's well-cared for. We have a similar rubric for judging the professionalism of people's names
The number of people who can complain with a straight face on the "racism" of a channel called "Black Entertainment Television" when we spend our lives so immersed in things targeted directly at
"mainstream people" demonstrates how pervasive the problem is: it's so deeply rooted in our culture that we don't even see it.