The white voice of publishing
24 September 2022
4 minutes, 17 seconds
In 2018, the book "Barracoon. The Last Slave." appeared on bookshop shelves all over the world. Unfortunately, however, its author Zora Neale Hurston never got to see its publication. In fact, the book was originally completed in 1927, but had to wait a full ninety years before it was approved for release. The text consists of a series of interviews, collected by Hurston herself, to tell the story of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave trade conducted between Africa and the United States. The story, true and "uncomfortable," was the reason behind the silence lasting so long. Similarly, publications on urban segregation written by W.E.B Du Bois, an African American sociologist and activist who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, took years before they were accepted and recognized by Western academia. Indeed, power can express itself in many forms and, often, it finds silent and invisible ways to affirm itself. The right to speak is an example of hidden power. It is called right, but do we all have the same capacity for voice and the same resonance? According to a survey published by the PEW Research Center, 77 percent of journalists in the United States in 2020 were white. Similarly, a report by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) showed that, during the same period, white journalists in the United Kingdom amounted to 94 percent (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2020).
The so-called "soft power," or the ability to capture and direct the interests of the population, is certainly also exercised by the media, and by the academic and cultural worlds. The power to produce information, therefore, may turn out to be the ability to encourage certain values or ideas. Being a power, it is also a privilege reserved for the few, and not everyone has access to it. Even today, certain minorities remain either severely underrepresented or entrenched in stereotypical narratives. Kurt Barling, a professor of journalism at Middlesex University in London, has denounced the hypocrisy with which certain news and television outlets take on a person of color, thinking that that single individual can represent the entire population, as if a minority has only one limited viewpoint and it only takes a single person to express the totality (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2020).
Anthropologist Heath Cabot has reflected on the representations that are made about minority groups, with particular reference to refugees. The anthropologist points out how such groups are portrayed by the media almost exclusively in a dramatic tone, emphasizing their suffering and pain. This mode of culture production is strongly contested by Cabot, who reflects on how these representations only "de-humanize" migrants who go through similar experiences, no longer considering them for their singularities and differences, as individuals, but on the contrary portraying them as a single "unfortunate" category, destined to remain subordinate and victimized (Cabot, 2020). Similarly, Coral James O'Connor, a researcher at City University of London, has studied how the stories of people of color are rarely told in the media and, in the few times when this happens, the focus is almost always on negative aspects (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2020). There is a lack of positive accounts that tell of the successes of migrant men and women who have made it or of the achievements of minority individuals. The risk of such a "dramatic" narrative that exaggerates the tragic, and then sells it on the cover, is that we forget that the minority individuals we are talking about are not a category of "victims," far removed from us, but instead human beings living in our time who have much more in common with us than we would like to believe. (Ramsey, 2019).
More careful reflection is therefore needed, reconsidering not only the tone of the narrative, but also with what authority certain things are said. For too long, Western media have taken on the "white man's burden," coined by Kipling in the late 19th century, making themselves the spokesmen of "the voiceless" and enlightening the "invisible." In the world, however, there are neither invisible nor voiceless, but "unseen" and "unheard" individuals, and in labeling them as such, we take up their space. It is perhaps time to think that, in order to proclaim the right to speak and more just information, it is necessary to share the microphone.
Cabot, Heath, 2019. The Business of Anthropology and the European Refugee Regime. American Ethnologists, Vol 46
Ramsay, Georgina, 2019. Time and the other in crisis: How anthropology makes its displaced object. Anthropological Theory.
Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2020. “Gli afroamericani contestano i pregiudizi dei giornalisti bianchi”, in Internazionale, [https://www.internazionale.it/video/2020/07/23/neri-pregiudizi-giornalisti-bianchi]
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