Decoding Post-Racial Media

On Sunday, February 5, 2017, many US televisions were broadcasting Super Bowl LI, and the accompanying high-profile commercials. Among the many advertisements debuting that night, Airbnb’s spot showed a multiethnic range of faces in close-up that were quickly edited and sometimes spliced together. 

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Click here to see the ad

This montage was accompanied by text that read: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” This aired 9 days after President Trump signed an executive order to temporarily close America’s borders to all refugees and to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, which were identified as Muslim majority countries. 

While this advertisement was praised for opposing the ban, albeit obliquely, it also did this by using a post-racial visual rhetoric that has long been used in the US. Post-racial media either imagines a future in which racial prejudice and discrimination will no longer exist or asserts that such an age exists now—we just have to present it.

As Taylor Nygaard writes about postfeminism, “To be post-something means to have moved passed it or to be over it.” In this context, post-racial media visualizes a world that is beyond race by showing people of all races as if they are all treated equally. Though race is a social construct it has also been violently and materially used to disenfranchise people. 

For example, Black has been defined in many contexts to include Aboriginal and South Asian diasporic people, meaning it does not necessarily mean just African diasporic people. However as it is used in the Black Lives Matter movement it specifically identifies how Black is tied to African diasporic people living in the US, who are subject to an endemically anti-Black violent policing. There are real-life consequences for this construct of race. 

For media or people to claim to be post-racial means that we have moved toward a time period in which the social construction of race only signifies a visual diversity and not any material consequences. In this hypothetical post-racial world, race is no longer tied to histories of violence and disenfranchisement, rather it is aligned to differences of skin color and physiognomy to show how people of different races make the world “more beautiful” like the many colors of the rainbow. This can be seen in another face-melding video, Michael Jackson’s 1991 “Black or White” which proudly sounds the irrelevance of race by comically shifting between the faces of beautiful models, comedians, and everyday folks of different races.

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Click here to watch the video

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, many popular press outlets asserted that this new regime marked the inauguration of a post-racial age. Finally, a country with a deeply racist history and foundation could—with a white majority—elect a Black president. Indeed, not only was Obama Black but he was mixed-race, furthering claims for the dawning of a post-racial cultural ethos. Despite this optimism and/or willful delusion, Obama’s 2008 election was deeply marred by racism, from liberal publications joking about how some viewed Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama as Muslim terrorists and Black Power Revolutionaries to conservatives hanging and burning Obama in effigy. In 2008 alone, effigies of Obama were publicly burned in Kentucky, Maine, Washington, Texas, and Georgia.

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July 21, 2008 New Yorker cover attempts to poke fun at white conservative fears and smears of the Obamas by depending on racist and xenophobic stereotypes.

Despite the primacy of race to how the Obamas were covered in the popular press, for many they signified a new and real-life version of TV’s Cosby family. On election night in 2008, former George W. Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove said on Fox News: “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms. When ‘The Cosby Show’ was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.” They were not only prominent and genial, but they performed a pluralist discourse. By this I mean, as Herman Gray theorized in Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness” (1995), the Obamas, like the Cosby’s, existed in a “separate but equal” world apart from white people but actually equal to upper class white people’s quality of life. Ironically, this separation from white characters and economic instability enabled many white viewers to identify with the Cosby family in a way that also removed them from white racism.

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Similarities were often drawn between the Obamas and The Cosby Show during the 2008 election.

The First Family and notably First Black First Family was presented to Americans like a sitcom family. Other popular media followed suit, with more people of color advertising campaigns, television shows, and films. The popular press trumpeted the dawn of post-racial media and noted the growth in television shows like Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries and films like The Hunger Games series and the new Star Wars films with multiracial casts. Despite these utopian claims, many of these productions were met with hateful comments, cancellations, or low ticket sales. Furthermore, it is unclear whether this media made an impact on the racial consciousness of a public that elected the US’s first Black president and then later allowed for the election of President Trump, a candidate who was explicitly supported by white supremacists and matched that with racist and xenophobic invective all along the campaign trail. While people have speculated that Trump’s victory is a racist backlash to the first Black President, I think it is important to also understand how post-racial media representations can be complicit in fostering white supremacist ideals.

Given the current political regime, wouldn’t the diverse and inclusive imagery of post-racial media seem like an appropriate and resistant response? Shouldn’t we want to imagine a future where we are all treated equally, regardless of how we look, where we come from, or what we believe in? While we many of us want this future—and wish it were our present—let’s not forget that this imagery did little to actually shift public discussion on race. This reprisal of post-racial advertising strategies that attempt to evacuate the differences between “black or white”should be thought of less as resistance to the current political regime and more as a willful disregard to the actual race-based disenfranchisements that have led to the current political climate. 

While some publications have called for people to try to understand or excuse white bigotry in order to comprehend Donald Trump’s election, a more prudent and less morally repugnant approach would be to understand how visibility–especially in commercial outlets–does not necessarily translate to power or the guarantees of citizenship. Just because the Obamas were in The White House, Black-ish was on ABC, and Black Lives Matter was on the news did not actually mean that all Black people were coming into more power. Rather than a visuality of assimilation where we are all the same and together or pluralism where we are all the same but separate from different races, Gray identifies another discursive practice that is multiculturalist. Multiculturalist discourses focus on a diversity of viewpoints and provide a heterogeneous representation of people belonging to the same or various racial groups (Gray 90). Inherent in this practice is an understanding of how intersectionality modifies representations of race, meaning it is not enough to see the world in terms of race, but to see how race is classed and gendered in the US, and similarly how constructions of class and gender are racialized. For example, Gray examines A Different World (1987-1993), and how it depicted various young Black students at the fictional historically Black college, Hillman University. The characters not only represent a range of classes, ages, and genders, they also reflect on issues of colorism, politicization, bourgeois success, interracial dating, and religion.

https://youtu.be/E_lPVwTg6gA

Though “multiculturalist” programs like these were rare on television back in the 1990s when Gray wrote it, let’s hope this current political moment can lead to a reprisal of this strategy. After all if one truly wants to dispense with race as a construction, it will require hard work, a deep understanding of history, and at the very least more rigorous aesthetics.

Post by Linde Murugan

Further Reading
Herman Gray, Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for ‘Blackness’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)

Britney Cooper, “Hollywood’s Post-racial Mirage: How Pop Culture Got Gentrified” Salon (Mar 25 2014)

Sarah E. Turner and Sarah Nilsen, eds. The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America (New York: New York University Press, 2014)

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