In the latest of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask writer Reni Eddo-Lodge about the media’s attitudes towards women and race, and the role social media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
There’s a lack of diversity in the mainstream media, which means that even basic “objective” reporting can’t really show the whole truth. This lack, which is obvious to some people, is shown in its coverage of minorities, which is disproportionately negative. For example, the commentary about the paedophile rings in the North West – where the perpetrators were Asian – was about Islam and misogyny; brown men and misogyny as if it was something inherent to this foreign, weird culture. When it all came out about Jimmy Saville and his paedophile friends, there was no discussion about whether it was something inherent in white culture. They are not held up as examples of their culture, they are seen as aberrations and anomalies.
I can’t see any other reason for the disproportionately negative coverage of minorities other than there are still latent prejudices among people who are writing the news. It’s not objective when they are perpetuating stereotypes and lies about some people and not others. Some media outlets like to be upfront about it, like Richard Littlejohn and the Daily Mail, others are more subtle. But, in fact some of the left-leaning and liberal media are some of the worst. They get minorities to write for their platforms sometimes, but it often seems tokenistic, because there’s still not that structural change.
What do you think of media coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
When I’ve attended events, feminist organisations (to give credit to them) are putting a real effort and resources into being more diverse and interested in all women’s experiences. Then the report which is published only highlights the well-known campaigns by women who are white and I find myself wondering “Were you there?”. A lot of women have access to the same resources. Many are using social media for their campaigns, but a lot aren’t getting the love they deserve among the mainstream media. Things are changing, but very slowly. The default position that people don’t think about, let alone challenge, is that “person” means white man and “woman” means white woman.
How have your experiences of the media been affected by the blind spot?
I started my blog about four years ago and have been getting commissions in the last two or three years. I was writing the same stuff as any feminist writer, and then I started to write about race and suddenly a lot more people were interested. I noticed that the more I put my neck on the line and spoke about structural racism on my blog, or in the mainstream media or on Radio 4, the more people – white women, essentially – would challenge my testimony in a way I hadn’t seen before when I was just writing about feminism. It tends to happen most when I speak on radio, with white women basically saying: “We can’t believe you on this one.” On the other hand, so many different people of colour and black and ethnic minority people get in touch with me to tell me I’ve verbalised their experience.
I know that lots of other people can relate to the experience of being the only black person in the room, trying to speak their truth and being battered down. I think that culminated in a complete mess and a drama at the beginning of this year, when Louise Mensch decided I was a bully for going on the radio with Caroline Criado-Perez and speaking about structural racism. I said that much as men benefit from sexism, white people benefit from racism. Caroline Criado Perez said she agreed, but added that she was being bullied on Twitter, which seemed to me to be a very un-self-aware attempt to equate black feminism with being bullied and being nasty to white people. I not only found it difficult because it really taps into pre-subscribed tropes about the angry black woman. I also found myself in a position where, as the one black person I was expected to account for all black people. My experience is that every time I speak about structural racism, I experience a racist backlash. It’s to be expected. I don’t really see it as a blind spot, I see it as latent prejudice that comes out all guns blazing.
What are the challenges facing people working in the media?
One thing I would suggest is don’t assume that white is the default in anything that you are writing. By doing that, anyone who isn’t white is automatically marked out as different. Another thing would be to talk to the people you write about. I remember reading a piece about black women being happier with their bodies, which was the result of a poll, and it was written by a white woman. And I remember thinking “how do you know?” The last thing is to engage honestly with criticism and recognise where it’s coming from. A lot of my writing is about power structures, so if I’m criticised I try to think about it as if it’s coming from a place that wants to continue to perpetuate those power structures, or from a place that wants to challenge and deconstruct them. Then you go from there.
What role does digital media play in challenging the blind spot?
Digital media has been an effective driver in moving the debate forward, meaning the mainstream media has had to catch up. To some extent it has turned the whole process of who sets the opinion on its head, but I’m not certain that it’s entirely true that digital media has democratised the debate. I benefited heavily from my experience of working at a news agency – it’s not as if I appeared out of nowhere. But I don’t think my access would have been the same if I hadn’t used digital media. The fact that I grew on those platforms, rather than starting on them with a profile, means I never treated it as a broadcast medium, which people who have had newspaper columns tend to do. I always understood it as more of a conversation and a dialogue. Unlike many journalists in the mainstream media, people who write on Tumblr or WordPress or Blogger aren’t broadcasting, they’re talking to each other and that means they sometimes criticise each other. I think with everyone descending onto the same platforms there has been a clash between the different ways people are using it. I think that’s what a lot of the arguments stem from too.
About the author
Reni Eddo-Lodge is a writer, a contributing editor @Feminist_Times and is involved with @blackfems. She specialises in structural racism and black feminism, and uses the word black in the political sense.