The mainstream news media often bills itself as presenting unbiased coverage of issues which pertain to a broad landscape of consumers. Supposedly, these stories are the objective representations of what needs to be reported in a timely manner. Far too frequently, these “unbiased” stories feature narratives, framing choices, and other coded cues which placate to a predominantly White viewership and simultaneously demean Black and Brown people. These are simple facts which must be addressed.
The most recent example (a particularly egregious one) is the Los Angeles Times running a story which compares tennis legend Serena Williams to a racehorse named American Pharaoh. After seeing reactions to her being named “Sportsperson of the Year” by Sports Illustrated on Monday, many White people took to the Internet to protest her well-deserved accomplishment. The LA Times situated the article as if it were meant to engage seriously this comparison ignoring the fact that the whole conversation is predicated on completely ludicrous, racist, and sexist ideas about Black women and Black people in general.
When Sports Illustrated named Serena Williams the “Sportsperson of the Year,” they gave ample explanation as to why the decision was made. In a very thorough article, the SI team outlined how the course of Williams career – given that she is both Black and woman – has been affected by racial animus. It has also been affected by sexism. This could be one of the reasons she is the first woman to win the award since 1983. It’s no secret that professional sports have never really been kind to women, especially Black women.
Further, SI explained that her return to Indian Wells showed her grace as a tennis player and a person. This is the tour location where in 2001, Williams and her family were booed, subjected to racial slurs, and harassed by officials and patrons who attended the tournament. She left the tour in tears, hoping to never return. SI describes the event as “the WTA Tour’s open wound, revealing simmering tensions in a sport that had long heralded itself as a pioneer in racial and sexual equality.”
There is no question that Williams and her family have harrowed through racism and misogyny (and the place where those intersect for Black women called ‘misogynoir’). Her ability to transcend those experiences to become one of the most decorated athletes in United States history is a testament to her character and ambition. But, these achievements weren’t enough to dampen the angst that she won the award over a horse. A. Horse.
As a counter example, Maxim covered the story and made it clear they thought it was ridiculous. But Mic dropped the ball (no pun intended) when they, too, entertained American Pharoah’s snub citing the horse’s popularity in an online poll as a potential reason why the horse drama has ensued. The question remains: why would the LA Times feel justified in comparing Williams’ long, well-documented career in tennis, which reached a peak in 2014-2015, to that of a horse?
The easiest answer is often the right one. And, in this case, I can only surmise that the LA Times wanted to unbiased-ly and objectively entertain the racism and misogyny of some White people who didn’t understand that being named “sportsperson” of something requires that one actually be both active in a sport and a person. Those particular people would likely prefer to see anyone or anything win an award over a Black woman – specifically Serena Williams. Therefore, for the LA Times to report this story as anything but misogynoir is irresponsible and antagonistic.
While the chattel reference here is clear and links to a historical practice from Whites to situate blackness and all of its relations with animals, the most troubling issue is the nature with which the article was reported. By foregrounding hateful tweets and comments from White people across the Internet, the LA Times threw a racist rock and then hid their hands. They attempted to make this out as a real issue – you know because it is completely plausible that this horse meets the person requirement for the award – rather than shutting it down as the racist, sexist hateful animus toward Black women that it is.
This is not the only way that mainstream media outlets empower and legitimize racism and sexism whilst pretending to be unbiased and objective. Other examples include Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray being characterized as “thugs” in the news media in an attempt to justify their murders. And, let’s never forget the New York Times proclaiming that Michael Brown was “no angel.”
Similarly, this is no different from NBC News publishing a headline from the Associated Press which said, “Who Is Robert Dear? Planned Parenthood Shooting Suspect Seemed Strange, Not Dangerous, Neighbors Say.” Clearly Dear was violent and dangerous since he opened fire on a clinic full of people, injuring nine and killing three others last month. All three of the people he killed were of color. This too, is significant and highlights the fact that, by framing stories in this manner, mainstream media outlets erase the lived experiences of Black and Brown people, justify and reinforce White privilege, and criminalize Black and Brown folks in the process.
Taken together, these media choices elevate whiteness so high that it casts a gaping shadow over everything and everyone else. These articles and segments are everything but objective and unbiased when they continue to pen empty platitudes about racists, homophobes, anti-Black gunmen, and a host of other violent and harmful situations as if their lenses aren’t also clouded with privilege. By continuing the narrative that these harmful racist stances are plausible and even rational, mainstream media outlets allow themselves to become a tool in the preservation of White Supremacy.
They can continue to play these games as if they aren’t integral to a system of oppression which disproportionately and intentionally eradicates Black and Brown life. However, we can clearly see what is happening here. And it’s time we just call it precisely what it is.
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