Media Literacy as a Tool to Fight Cultural Racism

How a human being experiences the physicality of the land might be compared with how s/he welcomes and values the diversity of the human family. Consider the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, for example, which I physically experienced several years ago during a day long drive across it, with interludes of short walks. At dusk, my friend and I sat on a bench in a desert oasis to watch one of the most glorious sunsets of my life, as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance.

Yet some travellers might experience the desert as a dry, barren land that is alien and threatening, through eyes that only see flat, parched earth disrupted by the spines of various cacti. Fear, of snakes, scorpions, and whatever else is not immediately visible and familiar, overtakes any willingness to be adventurous and take the time to be exposed to the less visible, unfamiliar and transformative encounters that can be possible through direct physical connection with the earth.

Other travellers defuse fear with an open mind and a receptive heart. In doing so, they expose themselves to a direct experience of the beauty, diversity, and resilience, of a very rich desert ecology that survives for reasons of flexibility and adaptability, in constant harsh conditions as well as during extreme environmental events.

The above two perspectives could be equated to how various Euro-Americans choose to look upon diverse human cultures. Some of the former have a one-dimensional and unwelcoming view, for example, as evident by those Euro-American individuals in Arizona who view the growing number of Latino/a residents with fear.

Other Euro-Americans, although socialized in Western culture, allow their lives to become enriched by exploring, and engaging with, cultures other than their own. In making that effort they thus awaken awareness about the inner beauty and strengths of resilient Latino and Native American peoples. Indeed, traditional land-based cultures, despite colonial disruptions, continue to model a spiritually-grounded value system connected with the earth that Euro-western culture would do well to heed.

That is why the fear-mongering by extreme right-wing politicians in Arizona, who have banned Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, used in Mexican American Studies (MAS), is so misguided, not to mention banning other books and terminating the MAS program. (See my previous blog.)

Politicians, such as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, stigmatize Friere – a world-renown Brazilian critical educator – as a Marxist, and insult MAS students by suggesting the latter are being indoctrinated. This accusation shows those politicians’ ignorance, to censor educational materials that actually are teaching people not what to think but instead how to think independently. Such politicians are the actual perpetrators of ideological bias, not the MAS and other, still existing ethnic studies programs.

Indeed, Paulo Friere’s intention was to create processes to help learners take responsibility in understanding how regimes of power influence their lives. Called `conscientization,’ that is, coming to consciousness, is the first step. Thereafter, better informed individuals can feel transformed, engaged and more in charge of their lives, to make better choices for the benefit of the wider community or society.

Friere’s critical pedagogy, in fact, challenged indoctrination and what he called the `banking’ concept of education. `Banking’ refers to the transmission style of education where the teacher is the active agent, the one who knows, and students are the passive recipients of the teacher’s knowledge. For anyone who wants to examine Friere’s influence on educational theory and practice, and read critiques of his work, go to http://mingo.info-science.uiowa.edu/~stevens/critped/linksfreire.htm.

What right-wing politicians confuse, and wrongly conflate, is the longstanding American bogeyman of state communism with the traditional Indigenous, Latino and other non-Western societal values that are communal.

Communal values call upon interactions that are inclusively beneficial to all community members. Such inclusion is not limited to human beings but, moreover, to human responsibilities toward, and interrelationships with, the communities of all forms of life. These include land-based and marine plant and animal life, as well as the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

That raises a related problem of the cultural racism exercised against ethnic studies in Arizona by its current Attorney-General Tom Horne. In his previous function as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, he lobbied to bring in House Bill 2281, created to use against academic studies designed for particular ethnic groups. That problem is the Euro-American obsession with `individualism,’ as per the United States’ `melting pot’ (in contrast with Canada’s `mosaic’) preference in relation to diverse cultures.

In an interview with CNN‘s Anderson Cooper at that time, Tom Horne cited Martin Luther King, Jr., from his 1963 civil rights march speech: “We should be judged by the qualities of our character and not the colour of our skin.” Horne followed with: “We are individuals, and not exemplars of the race we belong to,” to justify the above house bill.

CNN co-interviewee, sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson at Georgetown University, then reprimanded Horne for dismissing “negative realities” experienced by peoples who have been “demoralized and degraded” in regard to their histories. Dyson added that until such time all Americans can address and take ownership of such realities, ethnic studies are needed.

Meanwhile, it could be argued that state communism and state capitalism are two sides of the same coin given their similar pursuits in the economic exploitation of the natural world, to the degree of undermining the planet’s life support system.

The bigger threat to Western civilization, therefore, is absolutely not ethnic cultures whose traditional communal values include socializing each and every child to take responsibility in caring for the sources of life that sustain them. Rather, the current threat to any civilization, and human life worth living at all, is the increasing destruction inflicted upon the planet globally by multinational industrial capitalism.

As American businessman and environmentalist Paul Hawken cautioned in his book The Ecology of Commerce (1993): “We have reached an unsettling and portentious turning point in industrial civilization [p. 1] … Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating” [p. 3].

My own experiences among Indigenous people influenced my professional approach in media literacy and also my academic studies in transformative learning. Media literacy, in a nutshell, embraces a set of concepts and practices that examine how, why, and for whom, the media construct reality. Also called `media studies’ and `media education,’ it is taught at various grade levels from elementary to post-secondary institutions in many countries around the world today, including the United States.

Media education teaches `critical thinking,’ most commonly to scrutinize the mass media and popular culture. Media, however, embrace all forms of `cultural production,’ which also include all fields of academic knowledge from natural and social sciences to economics and history. In other words, all expressions of knowledge are culturally constructed rather than absolute truths. Therein is the reason why any approach in critical thinking, Frierian or otherwise, can be seen not only as provocative to political and economic power holders, but also threatening to the status quo.

Regardless, a secure and healthy democracy thrives on freedom of expression by all voices rather than censorship. Also important is learning how to `deconstruct’ the spreading tentacles of American right-wing fear-mongering and, instead, encourage culturally diverse learning materials in more schools.

`Deconstruction’ is one of the media education practices that I have demonstrated above, to expose Huppenthal’s distorted characterization of Friere and MAS, and Horne’s misrepresentation of a statement from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 speech.

`Deconstruct’ means to analyze a text, linguistic or conceptual system, in order to expose its hidden internal assumptions and contradictions, and subvert its apparent significance or unity. In other words, I `subverted’ Huppenthal’s interview on Democracy Now, by identifying how his language was politically biased even though he tried to present his position as totally neutral and common sense, implying it to be universally acceptable.

As for Huppenthal’s presentation of the Euro-American approach to education as the only acceptable norm, it is simply `cultural racism,’ also known as `systemic racism’ and `institutional racism.’ Such racism is described by the Women’s Theological Center, in Boston, MA, as: “A situation in which one race maintains supremacy over another race through a set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures and ideologies,” as well as “standards for appropriate behavior [that] are ethnocentric, reflecting and privileging the norms and values of the dominant race/society.”

More than ever before in human history, we truly need to open our minds and hearts to understand cultures other than our own, by exposing ourselves to each others’ stories, whether in books, films, theatrical performances, music and/or through the joy of social gatherings, and personal encounters in which we give presence to each other.

Let us also work side-by-side in restorative activities on behalf of our beloved planet.

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