"The stories we tell each other, the gossip we pass, and the media representation of events shape the meaning of our lives." - -Rachel Godsil, Brianna Goodale, Perception Institute
The story of the brutal and untimely death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson of Marion, Alabama, has been referenced in speeches, history books and news articles since that tragic day in 1965. But, when stories are told by a member of that community as in Ava DuVernay's Selma film portrayal, the power of those authentic stories can touch hearts, open minds, mobilize masses and create opportunities for healing.
In the past two years, some of our nation's most influential movies and television shows have dealt with racism and bias. From Fruitvale Station to Selma, Scandal to House of Cards, celebrated writers, actors and directors have brought these issues to the mainstream. This has all been accompanied by a drumbeat crescendo of news and analysis that goes beyond specific incidents to examine the roots of these issues and the trends that reinforce them.
For those of us who work for racial equity and healing each day, this is an encouraging trend and an opportunity, especially given Hollywood's historical lack of support for people of color in front of and behind its cameras. As writers and producers become more diverse, they bring their own experiences, relationships and networks -- resulting in well-crafted storylines with recognizable experiences.
These important pop culture moments may seem separate from our day-to-day lives, but stories matter. Research from the Perception Institute says that "culture plays an important role in reinforcing implicit bias, increasing our racial anxieties and undermining conversations about racial equality and opportunity." And we also know that accurate, honest pop culture narratives can successfully combat stereotypes.
In just the past few weeks, the hit shows Scandal and House of Cards have addressed issues of race, while the 87th Annual Academy Awards became the subject of criticism for failing to include any black actors or directors and few others of color. On Scandal, we witnessed the gripping tale of an unarmed black teen fatally shot by a police officer and a father's anguish when sitting over his son's body calling out "He didn't carry a knife" repeatedly to an ever-growing crowd. The protagonist, Olivia Pope, hired to help diffuse the situation, speaks truth to the police chief when he starts to ready the riot gear: "There is a dead child lying in the street in front of their homes. What would you do if there was a dead child, a child you knew, lying in the street in front of your home? The fact that they stand in groups and say things you do not like does not make them a mob ... it makes them Americans."
In true television fashion, justice comes swiftly when we learn that the knife was planted but not before the officer reveals his biases in a rant: "The truth is, those people in Rosemead have no respect for anything or anyone ... Brandon Parker is dead because he didn't have respect, because those people out there who are chanting and crying over his body, they didn't teach him the right values."
Those last few minutes say so much, an officer classifying entire swaths of a community, making a claim that a young child threatened his safety -- and having that claim not be questioned, the chief having to be reminded that those gathered and grieving have the right to do so. It's difficult for me to imagine how any viewer no matter what race would not have been moved by the pain generated in those moments. Importantly, if the media were able to capture the stories of parents, families and communities mourning the needless deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Weinjian Lu, Rafael Ramos, Deah Shaddy Barakay, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and countless others, change might come about more swiftly.
Yet another timely example was how House of Cards used one its lead characters -- the powerful and confident White House Chief of Staff "Remy" -- to depict the horror, shame and powerlessness felt by so many men of color in the face of police bias. In a telling scene, Remy was pulled over by local police without apparent cause, arrested and slammed onto the hood of his vehicle just blocks from his post at the White House.
The trend is showing no signs of slowing down. The reactions to the Justice Department's recent investigations, and the most recent high profile police killing of an unarmed black teen show that these issues will remain a part of the national conversation. Those reactions will continue to shape the stories we tell.
For five years, my colleagues at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, other foundations, our grantees and communities around the nation have generated tangible examples of what change looks like when people have the space to heal and work together for a better world. We embrace those who tell unvarnished stories about the impact of biases, the rich contributions of all people of color, and the benefits of an inclusive playing field. Pop culture is a forum where people are both entertained and enlightened. It simultaneously reflects the culture and pushes it forward. Let's harness these moments by leveraging your water cooler conversations, social media platforms or mealtime discussions to highlight the impact of our unique stories. We can reimagine and refocus the narrative about people of color in this country, fostering a dialogue built on the equal and inherent value of all people, particularly men, women and children of color.
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