As a white person one way I contribute to systemic and inherent racism is through what media I choose to support, consume, and promote. This perpetuation of systemic racism is largely unconscious and unintentional, which is, as Robin DiAngelo convincingly argues in their book White Fragility, a major way in which progressive white people perpetuate racism. Racism, as DiAngelo discusses, is not just not a question of refraining from bad behaviour, but more broadly encompasses a host of systemic and cultural considerations that make up our daily lives. One of these considerations is the choices we make around media consumption.
Exploring from my own media habits (and extrapolating from the knowledge I have of media habits of white friends and family) the majority of media I consume is made by people who look like me, stars people who look like me, and is situated within (and thus reinforces) a white-centric view of the world.
The result of this lack of media diversity is that white power structures are maintained by our largely unconscious decision to avoid seeking out, supporting and consuming BIPOC media. This results in a continued othering of BIPOC people, whose lives are pushed to the periphery of (white) culture. It also results in white people consuming media that is less interesting and enriching.
One thing I have tried to do for the last few years is to undertake a periodic review of what media I am consuming.1Indeed, the Consumption Log accompanying these essays is part of a process to do so in a more visible way. Aside from other factors one may wish to consider as part of this review—such as gender, language, form, medium, class, ability and so on—I have recently focussed on race. And so I’ve tried to take quite a forensic view in understanding who are the people involved in creating the media I consume, as well as having regard as to who is featured in the media and what view of the world the media articulates. More recently, I’m trying to look past the superficial presence of any BIPOC characters and have greater regard for whether or not any BIPOC were involved in creating the media in question.
Inevitably when I do these stocktakes I am confronted with the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of the media I consume is made by white people, features white people (sometimes exclusively features white people) and is white-centric in its portrayal of the world. This remains true across all the different mediums I explore: television, movies, books, games, music, podcasts and so on.
This remains the case even after having done media stocktakes for the past few years, although I do note a slow but gradual trend towards greater diversity in at least some categories of my media consumption.
As an example, I looked at roughly the last 100 videos in my youtube watch history. Only a very small handful were from BIPOC creators and an even smaller portion featured a BIPOC face in the thumbnail, compared with a white face being featured in roughly every one-in-four video thumbnails.
I did a brief analysis of the entries on my Consumption Log and present the results below. The chart on the left is for if someone I could identify as a BIPOC person was the creator or lead person involved in the work (much easier for novels with a singular author than say television or movies where many people are involved in the creative act).2I acknowledge that my own racial biases hinder my ability to make an accurate assessment and so wish to flag this as an inherent methodological flaw. The chart on the right was if the main characters (i.e what might be on the movie poster or in the first few entries in IMDB cast list) were BIPOC.3The N/A accounts for the fact that non fiction books do not generally have main characters. A separate exercise could seek to code the non fiction books for their racial world view, but is out of scope of this essay.
While I am pleased the result is not 100% white creators or cast, I nonetheless observe that BIPOC make up much more than ~30% of the world’s population and yet do not make up an equivalent portion in my media consumption.4I am not advocating, here, for a quota, or for some absurd mathematical approach, but rather am reflecting on the discrepancy.
The conclusion I draw from this, and one I hope you also arrive at as regards your own media consumption, is that I should continue to improve the diversity of my media consumption. And why should we do this? Read on.
Diverse media is better media
Low media diversity has costs. And the benefits are not simply freedom from the associated costs, as we will discuss.
Firstly, the costs: by not supporting diverse media, one is complicit in othering BIPOC people and by extension contributing to white dominance. Again, no one—or at least, I hope no one—is thinking about watch to watch after work from a perspective of “how can I further white dominance today?” but I would suggest being blind to the question of diversity, and just defaulting to white media, means we end up in the same place where the primacy of white media is only reinforced. As white people, we have to recognise our privilege in simply being able to say “I don’t want to deal with racism today” in a way that a BIPOC simply cannot.
Another cost is we condone a reduction and homogenisation of the types of ideas, stories, experiences and voices that are created, that receive marketing dollars, and that we are exposed to. We easily lose our sense and appreciation of the incredible beautiful diversity that exists in this scenario. If we exclude BIPOC voices from our media we lose a critically important avenue for experiencing and sharing lives that differ from our own. In a polarised world this loss is a sad thing and threatens to only further increase polarisation and disconnection.
By depriving BIPOC voices of an audience we contribute and support the inherent racism of market forces that favour dull creative decisions. Why should it be so much harder for BIPOC creators than it is for white creators? We have a duty to humanity that means we should support a broad and diverse group of voices.
There are clear and serious costs to low media diversity. And while I have argued in the past that we need to be clear about the limits of individual responsibility, I nonetheless think one’s media choices are an opportunity to take meaningful individual action.
The benefits of supporting diverse media are many.
Firstly, exploring diverse media pokes holes in the bubbles we all live in. Modern media, technology, and our own internal heuristics make it very easy to create little echo chambers where we are only exposed to views that we agree with and that reinforce our conceptual frameworks. Over time the barriers that protect these bubbles grow stronger and stronger and we become more resistant to contrary ideas and thoughts. There is a great Korean phrase that I think of often: “고인 물은 썩는다” (Still water rots). Let us not become 고인물.5I’m slightly modifying the modern gaming-related context in which this word/phrase is used. More detail here.
I certainly am not comfortable with this process and I find it hard to imagine a convincing moral or ethical argument that argues that our echo-chamber tendencies are, in fact, a great thing, especially when one can connect this tendency with broader concepts of racism.
Instead I would argue that we have a moral duty both to ourselves and the world at large to be curious, to challenge our assumptions, and to find ways of connection with others, especially when they might be physically different to us. Adding diversity to one’s media consumption is a way of partially satisfying that duty and of making one’s bubble a little more permeable.
Aside from countering some of our less mindful natural tendencies, diverse media is simply more interesting, more compelling and more enriching than the bulk of white-media we consume. One friend, Andrew, put it this way:
Really if you think about it, it’s kind of a selfish impulse at its core, in that I’m seeking out that diversity because I feel like I’ll get more out of it. One way or another I do think that diverse creators have greater potential to deliver something novel, since by nature of being born outside of the dominant social/cultural “in-group” they’re less likely to take certain ideas for granted, and thus less likely to rely on convention (I’m speaking in generalities here, of course). Or they’re simply from cultures significantly different from my own, so inherently it’s novel to me.Andrew (a good egg)
I don’t need to see more stories by or from people like me—I live that life, after all—I do need to see stories from people who experience life in different ways. Intellectually we know others live different lives, but an intellectual awareness is different from something we feel in our soul and our heart. Humans tell stories for a reason: our sense of intellectual empathy and imagination only takes us so far.
Thinking again of the things on my consumption log, some of the best things I’ve experienced this year have indeed been from BIPOC creators. I might have accidentally stumbled upon some of these, perhaps, but by making diversity a conscious factor in deciding what to consume, I have drastically increased the odds of encountering content that enriches me.
Engaging with diverse media challenges my views of the world; it makes me realise that the world is richer, more complicated, more delightful, more cruel, and so on, than I ever could have imagined, or ever would have experienced just by consuming white media. Sometimes this is depressing, sometimes this is delightful, but in all cases it is valuable to have experienced.
Adding diversity to your media life
In thinking about this topic, I’ve come up with a number of straw person type objections to the proposition that adding diversity is a valuable thing:
- I just want to relax and not think about what to enjoy
- I just want to watch what is good rather than what is diverse
- It’s too hard to find BIPOC content / there is no BIPOC content that interests me / The quality is lower than I want
All of these do not really pass any real scrutiny, and I do not plan on responding to these in any detail, but I include them as examples of how insidious racism is in seemingly non-racist thoughts, especially in people who would otherwise proclaim how anti-racist they are.
I do not think it takes any appreciable extra effort to, as an example, pick a book from a BIPOC creator instead of a white creator. This argument really devalues our own agency and makes it seem like we’re just baby animals in an industrial farm, just waiting for the farmer to hook up the content teat to our waiting maws. While of course there is something soulless about modern media and content production, we’re not so far gone as that.
As alluded to above, it’s really a straw person argument rather than a genuine objection or argument against diversity: a simple quick google search can reveal countless books, podcasts, television shows, games, poems, etc, from BIPOC creators. Funnily enough, BIPOC creators want an audience just as much, if not more, than their white peers, and so are inclined towards promoting their work. Similarly, BIPOC fans also want to share their passions. Or acknowledge that one putting in a little bit of effort is a totally fair expectation.
So I challenge you: for the next month try seeking out media from diverse creators. Yes, this may mean you have to hit pause on say your current favourite television show, gaming podcast or author to accommodate the new media, but this is a small cost to pay to begin making conscious action to correct an unconscious bias.
I guarantee you that by the end of the month you’d have at least found a few things that delight you, that interest you, or that enrich you (or all of the above). You can then become an advocate for those things amongst your friends and family and hopefully encourage other people to also seek our more diverse media. And while I have talked primarily about racial diversity here, I also want to encourage diversity in media more broadly, or as a friend, Emmy, puts it:
Also, and I feel maybe most importantly, I diversify on a number of metrics, and not just race. So seeking out works based on creators’ class, ability, health, age, and other axis of marginalization, and not just not-white-people (although obviously that’s huge and important).Emmy (also a good egg)
If you undertake this experiment in good faith and do not find anything that delights you then please do write in, as I’d be genuinely surprised!
The challenge then becomes, after your initial success, not to backslide into our natural default of just consuming boring, predictable content, as I fear I have done to a degree. Making lifelong change requires commitment and regular check-ins. Learn from my example and avoid having a set it and forget it mentality.
Our search for ways to combat inherent racism should not end at the question of diversity in our media consumption, but it is nonetheless an important avenue and an easy one to take meaningful action towards. There’s a lot of amazing things out there—go forth and explore.
- 1Indeed, the Consumption Log accompanying these essays is part of a process to do so in a more visible way.
- 2I acknowledge that my own racial biases hinder my ability to make an accurate assessment and so wish to flag this as an inherent methodological flaw.
- 3The N/A accounts for the fact that non fiction books do not generally have main characters. A separate exercise could seek to code the non fiction books for their racial world view, but is out of scope of this essay.
- 4I am not advocating, here, for a quota, or for some absurd mathematical approach, but rather am reflecting on the discrepancy.
- 5I’m slightly modifying the modern gaming-related context in which this word/phrase is used. More detail here.