The issue of the News delivered to freshmen over the summer contained a collage of images of smiling New Haven residents, all white, with the exception of one black man. This is not a particularly strange narrative, especially at Yale, where the token minority is both exalted and fought over. Nor is it a particularly abnormal set of demographics considering that we rarely see the minority populations living beyond the walls of the Yale bubble. So you may be asking, “What’s the big deal?”
The unsurprising nature of this collage is what makes it a big deal. It is the fact that the one black man is not smiling and well-dressed, but instead expressionless and dressed in stereotypically homeless attire. It is a big deal because the freshmen coming to this campus from various backgrounds, some of whom have not seen positive images of people of color, were instantly bombarded with a problematic narrative. This newspaper needs to make an effort to represent minority individuals in an equally respectful manner. How can we tell our young black and Hispanic children that they are just as amazing as their white counterparts if, when they open up the newspaper of one of the greatest universities in the world, the only face that resembles their own is of an “inferior” man?
You have likely heard of the Clark’s doll experiment: one white doll and one brown doll. Young black and white children choose the one that looks nicest, the one that seems smartest, the one that’s the prettiest. They almost always choose the white one, and the results hold just as true today as they did when the experiment was first conducted in the 1940s and used to prove internalized racism as a consequence of school segregation in the Brown decision. And just as separate does not mean equal, integration does not mean equal representation. And it is equal representation that changes perceptions, especially in the moldable minds of younger individuals.
Misrepresentation of minority individuals is an issue that plagues our communities, and it is perpetuated by an abundance of negative stereotypes in the media. Just to name a few: Sambo, of the children’s book “Little Black Sambo,” perpetuates the image of the lazy, irresponsible and ignorant black man. Or “mammy,” a commonly used trope in early black minstrelsy, portrays an overbearing, large black woman working for a white family. Or “Jezebel,” the sexually promiscuous black woman named after the biblical character who enticed her husband and distracted him from God; White men used her to justify the raping of black slave women. These images continue to demoralize black people and maintain the oppressive social hierarchy in which minorities in this country have always been on the bottom.
People of color are using social media, especially Twitter, to fight back and question the media’s misrepresentation of our lives and bodies. A recent image juxtaposed the media’s portrayal of James Holmes and Michael Brown. Holmes, a white Colorado teen who shot dozens of theatergoers is described as a “brilliant science student.” Brown, an unarmed black teen shot by a police officer, is depicted as a “criminal” who “struggled with the officer.”
The hashtag #Iftheygunnedmedown began trending on Twitter in response to this juxtaposition. Minority individuals have posted two side-by-side photos of themselves — one respectable photo and one stereotypical photo — and are asking the question, #iftheygunnedmedown, which picture would the media use? The point of this movement is to demonstrate how the media criminalizes black and Hispanic victims of police brutality and perpetuates stereotypes that kill.
A powerful Twitter message read: “Black teenagers shoot other black teenagers for the same reason that cops shoot them: because they see no value.” Legislation will only take us so far. We all need to make the effort to not only fight de jure but also de facto discrimination. On paper, black people are equal to their white counterparts in many ways, but in practice we are still struggling with centuries of racist depictions of black lives and bodies. Black children spend most of their lives looking at history books and only seeing images of white people, with a little color sprinkled in. Even the black people in those books are usually victimized, limited to the narrative of slavery and the civil rights movement.
Yale specifically has a duty and a privilege to make sure that the most widely-read newspaper on our campus does not contribute to the negative image of blacks in this country. Even after the end of slavery, the acquisition of equal rights under the constitution and the extensive integration of blacks into mainstream media, we still must fight for fair representation in those same media sources. We fight not only to improve others’ perceptions of us, but for our own perception of ourselves.
Nailah Harper-Malveaux is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.