Racism, Discrimination and the Reproduction of White Privilege in Today’s Media


José Miguel Labrín

Faculty Member of the Instituto de la Comunicación e Imagen

Universidad de Chile

 PhD in Communication, Social Change and Development

 Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Translated by Natalia Tranchino and Anthony Rauld

The issue of racism has earned a relevant place in the discussion regarding the media’s social role.  Whether it is through questions about discourse, or representations and their proposed content, or through the selections, practices and routines of the professionals who work in media, the truth is that, since the mid 1990’s, this issue has been systematically present in the production of local research in Chile, focusing particularly on two processes that demonstrate the symbolic nature of this discrimination: the coverage and treatment that indigenous peoples receive in the press, and the emergence of intraregional immigration as an object of public scrutiny.

Without aiming to establish a comprehensive report of this academic research, it is clear that, to a greater or lesser extent, in both cases national findings tend to converge. Thus, cultural diversity is always seen as a place for the “other”, exposed by their own difference; from there, those “others” are linked to a wide variety of risks: poverty, crime or violence are recognized as the main associations.  In opposition to this, the narrative of inclusion tends, to some degree, towards exoticism, stories of individual struggle, and, more recently, understanding both groups as expressions of “the vulnerable” or from the need to control them.

In this sense—and considering that there is currently more symbolic production, as well as a ubiquity of digital networks, and the decentralization of information—why is it that in a context of flow and greater diversity of information, there is so little variability in the depictions of the indigenous and the immigrant in the industrialized national media? Does it have to do, perhaps, with a certain opacity linked to a way of being and belonging to the media landscape, or does it respond to a mechanism that reproduces meanings, apparently those of a majority, whose fissures barely surface in the mass media due to a centrifugal force, which filters out all that is dissonant in order to satisfy certain information niches?

If the latter idea is correct, then we must sidestep the inquiry into the potentially racist construction of the media discourse, and explore the real conditions behind that definition of “we”, which is used in order to describe what is left over in the margins as an otherness. And the evidence of what actually happens in society, that which occurs before the media interprets it, is just as worrisome. In fact, there has been quite a lot of research done in recent years that shows how a binomial white/non-white understanding structures our society. For example, a recent investigation done by Meuss, Manzi and González revealed that there is a bias associated with skin color and income level among professors and university students with respect to the educational expectations of children who have darker skin and less economic resources, and who are thus perceived to have less potential for success.  Furthermore, a study of the INDH revealed that a significant number of the population is perceived to be whiter and less “unclean” than the citizens of other Latin American countries.

Years ago, Adela Cortina popularized her conceptualization of aporophobia. According to the philosopher, the rejection of the immigrant is not determined by their condition as foreigners, but primarily by their poverty. In the contemporary European context, the immigrant—and by extension, the ethnic component—constitutes the fourth world that is present on every street of any city that, as a mark, reminds us of a failed development model, with its inequalities and asymmetries. When extrapolating this perspective to the Chilean case, it is tied to social stratification and, more evidently, to our configuration of social class. Moving away from the atavistic, and closer to a more current understanding of power, some national elites are defined by their economic distinctiveness as well as by an assumed whiteness that links skin color to value and privilege. For that reason, the immigrant stops being the foreigner when they are thematically associated with racial discrimination: when those who migrate are racially mixed or Afro-descendants and poor, they are assigned to the preexisting constructions related to the indigenous peoples of Chile.

Today, the industrialized Chilean media primarily operates within a complex convergence of different interests and concerns: political and ideological attributions, the standardization of content via professional routines linked to commercial competition, and an essentialist cultural bias maintained for their closest audiences. In this not very virtuous triad, the media anchors itself to those deeper social constructions about otherness as a way of preserving its own legitimacy.  In the current media climate,  “we must honor audience expectations” implies participating in the reproduction of a specific mode of being white, and from there setting the limits of inclusion. Thus, the difference between what is indigenous and migrant can only be explained by resorting to ethnic and racial differences. This situation, evident in journalism, is linked to the construction of stereotypes via fictional television characters, and to a greater extent, contemporary advertizing campaigns.

In summary, classism and racism in everyday life, as well as in the media, represent two modes of understanding a socially generalized phenomenon, and the ethical and normative discussion around this can continue to be relevant, especially in considering alternatives that can situate the mass media, along with their programming, in a context for real change. Accordingly, this task implies relocating and updating the basic conditions of how the media functions, and to call into question the practice of seeing audiences only as target groups or niches conducive to consumption.

In this sense, journalism in particular, and the industrialized mass media in general, return to an original source of stress: how, and from where, do they participate in the conditions for social reproduction, and how do they recognize themselves as important agents in the construction of a public and democratic space?

In this new scenario where the industrialized media gives up control, and must articulate itself with more competence in the symbolic realm, the question about its role in promoting non-discrimination surpasses, and yet does not ignore, the importance of a reflection concerning its content or its narratives.  How much is demanded ethically is related to the complexity inherent in its practice: if the media is defined in relation to the social and/or its massivity, then it has a responsibility that goes beyond the needs of the communications professional, and which extends to any organization participating in the media system.  Regulation as a citizen mechanism—especially the audience advocacy model—represents the chance to restore a strong link with an audience that many civil society agreements recognize as active, nuanced, diverse, and which can participate fully in the production of media.

Similarly, the professional task of the mass media is linked to the principles of human rights. This is not only related to freedom of expression, but it also requires guarantees towards those who are represented in the media. Accordingly, it is about strengthening human rights in each stage of the editorial process, from the conception and construction of stories, their exhibition or circulation, to the precautions taken in regards to their impact on the public.

These responsibilities must be incorporated into the training programs of individuals, but also into the different public policy mechanisms involved. Although at the moment the National Council for Television has the power to control and penalize those violations that happen in the most consumed medium in Chilean society, the truth is that the basic criteria for avoiding arbitrary discrimination must be included across all media platforms, and must include, among other things, updating press and Internet regulations.

When democratizing the media, the legitimacy of innovations in the coverage that pertains to civic life, the recognition of intercultural communications experiences, and the visibility of community, territorial and regional communication initiatives, must also include learning how to ensure viability and sustainability in the present media and commercial context. For that reason, public funding of these possibilities must be understood as an instrument, which makes instances that foster social cohesion socially profitable as well.

Finally, the search for the reorientation of the media towards more plurality will be related to a progressive deconstruction of white privilege. While segregation is naturalized in daily life, and interactions between people who are different are perceived as potentially conflictive, a large part of the media will continue to be framed by those sentiments. The challenge, then, is to consider the media as an intervening variable, rather than as a direct cause of racism; a change in the media will remind society, again and again, that it is possible to tell stories about itself, and it will be possible to then ask whether these stories can begin to reflect a new formulation of “us”.

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