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Defeating Racism and Sexism with the Politics of Authenticity
by Lu Bailey
I've always been interested in the media's impact on public policy as well as the media's role in depicting women and people of color. Although we live in the Age of Obama, Clinton and Sotomayor, one glance at a movie or TV program, and you start to wonder about the real and substantial progress women and people of color have made over the last 50 years.
And while the stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices still remain, I'm comforted knowing that today many groups are "crossing over" to help and support those victimized by the dreaded "isms" (racism, sexism, and others.)
I witnessed this cross-pollination of advocacy and support in a most unlikely place -- the movie theater. Recently, I coordinated a movie outing with my 8 year-old and a couple of her friends and their moms (and one dad). We hustled into the movie theater to see the 3D version of Toy Story 3.
The movie was entertaining and good for a couple of laughs, but the discussion that followed was the best part.
Over dinner, we talked about our kids, politics and the cares of the world. I asked the group if they enjoyed the movie and how they would rank the latest Toy Story plot against the first and second films in the series. They all agreed that Toy Story 3 was better than the other two, but wondered about the portrayal of the Barbie character as some type of "pole-dancing stripper with leg warmers." One of the parents wanted to know why Barbie's breasts were so projectile-like and what type of person would assemble a woman to look like this.
I couldn't believe my ears -- a group of ordinary people (parents) were having a critical discussion about a movie without any type of provocation from an agitator like me. I'm usually the one in the group who gets the discussion going about media images and perceptions. I believe (right or wrong) that so many people are weighed down by the malaise of pop-culture and capitalism, that they don't have enough time or energy to critique all the images that bombard them.
Cultivating Ideas at Opportune Moments
It was an extreme pleasure to observe this group of parents talking about the images their sons and daughters are viewing and how those images could impact their self-esteem and how they see members of the opposite sex or of a difference race or sexual orientation.
I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. I also thought, for one minute, that maybe, just maybe, all my rants, tirades and soap box speeches about the objectification of women had finally paid off.
But then I soon realized that this group, like most families in America, wasn't interested in a full-blown, intellectual discussion about women's issues or the state of the Civil Rights Movement -- they were just concerned about their kids and the mixed messages that movies and music lyrics sometimes present. And, most important, how they could help filter or explain those images and words.
Our discussion took a political turn and the group of parents -- resembling a focus group (consisting of a nurse, construction worker and truck driver, small business owner, librarian, retail sales manager and hospice worker) -- talked about how extreme factions of both the Republican and Democratic Party were going to ruin this county if the mainstream politicians and voters don't speak up during the next election cycle. Wow, it was like someone let the "critical-thinking" air out-of-the balloon.
This was indeed a teachable moment for me. I realized that we all encounter many different groups of people who may or may not share our political viewpoints or way of life, but we still can co-exist and enjoy each other's company -- of course.
But the bigger lesson is that we must share our authentic identity and thoughts with our friends and colleagues because they will remember what we say and what we embrace.
There is no doubt in my mind that my prior discussions about the struggles of women and people of color have changed the way some of my friends and colleagues see the world, themselves and others.
They may not all agree with me, but now they have taken the time to understand the issues without the noise of the talking heads on cable TV.
Listen, Document, Be Available
If we want to continue to advance a progressive agenda for women and people of color, all we have to do is be true and authentic to what we believe. So often, activists want to storm the building and take no prisoners, but sometimes all we need to do is listen, document and be available to answer questions and provide data when asked.
As we move forward in the Age of Obama, Clinton and Sotomayor, the political terrain will become bumpier and trickier, but if we keep talking, keep listening, keep organizing and remain steadfast in our beliefs, we can influence groups -- like my "focus group" parents and others -- to embrace the issues of women and people of color. After all, at the end of the day, supporting an agenda that obliterates the "isms" helps us all. And who knows, our progressive agenda may even help us get rid of the "Barbie" image in Toy Story 4.
Lu Bailey is the former president of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs and the co-founder of the Women of the Millennium Project (an initiative to build partnerships and collaborations among racially diverse groups of women). Currently, she's working as a fundraising consultant for a program that provides "green" job training skills for low-income youth.. She is also a recipient of several awards, including the Metropolitan Chicago and Lake County, IL YWCA Racial Justice Award.
Also see “Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language by Marie Shear in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Girls Kick: Moving the Media's World Cup Goal Posts by Ariel Dougherty in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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