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Home > Publications > Quill > Why the race debate is far from over


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Why the race debate is far from over

Yumi Wilson

Now that Barack Obama has been sworn in as the nation’s 44th president, most reporters have turned their attention away from questions over Obama’s racial identity to his plan of attack on war, the economy, health care and more.

Indeed, most stories addressing the more controversial and complicated views on racial identity have been relegated to the op-ed pages. A recent example of differences in coverage occurred Jan. 21, when CNN ran an article headlined, “Black first family ‘changes everything.’” The reporter talked to a biracial woman who said she always felt pressured to declare herself one race or another.

“Obama’s biracial background and his ‘exotic’ upbringing relieves her of that pressure,” the story said. “Obama will help other blacks who come from multiracial backgrounds and immigrant communities to be comfortable in their own skin.”

The piece focused on a common theme: Blacks of various hues and ethnic backgrounds were thrilled to see a strong, proud black family finally claim the White House as their home (a fact that I, as a black and Japanese woman, agree with wholeheartedly).

Yet, just a few hours after the story was posted, CNN.com ran an op-ed by the same woman quoted in the article. In the column, Jennifer Brea, whose mother is white and father is Haitian-American, expressed a much more complex view about racial identity. “Barack Obama, America’s first black president, is also our country’s first biracial president — no secret, but a fact that, especially in the euphoria of his inauguration, is often downplayed.”

Even Brea’s own definition of her racial and ethnic identity had deepened: “The story of my own family was similarly complex,” she wrote. “My Anglo-Irish mother is as white as they come. But my father is Haitian, the descendant of West African slaves and French plantation owners, as well as Chinese and Egyptian. And still, growing up, I was asked to choose between one of the two boxes available to me. ‘Are you black or are you white?’”

The fact that the extent of Brea’s true feelings were captured in the op-ed for CNN, and not the news story, points out a major flaw in mainstream media reporting: Reporters too often simplify or ignore complex or politically charged aspects of a story, usually in the interest of space, clarity and trying to appear neutral or objective in their reporting. The result is a story that only scratches at the surface, sending readers and viewers to alternative sources for information and news, such as YouTube.

Take for example Mulatto Diaries #62 on YouTube. In this short video blog, “Biracial Tiffany” says she is as proud to be white as she is black, a sentiment often missing from the public debate over racial identity.

“I have realized that … I’m proud to be white,” Tiffany says to the camera. “Isn’t that a weird thing to say? … I go on and on about how I am proud to be black because that’s the thing I feel like I have to stand up for, and that if anything that’s what I’m accused of not being. But I don’t think I’ve ever said that sentence in my life, that I’m proud to be white … very politically incorrect thing to say. … We still think that white is slave-owning, and black is slave. I just think that’s something we need be working toward changing.”

The video, which has been viewed more than 3,000 times, is exactly the kind of topic that mainstream media outlets should be covering to report what is truly happening in the debate over racial identity. There are several other steps reporters can take to do a better job covering the complexities of race and racial identity, which will become increasingly important as we approach the 2010 U.S. Census:

1. Reporters should stop trying to give people one-word labels such as black, white or others based on appearance, and simply ask their subjects how they want to be identified.

2. Reporters should turn to Facebook, Twitter, Google Alerts, YouTube and other online sources for story ideas and tips on the latest developments in stories related to race and racial identity.

3. Traditional news outlets should keep stories that explore the confusing and contradictory aspects of racial identity on the front page, not just the op-ed pages.

Taking these steps will ensure much more accurate and honest reporting on the debate over racial identity, and will help reporters stay on t op of an issue that will only become more important as President Obama settles into his new role as America’s first black — and biracial — president.

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