Conversations on Race: Q&A with Dr. Lesa Johnson on bias in journalism
In this week’s conversation on race, Chico State Sociology Professor Dr. Lesa Johnson continues her conversation with NSPR's Ken Devol about institutional power and implicit bias.
They focus on examples of bias and journalism, and how those in positions of power can recognize their privilege to reduce harm.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
On bias in news reporting
Quite often, the way news is reported contributes to the general public's stereotypes and to the dehumanization of people of color. And (though) we don't recognize it, it is right in front of our eyes. Now people of color can see it. But the system is set up so that even if people of color raise the issue, then they're ignored, or dismissed. Quite often we see instances where Black men are discriminated against or are reported as dangerous.
If we all are conditioned to believe that Black men are the most dangerous beings that walk the face of the earth, then every single action that we take, even for some Black people, is going to be a response to that ideology, to that stereotype. Whether it is a defensive response or whether it is an attacking response. So news reporters often won't even understand what they're doing when they say, ‘the 28-year-old Black assailant, blah, blah, blah’ ... They would be like, ‘it's a description, what, it's a description.’ Well, why don't you say the 28-year-old white assailant? A while back, we had Katrina. Black people would go into stores and take stuff and reporters would report it as looting. White people would go into stores and take stuff and reporters would report it as acquiring.
On how this translates to other scenarios
For certain groups, we’re so ready to see the circumstances under which they had no choice, but to make the choices that they made. And then for other groups, we refuse to see the circumstances, the situational barriers that constrained the choices that they had. And so that plays into the ways that we talk about individuals from each of those groups, as they either commit crimes, as they approach people with anger.
And I've also had people in my classes, white women in my classes, say, 'I just really can't deal with it when you come at me with anger, my brain just shuts down and I can't hear what you have to say.' How else am I supposed to say it? If it takes so much gumption to get it out of my mouth in the first place. But that's not something that the white woman is ready to see. Because she's not able to see the absolute power of her being white. She wants to focus on the fact that she's a woman. And she's not understanding the racialized power that she has over any Black woman who would come at her with the absolute anguish that is written all over that Black woman's face. And so Black women are forced to construct our appearances as if we're smiling all the time so that we won't make white women feel uncomfortable.
On if this dynamic translates to other relationships
The institutional power is what makes the relationship what it is. So if a woman tells a man that he did something wrong, a man would get defensive and use whatever power that he has to refute what the woman says, unless he is really in tune with himself and can calm himself down and really slow his brain process to listen and say, 'Oh, maybe she's right.'
On whether Black women suffer from “double jeopardy”
That's what they used to call it in the literature. And the literature has evolved and grown in the past 30 years. But this is the problem Black women have. But it's not dual anymore. This is why we evolved into intersectionality. Because we understand that even when you're talking about just a Black woman, you're also talking about her class status. You're also talking about her family status. A Black single mother is going to come at this thing differently. A Black queer woman is going to suffer from different marginalized statuses and the experiences that go along with that. So even intra-group issues would be a very big issue.
At the campus, we have issues right now with Black tenured professors over Black non-tenured professors over Latinx lecturers. Those are members of POC groups, but their institutional power helps them to guard themselves and remain defensive, whenever they are approached by someone telling them that they're hurting.
So, what I'm saying is that several groups do this. And the most powerful in each of those groups ends up lording their power over the least powerful people in those groups to continue to reproduce inequalities all throughout the community. That's why we can't get anything done.
On what residents in the North State can do
This is a very tall ask for our citizens in Northern California and whoever is in the listening audience. It is a very tall ask, but we all really need to sit and slow our brain functions down and take stock of what privileges we have, and how we are using those privileges, to create more harm for other people. We have to be able to do that.