Race, identity in media discussed

By Dan O'Brien
March 24, 2014

West

Richard West, professor of Communication Studies and former president of the National Communication Association, emcees the Clarifying Conversations event March 20 at the Bordy Theater. (Photo by Dan O'Brien)

Social media, movies, and television are shaping our views on race and identity—perhaps more now than ever before, said a panel of experts March 20 at the Bordy Theater in a discussion sponsored by the National Communication Association.

“With memes like ‘Stuff White People Like’ or ‘First World Problems,’ it’s seeming like we need to talk about privilege, but we’re not talking about privilege,” said panelist Anne Demo, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “It just becomes laughed off.”

Memes were just one example of how race is discussed in today’s digital age.

NCA panel

From left, Harvey Young of Northwestern University, Tom Nakayama of Northeastern University, Anne Demo of Syracuse University, Kimberly McLarin of Emerson College, and Angharad Valdivia of University of Illinois. (Photo by Dan O'Brien)

The discussion, moderated by Richard West, professor in Emerson’s Communication Studies Department and former NCA president, had capacity attendance and was viewed live online in at least 27 states. It was titled Clarifying Conversations: Representations of Race and Identity in Contemporary American Culture.

Jeff Schaffer, a panelist and executive producer of the FX show The League, who has also worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm and on comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s films Bruno and The Dictator, gave several examples of how race is examined through comedy.

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” he said. “It’s a minefield of perilous situations, and that’s why it’s a comedy goldmine.”

NCA panel

Kimberly McLarin, assistant professor in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department, with Angharad Valdivia of University of Illinois, and Jeff Schaffer, executive producer of The League. (Photo by Dan O'Brien)

Schaffer showed two clips of his work: One scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm in which a dog owned by Larry David’s character barks and growls only in the presence of people of color. The other scene, from The Dictator, involves Cohen in a real-life situation in which he plays an Arab man while on a helicopter in New York City with white, Midwestern tourists while making seeming references to 9/11.

Schaffer said his work got viewers who were laughing to admit that they likely hold some deep-seated prejudices themselves, even if they don’t believe they are prejudiced.

But panelist Angharad N. Valdivia, professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was not so sure.

“When you do the research,” Valdivia said, “you find out there are a lot of people in the audience who look at that, and they get reinforcement for their racist view.”

“We have freedom of speech. That’s a great thing about America,” said panelist Kimberly McLarin, assistant professor of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson. “Equally what’s not off limits is my critique of that kind of humor… which I personally don’t enjoy.

“When people in positions of privilege want to make fun of other people, [they] then say, ‘Well, if you don’t laugh at it, you’re too sensitive,’ or something like that,” McLarin said.

In his defense, Schaffer brought up another example from The League.

“We noticed in football… black coaches are always called ‘class acts.’ White football players are always ‘gym rats,’” Schaffer said. “We brought it up. People were laughing about it. There were tweets about it… Now, maybe when people notice it, they’ll at least say, ‘That’s really not right.’”

Also on the panel were Harvey Young, theater professor from Northwestern University, and Tom Nakayama, communication studies professor at Northeastern University.

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