Buckle Up: Six Weeks of a White Media Fast

by Kate Haralson

Throughout the Becoming Beloved Learning Journey, I have become more sensitive to the way white supremacy creeps in and takes over. The way I used to think about white supremacy (and how I think most white people construct it in their minds) was very much aligned with extremism, when white supremacy is more often subtle and subversive. It defines what we call an “accent,” what we consider professional, what color “nude” is. It is so ubiquitous that it happened outside my own consciousness until I was given the awareness to identify it and language to describe it. And so, to further engage my consciousness, I decided to give up white-dominated media for Lent.

Almost all my favorite musicians and podcasters are white. Most of the movies and TV shows I watch feature white people. I have taken for granted for so long that I see myself represented constantly in all media I consume, and I wanted to change that. Also, because I’m a project manager both professionally and genetically, I couldn’t do this without setting some parameters and defining objectives. My goals were threefold:

  • To support creators of color
  • To expose myself to diverse expressions
  • To experience what it is like to not see and hear myself represented in media.

I focused on books, music, TV, podcasts, and movies. I prioritized media featuring folks of color because of the third goal and tried to be as intentional as possible in choosing media also produced by folks of color. As a note, throughout this writing I use the words “we,” “us,” to mean white people, and when I refer to “white,” I mean non-Hispanic white people and white normative culture.

Week 1: I should have done more research.

I spent most of this week driving around in silence. My commute is luxuriously short, but it’s the only time I have everyday to listen to music or podcasts. I did a terrible job of loading up iTunes and Spotify the week before and sitting at a stoplight is not the time to be googling “best podcasts by people of color.” And that’s the crux, right? I have to go searching for it. Because of algorithms and marketing, my media consumption is driven by what I am already consume. I watch The Office, Netflix recommends Parks and Rec (mostly white cast members). I listen to the Lumineers, Spotify recommends The Head and the Heart (all white band members). There is plenty of research about the social media and web browsing algorithms that shrink our worldview to the point of barely perceptible differences, and it’s never more frustrating than when you are trying to engineer a life-changing experience through a Lenten discipline. Luckily, I carved out time at the end of the week and compiled a robust playlist of black female banjo players.

Week 2: I watched Killer Mike and now nothing I used to think makes sense.

When I mentioned to other white people that I was fasting from white media for Lent, they generally fell into one of two camps: the people who were like, “what is that?” and the people who were like, “You have to listen to/watch/read <insert artist/show/book here>.” With most people, I shut down recommendations, because most of the recommendation people were white men offering me something I didn’t actually ask for (totally different blog post for another time). The conversation would then typically devolve into tokenizing authors/performers of color rather than a genuine conversation about white supremacy in media.

However, one of those white male recommendation-givers was my brother, and I do generally value his opinions. He recommended the show “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.” The series explores several social structures where race and racism are pronounced, including black-owned businesses, school, gang culture, Christianity, the music industry, and statehood. Editorial: It was mostly hilarious and all controversial.

While it would be easy to dedicate most of this blog post to evaluating the entertainment value of all the media I consumed, doing so would bury the purpose of this exercise. It was not to entertain myself. The reality of watching this series was that I came to understand that I had been duped by white media’s portrayal of seemingly taboo issues. That I was cowardly in addressing white supremacy in culture and education. Killer Mike navigated discussions about race and racism with a boldness and precision that I have yet to master, and the show offered me language to challenge pervasive whiteness and the disparities and hypocrisy it creates.

Week 3: Everything I read is depressing.

The books on my nightstand this week included The Color of Compromise (Jemar Tisby), Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People (Mahzarin R. Banaji), Outlander (Diana Gabaldon), and I had just finished Stamped from the Beginning (Ibram X. Kendi). In reflecting on my book choices for this Lenten experience, I realized this was me at my laziest. Three out of these four books were examinations of the history and impact of bias and prejudice on society and individuals. Books by people of color commenting on the injustice they face daily are common because the experiences, regretfully, are common. Well-meaning white people (myself included) pick up these books to gain an academic understanding and consider ourselves awakened. It is still important to read these types of books; we absolutely need to elevate voices that have a genuine and personal understanding of systemic bias and racism. But in limiting myself to nonfiction social justice manifestos, I’ve flattened the expertise of non-white creators. There are talented writers of color in every genre, and I have spent my life only turning to them to educate me on what it means to have their skin color.

Week 4: FOMO (aka Issa Rae is the coolest person on the planet and I want to be her friend.)

I binged the first season of Insecure. It’s hilarious and cool and self-deprecating, and toward the end of the week, I started having this nagging feeling while I watched it. When several of the female characters were on screen sincerely connecting with each other, I noticed I was feeling bad about myself. It made me sad in this unfamiliar way, and finally I realized that I was feeling left out. I wanted to be part of that, but I know I can’t be. Not only because they’re fictional characters inside a box, but because I am a white woman, and there are sisterhoods to which I can never belong. That’s not to say white people can’t have true, vulnerable relationships with non-white people. They absolutely should and do. But it is to say there are spaces that people created for themselves because they were rejected by a dominant group. The existence of HBCUs, black churches, sororities and fraternities for people of color, and minority business chambers were established because predominantly white institutions rejected them.

And therein lies one of my ongoing dilemmas as I continue my Becoming Beloved Journey. I often hear white people suggest that one way to desegregate the church is to go to places where minorities congregate. The assumption is if white people insert themselves into environments where they are the numerical minority, they will diversify their social circles and begin to repair generations of trauma and isolation. The problem with this approach is that there are some spaces that are simply not meant for us. They were created because of us, and when we show up, we can have a profound impact on the feeling of community and safety that exist in those spaces.

So choose carefully when you decide to invade space as a white person, and hopefully you’ll come to the same realization that I did whenever you’re feeling left out or like you don’t belong: this might be how everyone else feels when they encounter mostly white spaces.

Week 5: Podcasts make a comeback.

After weeks withdrawing from my normal level of podcast consumption, I decided it was time to dive back in. I’d earmarked a few podcasts I’d discovered through reading and perusing the internet, my favorites being Power not Pity and Pass the Mic.

Note, almost anyone can make a podcast. The technology is readily available for most Americans, and production cost can be very low. And, considering over 90% of the people who decide what TV shows and music get produced and which books get published are white, the podcast medium provides a platform to elevate voices traditionally marginalized by white-dominated media.

The podcasts I chose address a lot of issues that I’ve already spent time exploring through reading books and articles, but here’s the difference: I don’t hear the author’s voice when I read an anecdote about being mistreated by a police officer. But when I’m listening to a podcast and the speaker’s voice wavers and rises and discussion is punctuated by silence and sighs and deep breaths, the stories take on an emotional tone that is not often available in through printed words on a page. Witnessing an organic conversation between two people of color about the injustice and racism they and their families encounter continues to humanize these experiences for me.

Week 6: My partner gets whiny and I start to think about it.

Conversation with my partner on a random evening during the last week of Lent:

Me: What do you want to watch?

Partner: I don’t know…

Me: Insecure?

Partner: No…

Me: Blackish?

Partner: No…

Me: Key and Peele?

Partner: No…I’d have to pay attention. I want to watch something I don’t have to think about.

Insert gif of smug face here. Disclaimer: my partner is a wonderful person who spends his days providing counseling and social services. He is one of the most feminist men I know and is acutely aware of his status and impact as a white male. That said, this short, casual exchange between the two of us perfectly encapsulates the privilege of white-dominated media. We don’t have to think about it. When white people consume entertainment, it usually aligns nicely with our white worldview, and we’re never challenged because it’s created by white people for white people. So it’s critical if we want to dismantle white supremacy in media that we approach our media consumption intentionally.

Easter

Lent is over. The Lord is risen indeed, Hallelujah.

Although this journey is written chronologically, my experiences were not so neatly ordered. I often felt defensive toward things I heard or read, found myself questioning the severity of certain experiences (I realize this is terrible), and there were times I just really wanted to listen to Josh Ritter (I didn’t, for the record). The value of most of my experiences wasn’t apparent to me until the end of Lent. The reality is, I’ve spent most of my life basking in white supremacy without being aware, its familiarity lending me unearned comfort in my surroundings, and I regret it took me until I was 35 to understand what a privilege that was.

And now, for my favorite white person question: BUT WHAT DO WE DO?!

Here’s what you do:

  • Take an inventory of your entertainment: who is represented in the media you consume? If it’s mostly white people, and it probably is, make some changes.
  • If you choose to read a book by an author of color, BUY IT FROM A STORE. You likely have an accumulation of wealth that you did not earn by merit alone, so you can afford it.
  • Same thing for music.
  • If you listen regularly to podcasts featuring journalists and performers of color, subscribe to them, write them a review on your podcast platform of choice, and support them financially. A lot of podcasts these days use Patreon to generate revenue from supporters.

Tell other white people

 

Kate Haralson has attended the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati for over 10 years, serving in ministries focused on building and reconciling community, and recently accepted a call to serve on vestry. As a Christian, she closely identifies with Jesus’s radical efforts to disrupt oppressive systems. As a faith community  member, she feels compelled to promote a holistic, self-aware approach to social justice and equity in mission work.

Kate works in healthcare improvement, loves spreadsheets, cycling, and quilting, and packs her schedule with protests and community meetings. She birthed two little activists: Dot (6) and Sid (4) and found her eternal partner in advocacy: Mitch (old). She loves Cincinnati, and is relentlessly optimistic about its healing and prosperity. That goes for the rest of humanity as well.