The Impact of the Media
on Race Relations

By: Robert Asgeirsson

From: Currents Winter 1987/88 pp.23-24
© 1987 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

"The National Conference on Minorities in the Media held in Toronto on June 27 to 28, 1987 was sponsored by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, in cooperation with Ryerson School of Journalism, and the Canadian Ethnocultural Council."

Why Another Conference?

In the late 70s, community organizations became increasingly concerned that the mass media in Canada, for the most part, ignored the presence and contribution of racial minorities as part of the multicultural/multi-racial fabric of Canadian society. Attempts were made to get governments at the provincial and federal level to become aware of the nature and scope of the problem and to seek ways to remedy the situation particularly through legislation.

The federal government, through the Multicultural Directorate held a national conference in Toronto in November 1982, "Visible Minorities and the Media." Many of the concerns and issues were identified and a number of recommendations made toward seeking appropriate and effective solutions. If one examines the recommendations it soon becomes apparent that as a society, we've hardly moved since 1982.

Recommendations related to access and opportunity, depiction and balance, and research and education are just as relevant today as they were when presented in 1982.

Five years was adequate time for meaningful change to have taken place if both the government and the media were serious about their commitment to present an accurate portrayal of racial minorities in the media.

Peter Desbarats, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, and the moderator of the opening panel not only set the tone of the conference but also at the same time managed to summarize the sense of all the discussion that ensued:

It is not difficult to be critical and incisive (about the media) because the record of Canadian news media as active promoters of the concept of the multi-racial Canadian society is far from outstanding. If you are looking for polite words to describe this record, you could say that it has been cautious and pragmatic. If you want to be more direct, you could call it timid and hypocritical.

I will begin with a statement of the obvious, but perhaps it needs to be stated as it is the premise that underlies this whole conference: media do have an impact on race relations and a fundamental one.

Collectively, the media, all forms of print and electronic media-I'm not just talking about news media, but books, films, magazines, radio, all forms of media- collectively these represent our image of ourselves. That total picture is our version of what we are and it both reflects what we think we are and influences what we think we should be. There is ample evidence today of this influential role of the media...though we don't always understand exactly how that process works.

Because media exert a strong influence on all of us, those of us who work in media have a special responsibility. We have to influence society in the right direction. We have to provide leadership. Some media workers, journalists among them, try to evade this responsibility by claiming that their role is only to reflect society objectively. But we all realize in this day and age that there is no such thing as a perfect mirror. The image of reality is always distorted by the nature of the mirror. The subjective character of all media makes it impossible for journalists and other media workers to evade the responsibilities of leadership.

Leadership requires knowledge of society and its shortcomings. When problems are identified, leadership requires a commitment, not just a general statement of goodwill. It requires targets or objectives that can be used later to evaluate progress. Leadership also requires follow through, the ability to persist in achieving objectives over long and often discouraging periods of time.

As this conference probably will discover, Canadian media by these standards, have failed to provide leadership in building a society of equal opportunity in Canada The problem has been identified often enough. But media have been slow to make specific commitments to change. As a result, there has been discouragingly little change over the years, and this conference, like others in the past, will have to tackle the whole subject almost afresh without much sense of real progress.

Even after decades of discussion and political pressure from minorities, we are still at the point of symbolic or token gestures.

A Personal Review

What do you think of when you hear the term "minority group"? Do your thoughts contain suspicion, distrust or caution? When you hear the term "Ethnic" do you think about painted Easter eggs, pasta, accents, malcontents or revolutionaries? Many Canadians do and the media continues to use these terms.

Although I have Icelandic forefathers who came to this country over 100 years ago and although I was born in this country and although I speak the English language as well as any other Canadian-I am still considered to be in a minority group. To be absolutely correct - an invisible minority group and ethnic to boot.

Well, I've always considered myself be a Canadian first and foremost and somehow a quiet inheritor of this 'Icelandic stuff' that has been passed on to me and my offspring as a gentle reminder of our roots. Who do I threaten with this inheritance? The only thing I may be guilty of is boring someone by extolling the virtues of being Icelandic by descent

Arnold Toynbee, famed historian, has defended us in his chronicles by stating that the 'lcelander' makes the best immigrant because he is the first to abandon his culture.
There are certain practical advantages to being an invisible minority group and apparently we have worked successfully at becoming that way. We seldom, if ever, bear the brunt of racial jokes or slander. We seldom, if ever, experience oppressive racial discrimination. These are ugly and uncomfortable experiences and who in their right mind would want that?

There is strange social stigma in our land, however, and it's attached to the terms "Ethnic" and "Minority group". Should anyone find out about my particular ethnicity, well heaven forbid, I may be classified as being less than a full-fledged Canadian. How's that for unfair? . . . Lucky I have this invisible culture, I guess.

In my invisible cloak of culture and white Anglo Saxon appearance, I attended the special conference, "The impact of the media on race relations" as a delegate on behalf of the Icelandic National League. When I arrived at the hotel to register for the Conference it was like stepping into a United Nations Assembly. All about me were Canadian citizens, 100% full-fledged, but of different physical appearances including colour and dress. All of them, I say again, were Canadian citizens, accorded the full human rights, equality and dignity that our new Constitution proclaims. The reason that we had all gathered here was to find ways of bringing the legal and theoretical status into reality.

"We've got to break down the stereotyped images and attitudes that insult and distort the perception of the 'visible minorities' in Canada." said one of the delegates. "We constitute one third of the population of Canada and we pay taxes! Many of us are better educated than many of the so-called white Canadians" said another.

The modern Media (Print, Radio and T.V./ Film) are now recognized as the most powerful social influence ever to appear in the history of mankind. The Media now have the ability to alter perceptions. They produce an ongoing conditioning process that influences the way we dress, talk, think, consume, and generally conduct our lives.

Leading representatives from the national Media sat as panel members during the various Plenary and Workshop sessions held over the two day period. A two-way dialogue on ways to improve the portrayal of the minorities was desired by the conference organizers and delegates. What happened was that in many cases the media defended itself at great length before any two-way dialogue ever happened. The remaining time allowed for delegate input was very short and proved frustrating for many. Media inadequacies and unfairness soon became obvious- even, thankfully, to their representatives. In the end, the panel members seemed to be grateful for the enlightening experience and Conference delegates hoped that they would pass their new awareness along to their colleagues who could do some thing concrete.

Some of the thought provoking points that were raised:
  • Invisible minorities have been invisible in the media
  • The News media has been cautious, timid and even hypocritical in recognizing the ethnic minorities.
  • The media has this contradiction of preaching virtues and not practising them with respect to equality and hiring practices.
  • Ethnic minorities are part of the Canadian identity and should be seen as an equal partner in Canada, not an adjunct. We are all Canadians.
  • The use of the words 'minority' and 'ethnic' currently works, in a way, against the concepts and ideas being talked about.
  • The recognition of 'difference' poses an interesting dilemma.
  • Ethnic programming ensures a differentiation or a sense of separateness.
  • Do we want this?
  • The laws serve more to protect the minorities against negative images than to foster positive portrayal.
  • We all came in different boats but we're all in the same boat now.

Basically the delegates, representing one third of Canada's population, want the rest of the Canadian population to recognize them, first and foremost, as fellow Canadians. Following that recognition, hopefully, will come the true equality of all citizens in this land. Although some speak with accents and/or halting English, many have excellent educations from their former homelands and are very capable people. What they want is an equal chance to prove themselves on the job and in a society unfettered by racist attitudes, distrust and misconceptions. They want genuine social acceptance and the Media can be very helpful in portraying them as just regular Canadians.

Minority groups want to shed the stigma of their image. They can and will do more than their share if given a chance. As productive Canadians they can also contribute something extra in return-gifts, rich in diversity: their cultures and experience from around the world.

During the short breaks I met many interesting Canadians. The most memorable encounter was with a young man who barely managed to escape from Saigon as it fell into Communist hands. He told me of the terrible atrocities he witnessed and about the loss of many of his friends at sea during their escape by boat With a look in his eyes that brought more meaning than I can convey, he said; "Believe me, I know what freedom means." A poet and recent Engineering graduate, he loves Canada passionately . . . perhaps even more than we do. He's a great Canadian, in my opinion.

There was a feeling as the conference closed that many real and productive steps had been taken towards the goal of true equality for all Canadians. I am grateful for the experience.

Robert Asgeirsson is a member of the Icelandic National League from Coquitlam, B.C.

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