Heather Ventresco from USA was a special guest at the “Media Watchdogs” panel at the 2n Global Human Rights Forum organized 18-20 May 2017 in Belgrade by the Association “Social Margin Center”. Her speech “Raised to be Racist” was really touching and enlightening. In this interview, Heather is sharing her views about racist structure in modern society and media influence.
“ From day one, the context for my entire worldview was Whiteness.”
Your presentation about Racism in Media was really awe-inspiring, especially because of the self-reflection on your own privileges. Could you please tell our readers about your growing up in, as you said, one of the whitest places in USA.
– Thank you so much; that’s very nice to hear!
I grew up in the state of New Hampshire, which is in the North Eastern corner of the United States. The population of New Hampshire is 94% White, and most of the minorities were found in the cities; I lived in the suburbs. Everyone in my family is White; they all married White people and had White children. Every single teacher I had, from Kindergarten through my first degree program, was White. I can count on one hand the number of non-White students I studied with from Kindergarten through high school. The history I learned was almost exclusively about Europe and the USA. I had one teacher who taught Far East History as an elective, and that was considered radical. I learned nothing about Africa, other than that’s the continent from which slaves where brought to America. From day one, the context for my entire worldview was Whiteness.
– Trayvon Martin is a boy who turned 17 in early February, 2012. Later that month, he walked to the store to buy some Skittles (candy). On the way home, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” man with a gun followed him home and shot him, simply because he perceived a young Black man to be a threat. That man faced no consequences for killing an unarmed teenager, and shortly after the incident, we saw Trayvon Martin being portrayed in the media as some kind of hardened criminal, as if to justify his murder. I remember feeling so struck by the injustice of it.
I started thinking about how differently the story might have ended if my step-son was Black.”
In what ways has this case affected you and your life?
– Shortly after that, on March 25 2012, my step-son David turned 17. That night he was out with his friends, and they were drinking, which is illegal in the US under the age of 21. A police car was approaching, and they didn’t want to be caught with alcohol, so they ducked behind some bushes. The police saw this and, of course, thought is was suspicious. So they pulled over and went to investigate. David and his friends got scared and ran away; the police chased them. The officer who spoke to us told us he never would have caught David, but he as he was running through the woods in the dark, he ran face first into a tree, knocking himself unconscious. It was a stressful night for our family, but in the days and weeks that followed, more information about the Trayvon Martin case was shared, more data regarding violence against Black citizens. I started thinking about how differently David’s story might have ended if he was Black. Would they have chased him through the woods, or would they have just opened fire? Would they have given him the benefit of the doubt, or would they have immediately perceived him as a threat? That was when my entire world view shifted- I was 31.
– I did. I noticed that I felt a little less safe around Black men, which didn’t make sense. No Black man had ever been aggressive or unkind towards me. I noticed that my expectations were different for Black children. I asked myself why this was. I started noticing that just like Trayvon Martin, Black men are very often portrayed in the media as criminals, thugs. Black children are always portrayed as underprivileged, from broken homes, less accomplished. Then, not only did my world view shift, but I realized that I had been fed a world view via media that was not accurate.
How does the media we consume influence our support of racist structures?
– If every TV show and movie portrays Black men as thugs, pimps, or simpletons, how likely are people to have positive feelings about Black men? If the evening news tells me every crime that a Black citizen has ever committed, am I likely to protest much after that citizen is killed by a police officer? If Black mothers are portrayed as “welfare queens” who cheat the system, am I likely to be upset when services are cut from Black communities? If this is the story you’re told day after day via media, are you likely to elect, offer employment, scholarships, housing, a fair trial, or even the benefit of the doubt to Black individuals? This is why the “Black Lives Matter” campaign exists. People need to be reminded of that simple fact: Black. Lives. Matter.
“When people think of privilege, they think of getting something special, something extra. In this context, it’s really more about “freedom from.”
Do you notice now some other privileges you may have had?
– Now, absolutely. However, when I was younger, I really bristled at the idea of being called “privileged.” There was lot of dysfunction in our home; we didn’t have a lot of money. So I sure didn’t feel “privileged” at the time. I think this is a common mistake. When people think of privilege, they think of getting something special, something extra. In this context, it’s really more about “freedom from.” What are the things that marginalized groups have to struggle with in their daily lives that I don’t. For example, someone in a wheelchair needs to always be thinking about access, Black people in the US have to worry about issues of discrimination, media bias, institutionalized racism, police brutality… These are things I never have to worry about as an White, cis, able-bodied middle class woman from a powerful country who is married to a man, and I try to use that privilege in service of others.
All of us are in some ways privileged, and in other ways discriminated on some basis. Did you ever had experience of discrimination in your own skin?
– Yes, there have been instances where I have experienced discrimination, but I think it’s important to understand the differences between prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Prejudice is a personal feeling of dislike for a certain group of people. Discrimination is acting on that prejudice. Racism is a system, a structure. Thus, due to the systemic racism in the US, many people hold prejudices, and some discriminate based on those prejudices. It’s also important to understand that discrimination has a very different impact depending on the power dynamic.
“Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate in American history to ever run for president, and she was beat by a crooked business man who brags about assaulting women.”
Can you compare USA and Germany regarding position of marginalized groups
– The race situation is much better in Germany. This is true for a couple of reasons: First, hate speech is not covered under the premise of free speech as it is in the US, and hate speech and discrimination laws are strictly enforced. Also, German police interact very differently with the community; rates of brutality are almost nonexistent. Germany certainly isn’t free of racism, but the situation is much safer than the US. Women are also doing better in Germany. In terms of representation: Angela Merkel! There is a woman leading the country and representing Germany abroad. Love her or hate her, I’ve never heard anyone criticize her ability to lead based on her gender. That kind of representation matters. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate in American history to ever run for president, and she was beat by a crooked business man who brags about assaulting women. Is there where women stand in our country? What is this telling little girls about their worth? That kind of representation also matters, but the impact is clearly not positive.
Our organisation has started the Media Literacy program with main focus on increasing the capacity of the youngsters to monitor and analyze media content. What is, in your opinion, the most important thing that our students should learn about media?
– Be aware. Engage, don’t just consume. Question the portrayals of marginalized groups; ask who benefits from this representation. Recognize the way your own privilege influences how you process media.Stay woke.
Interviewed by Nemanja Marinović
The 3rd conference will be held 26-28 October 2017 in Belgrade, Serbia.
To become part of the event click on the link below.