Critical Media Literacy: An Educational Tool to Respond to Racial Violence

by Susan X Jane

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It starts with a hashtag. Just a name, a stranger’s name and nothing else. You know instantly what it is—it’s another victim of police brutality, of Islamophobia, of misogynoir. Sometimes the hashtag is accompanied by a request—say their name, perhaps join a protest—or a petition.

Racism is not a jokeIf you want to know details, you need to go online—many recent hate crimes against people of color receive little to no coverage in the mainstream media. When you look online, you are likely to see angry, sad, or even cavalier responses—an unmoderated stew of America’s feelings about race spooned out 140 characters at a time. People pour out expressions of outrage or flippant disregard in thousands of tweets and status posts, on T-shirts and in YouTube reaction videos, and then of course, there are the memes that help us express things that words alone can’t address, using the dark humor of these very dark times.

The hate crimes and incidents of ideological violence that we see happening in the United States are real and terrifying: a 17-year-old Muslim girl kidnapped and beaten to death in Virginia, three men stabbed on a train in Portland by a man screaming racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, a pregnant mother shot in front of her children by the police she called for help. These incidents leave many students feeling hurt, angry, and overwhelmed, while others may be largely unaware of incidents of violence perpetrated mainly against people of color. As difficult as the history of racism is, tolerating or ignoring racism in our own time is not an option. America is rapidly becoming a majority-minority country, but we are far from post-racial. Political polarization, racial tension, and outright violence is on the rise. The need for racial reconciliation is arguably more important now than at any point since Reconstruction. Students need to be prepared to navigate this world, and hopefully steer us towards post-racial times.

racism not over

We must all—no matter our race—take any opportunity we can to address and dismantle racism. Critical media literacy can provide an educational framework for grappling with ideological violence and helping students find empowered ways to address racism and xenophobia whenever they see it. Classrooms can become important places for us to support those students struggling to cope with reports of violence they see or read online and help all young people become more aware of the very real challenges ideological extremism and racialized violence pose to all Americans, no matter their background. Deconstructing news reports, comparing news coverage of victims and perpetrators, and examining the social media landscape around racism and xenophobia are all activities that can help students look at the ways media shapes and shifts our understanding of hate. Studying the narratives of race constructed by both the mainstream and alternative press, and seating such narratives in historical context, can help students process their feelings while building the knowledge and critical analysis skills needed to become change agents.

Educators sometime tell me they are hesitant to address topics like this in the classroom—“What if I don’t know enough? What if I don’t get it right?” I teach about racism, so believe me, I recognize that race is a difficult topic to tackle. We need to make sure our knowledge is up to date so that we feel comfortable engaging in these vital issues, and that requires teachers to be active students, too. As educators, we know how to learn! The writings of critical cultural studies scholars like Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, and bell hooks give us tools to deconstruct colonial narratives and a light in dark times to help us process emotionally and intellectually the overwhelming challenges we face. Any number of contemporary blogs and media outlets host rich content that will allow you to access a wide variety of points of view and up-to-the-moment commentary on current events. Find writers you love and trust to keep up to speed with rapidly emerging stories. One of the easiest ways to learn is to listen: engage deeply with people different than you, people of different ethnicities, religions, classes, and orientations, and be humble and open and to learning from the lived experiences of the people around you. The more you adopt these habits of mind relating to race, the more comfortable you will feel when current events require a fast response in your classroom.

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Most importantly, respond. Watch news using critical media literacy analysis tools. Unpack the comments sections attached to news articles and other presentations, and talk about multiple perspectives. Compare media representations of marginalized people from different points in history and from around the world. Lead a discussion. Listen. Media coverage of racialized violence affects our students, whether we talk about it or not. Teaching about hate crimes and ideological violence using a critical media literacy framework can help students shift from engaging in emotional response to building the transformational knowledge of systems of power they need to be change agents in their communities. Decoding and unpacking media messages around race is an important step in preparing students to decode and dismantle oppressive systems. No skill may be more important to the future of our country than that.


Susan X Jane has been the director of the Communications and Media Literacy undergraduate program at Wheelock College, Boston, since its launch in 2009. She also created and oversees the annual Wheelock film festival, which highlights innovative student work. Previous to joining Wheelock’s faculty, she was a community-based media educator in the same city. Susan brings to ACME extensive experience in race and media education, both in formal education and working with teens in community settings. She is also a renowned blogger with followers from across the globe.

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