Digital Culture

Things May Not Always Be What They Seem

March 4, 2011

I was walking down the street today past a group of conservatively dressed Muslim men, and then another.  I thought of the many Muslim men living in my building, with more coming each month.  “Is San Francisco breeding a terrorist cell?” I thought.  And then I stopped myself, mid-sidewalk.  Why did they have to be terrorist?  Where did such a thought come from?  And more importantly, where did that instant flicker of fear come from when I walked past these men?  But let’s be real.  We are all bombarded by images that shape our subconscious thoughts and feelings.  No matter how hard we process this as one world on a conscious level media images play at our subconscious mind in ways we sometimes don’t even notice.

The images of political uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have humanized the Muslim image in America, in much the way Afghanistan did in the days of the Taliban.  We will love anyone in the name of democracy, as long as they don’t plan on coming over here. 

So what role does the media play in how we view each other in America?

I heard a reference to “Madame  President” on a radio spot for the “24” TV movie event.  The ground-breaking show had given us several seasons of a dignified Black man, heroic in his frailties, leading a nation in constant crisis, and was now doing the same for a woman.  It is likely President David Palmer on 24 (2003) was made possible by the images of Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998).  And the role of President of the United States in a drama was probably made possible by the comedic performances of Chris Rock as President Mays Gilliam in Head of State (2003) and James Tiny Lister as President Lindberg in Fifth Element (1997).  And even those roles owe something to the satirical performances of Earl Jones as Douglass Dilman in The Man (1972) and Sammy Davis, Jr. as Rufus Jones for President (1933).  

Once you have seen an image of something you’ve never seen before it is impossible to deny its possibility.   It happened somewhere, even if it was in someone’s imagination.  You can vow to never let that happen unless it’s “over your dead body,” but you now have the image implanted in your mind.  A generation then begins to grow up with possibility, uncertain why it would be a bad idea or viewed as, if not impossible, unlikely.  Too late, the possibility is a powerful thing and it opens the door to mind changing, heart challenges, and reaching for a new paradigm (even if you don’t know what that means exactly).  This shift in possibility led a desperate America to believe that a Black man could save them from possible doom.

One of my favorite images of Barack Obama is this little boy reaching to touch his hair.  Every Black American, or anyone who has seen the Chris Rock film “Good Hair,” knows what that touch meant to this little boy.  There is really someone with hair like mine in the White House.  I could be in the White House.  Now anything is truly possible for me and every child of color who sees this picture.

 We are aware of the power of images, and yet we are still so careless with them.  My generation was constantly reminded of the Nazi propaganda machine that led a nation to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty.  I watched America’s support of the Vietnam War evaporate in the face of images of naked, napalmed children.  

It was the news images of police dogs attaching young teens being hosed by police in the South that brought Northern White liberals flooding into and energizing the Civil Rights Movement. 

The power of the internet to speed images almost instantly to a global audience has transformed the ability to wage wars of independence.  What feeds the flames across much of the Arab world: young populations, a growing middle class seeking more opportunities and access to websites and international cable channels, such as Al-Jazeera, which have eroded the state’s hold on the media.  The internet has kept populations alive, despite failed attempts to shut down world access, visual images streamed through Facebook and Twitter kept corrupt leaders honest about how they responded to their desperate citizens.

The fascinating aspect of an image is the interpretation of that image from different perspectives.  That is where the power is derived.  There are dominant and subordinate perspectives in the interpretation of every image.  And when the balance shifts there is change, like the shift in the dominant image of the world being flat.  When we find an image that challenges our dominant view, that presents a different perspective, things begin to shift our thinking and expand our ability to see and understand the possibilities.   

So let’s be conscious about the images in our lives.

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  • Karen March 4, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Watching the Egyptian Revolution on Al Jazeera live stream helped scales fall from my eyes. Not only did it humanize 350 million people in the Arab world, and their hopes and dreams, but it helped me understand my country’s role in keeping them from reaching their full potential.

    The most revolutionary thing for Americans would be Al Jazeera on their cable channel. I can’t think of anything that would instantaneously help Americans “see” and possibly “understand” the aspirations of millions of people who we don’t know well and hence, allow to fill our imagination with fear.