Media Literacy III: White-Washing, Misrepresentation, and Implicit Bias

In case you missed all the hoopla about the movie Aloha (like here, here, here, and here), don’t worry – the 3rd blog post of the Media Literacy Series explains the lack of people of color we see on the big screen.

The case with Aloha? They made a super odd decision to cast the blonde-haired, white-skinned Emma Stone as Hawaiian, Chinese, mixed heritage Allison Ng.

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Here’s what’s up.

This is a pretty classic case of Hollywood white-washing and misrepresenting other cultures, races, and ethnic groups. When we look at all forms of media, the television and movie industry has a particularly bad habit of having overwhelmingly white casts, even if the characters’ whiteness does not add to the characterizations or plotlines. In fact, a lot of characters on television could be portrayed by people of color, but that just does not happen. Instead, you get white people playing white people or passing as light-skinned racial and ethnic groups. People of color get stuck with non-series regular roles, the sidekick/best friend/less significant roles, or roles that play off stereotypes.

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And this happens all the time.

These patterns are well-established. For example, African men are portrayed as inherently violent, and Indians are portrayed as nerdy or overly sexual. People of color are generally misrepresented or invisibilized in movies.

Moment of Reflection: If this is what we see all of the time, do you think this could affect how we view students of color at UNC? How could this impact the way students of color view themselves?

Why don’t directors cast people of color?

People are less likely to go see a film or watch a television series about a Person of Color protagonist. And directors fear this. They want to capitalize on the fact that audiences are drawn to productions that have the face of a (famous) white person. Even Jenji Kohan took advantage of this, and I think she did it brilliantly!

And these rules are written and institutionalized. A 2011 licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel, which share the rights to the Spider-Man character, lists a series of traits to which Peter Parker must legally conform. Despite the fact that Spider-Man is totally made up and can literally be ANYONE…this character is legally restricted to being a white, straight male.

Moment of Reflection: Would you have tuned in for the 1st season of Orange is the New Black if this was the promotional poster?

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Why does this happen?

There’s this thing called reciprocal determinism which basically means that there is a dual relationship between us and our environment, in that we affect the environment that in turn affects us. So, the media shows us what they think we want to see, and by spending our money and time on their shows, we in turn tell the media what we want to see. The media reflects and reinforces societal and institutional patterns of injustice. Mostly, this act is implicit. We don’t go around explicitly stating that we love seeing white people on TV (at least, I hope not!). We are fed messages daily about how we live in a white normative and white ideal society, and many us don’t realize that or choose to ignore it! This can lead to implicit bias:

“Most of us have implicit bias that can impact our behavior and understanding. Although most of us are completely unaware of its influence on our subconscious, these biases affect how we perceive, interpret, and understand others’ actions. Because these attitudes, unrecognized on the conscious level but powerful at the subconscious level, individual and institutional discrimination can occur even in the absence of blatant prejudice, ill will, or animus.”

– John A. Powell, “Postracialism or Targeted Universalism?” Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, May-June 2010.

Moment of Reflection: How do you see your own implicit bias playing a role on UNC’s campus or within your relationships?

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Let’s revisit that phrase “unrecognized on the conscious level but powerful at the subconscious level.” We have to work against this process and deconstruct the way we think so that the messages can be recognized on the conscious level, like when we see instances of white-washing and misrepresentation – whether it’s on magazine covers, billboards, advertisements, TV, movies, etc.

What should we do about all of this?

Public Outrage!! I’m kidding, to an extent. We all do need to critically engage with media and actively recognize moments of social injustice. We also need to continue these public conversations, whether it’s through blogs, public forums, petitions, you name it! People notice when we do this. In fact, the director of Aloha issued an apology (though it’s more of an excuse/justification in my opinion…). Networks are also adding more shows with strong roles for people of color like Blackish, Fresh off the Boat, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Jane the Virgin, and Empire. Hashtag trends like #OscarsSoWhite got the attention of people in leadership and now we’re going to be seeing some real awesome changes around diversity in Hollywood because of the Academy’s effort to double the number of women and people of color by 2020!

And of course, there’s this:

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The more we can show the world that we notice, CARE, and can articulate WHY all of this matters, we can reshape conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. and take steps to creating lasting change.


Niranjani Radhakrishnan received her BSPH from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill in 2013. She is currently a Program Assistant for Health Promotion and Prevention Initiatives at Student Wellness. She is also in graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill pursuing two masters degrees: Health Behavior and City and Regional Planning with an emphasis in environmental justice, health equity, and spatial analysis using GIS.

Race and the “Model” Survivor

by Nikhil Umesh

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Photo: by Ishmael Bishop

At the start of this fall semester, hundreds of community members sat on the green grass in front of Wilson Library as June Beshea began to recite the names of Black girls and women. June organized this #SayHerName vigil to honor Black women and girls, both trans* and cisgender, murdered by the police. Hearing the words  “police” and “Black women” in the same sentence might surprise many folks because we typically only hear about cisgender Black men as victims of policing. Black cisgender women, Black trans* women and gender-nonconforming folks aren’t thought of as experiencing violence and trauma at the hands of police.

The narrative of a “model” victim isn’t specific to policing, but is also heard in conversations around imprisonment, immigration, domestic violence and sexual violence. As we have seen conversation around sexual violence increase on our campus, I’m wondering:

  • Is there a “model” survivor?
  • What are that person’s identities (race, class, gender etc.)?
  • Where do we get these ideas about a model survivor?
  • Who do we leave out in this narrative?


At the #SayHerName vigil in August, Black women were not only asking those very questions, but bravely providing answers — the reality of what’s actually happening on the ground. Speaking truth to power, they called on students, faculty, and staff to interrogate their collective imagination of the “model” survivor. Because for much of this time, the media as well as violence prevention and response efforts have situated cisgender white women as the model.

If we want to understand why we associate “rape” with “white woman” we should explore how historically and to this day, race and gender have been intimately woven together. The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence accurately recounts some of this history that could help us untangle the mental roadblocks we have when it comes to thinking about sexual violence:

The history of rape in the United States is a history of racism and sexism intertwined. Rape was an important tool in white colonists’ violent efforts to repress Native nations. During slavery, both white and black men raped black women with impunity. After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, white mobs lynched numerous black men based on trumped up charges of sexual assault of white women, and the specter of lynching terrorized the black community.”


As a South Asian masculine-identified person, I’m implicated in this history, irrespective of whether I want to be or not. Indeed, we all are. I know that the ways I am stereotyped, whether as a “model minority” or how I’m desexualized, is intimately tied to the objectification, pathologizing, and hypersexualization that women of color face.


In addition to the historical basis for why we imagine cisgender white women as the “model” survivor, the numbers also paint a picture that pushes us to ask why women of color have been erased from the conversation. For instance, NAESV reports that 19 percent of black women, 24 percent of mixed race women, and 34 percent of indigenous women are survivors of rape. Here at UNC, the results from the spring 2015 Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct survey makes clear that women of color experience sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual violence on our campus at higher or similar rates to white women.


There isn’t an easy answer to shifting our ideas of the “model” survivor. Here are 3 things you can do:

  1. Learn more about history. Imagining cisgender white women as someone who requires our protection at all costs also necessitates the stereotype of Black men as the pathological rapist. This history isn’t far from home. Lynchings that terrorized Black people in North Carolina and throughout the South, oftentimes in the name of white women, are proof of this. Focusing on cisgender white women in the movement to end sexual violence can’t be thought of as a minor slip. There’s a history, legacy, and reason for why this is the case.
  2. Listen to the stories and experiences of women of color. (Of course, this does not mean demanding women of color do the labor of educating us on sexual violence in a way that can be retraumatizing to them.)
  3. Shift conversations around sexual and interpersonal violence so that anti-racist and anti-colonial principles are central to them. Given that the #SayHerName Vigil centered on the experiences of Black women and girls at the hands of the police, we are obligated to consider how police interact with violence prevention efforts. A document such as the #SayHerName Brief by the African American Policy Forum is instructive in this area. We must ask: is the criminal punishment system up to the task of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of people of color?


We owe it to ourselves, and women of color, to do everything in our ability to shift the types of conversations around sexual violence that we’re having, to make sure they have an intersectional analysis that doesn’t treat race as some “extra” component. Because people’s lives and wellbeing, on this campus even, depend on it.


Nikhil was born in Bangalore, India, though spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Before joining the staff at Student Wellness, he was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied Environmental Health Science. As a Program Assistant, Nikhil will be working closely with the recently founded Delta Advocates program and on campus messaging regarding healthy and supportive relationships. As a former UNC student, he is looking forward to working with young people on creating community-wide strategies to address, prevent, and end sexual violence and rape, while maintaining a focus on support systems that center the lived experiences and needs of survivors.

Workout Wednesday: Commit Today 5k – Take Your First Steps Into Fitness

UNC Campus Recreation has a brand new specialty fitness program – the Commit Today 5K Training Program. This class is designed to teach brand new runners the basics of running, and to eventually help them complete their first 5K. The 5K is often considered a landmark for many new runners, and could be part of your fitness journey. runners Designed for beginner runners, the program will take you through each level of progressive running fitness. The workouts will be appropriate to the level of the program, and they will never increase dramatically. Over 4 weeks, participants will be guided through workouts of increasing distance and duration. Participants can join 3 possible groups, depending on their desired outcome – walking, jogging, or running the 5K. Students and employees at UNC of all ages are welcome to participate. The atmosphere will be positive and welcoming, with coaches providing encouragement. If you’re not a newbie runner, but still want to get involved as a mentor, email This is a great opportunity to share your passion for running with others! The program runs Thursday, April 3 – April 24, 2014. The workouts will take place every Thursday at 5:15 pm, and will last an hour. To register, stop by the UNC Campus Rec Main Office with $15. The first 50 people to register will receive a free T-shirt – so don’t hesitate! Registration closes March 31st. Not all of us born with genes like those of Usain Bolt, the world’s “fastest man ever.” But that shouldn’t stop you from exercising to increase your fitness level. I know from experience that the first step feels like the hardest. I first started running in 7th grade as a beginner in cross country at my middle school. Although the onset was hard, my body adjusted and I eventually came to love the sport, with the help of my team and coach. This program will give you that same experience. We’ll provide the workouts, education, and encouragement – you provide the commitment. Ready to get started? Begin your running career here.

Workout Wednesday blog posts are written by UNC Campus Recreation staff members. Each Wednesday we’ll be swapping blog posts with the Tarheel Tone Up blog so that readers can view more diverse post topics that will benefit their health and wellness. Workout Wednesday blog posts can be found both here and on