Teaching Media Literacy Includes Teaching About Racism

The New Jersey state legislature recently passed a bill that would require public schools to teach media literacy, from kindergarten to senior year of high school.

The bill would also mandate that the state department of education create curriculum guidelines, establish in-service training for educators as well as make room for media literacy education in traditional and alternative route teacher prep programs.

If the governor signs this bill into law, New Jersey would be the first state in the country to mandate media literacy instruction for all grade levels.

According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, a professional association for educators, academics, activists and students, media literacy is defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. In other words, media literacy is about understanding how to dissect, vet and convey information within a media (television, social, and etc.) space.

Media literacy—understanding how to decipher fact from fiction—in a post truth or post fact world, is very important. Unfortunately, the line between truth and lies is very blurred and young people need to know how to sift through their constantly being bombarded with information. We have Donald Trump to thank for that, but I digress.

But what’s most important about teaching media literacy is contextualizing the role racism has to play.

I am almost positive that people, particularly non-Black people, are tired of hearing about racism and the role that it has to play in everything. But the unfortunate truth is that in these United States, everything has to do with racism because this country is rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

Yet due to the clever structuring of how our systems and institutions work, whiteness is invisible. In fact, the power of whiteness is in its invisibility—it is unspoken yet it is very much understood. So, when white supremacy announces itself in the form of demagoguery i.e. Nick Fuentes or Steve Bannon, it is limited by the masses to demagogues; as something separate from systems and institutions.

However, make no mistake that there is racism within the media. Therefore, it is not enough simply to spot fake news. Teachers will need to explain to students how racism plays a part in misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Teaching literacy media as something separate from racism and the racist history of the United States does a disservice to young people and to the future of this country.

Here is an example of what I mean.

During the 2016 presidential election season, Facebook was used as a tool by Russian operatives to sow discord amongst the American electorate. Russian operatives purchased more than 3,000 ads on Facebook promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter to offer fake news as a means of discouraging assumed political behaviors of Black voters.

If a teacher decided to use some of those Russian purchased ads to teach how to spot fake news, it would be necessary for that teacher to expose students to how racism is intertwined. They must teach that Black voters are under constant duress from their own government, and that other world powers, like Russia, will use America’s racist past to convince Black voters to not act in their best political interest and vote against their own interest.

Likewise, that teacher must teach about America’s racist past.

A conversation may spring up about Russia’s history of taking advantage the history of racism in the United States, but you must teach about the racist history of the United States and how America is to blame for fomenting its own weakness. As part of my research for my book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, I was reminded that in its Cold War with the Russians, the United States’ attempt to promote democracy around the world was undercut by their failure of practicing it internally.

Its treatment of Black people, particularly in the Jim Crow south i.e. racial segregation, codified laws that flew in the face of the 14th amendment, and Black genocide in the form of lynching, ruined the image of American democracy and the federal government knew it.

The Russians knew it as well.

Sadly, Black people continue to deal with racism in the form of voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, housing segregation, police brutality and disproportionate medical treatment. The Russians know that as well and their fake news /divide and conquer campaign is made possible by the racism permeating American society.

Considering the current racial demographics of teachers in the state of New Jersey (83% white, 6% Black, 8% Latino/a/x), mirroring the national demographics, most teachers are either ill-equipped or unwilling to teach those lessons in that way. It is then imperative for the state of New Jersey to teach its teachers how to do that.

The same is true for every state desiring to engage in a similar initiative surrounding teaching students’ media literacy.

I honestly applaud any policymaker who sees concerning issues in our changing world and desires to prepare young people to confront those very issues that befall us. But we must get comfortable with confronting racism because more often than not, the social problems that we encounter result from the racist structures that hold up our society as it is.

We (educators and policymakers) must get comfortable with calling a thing a thing. Curtailing our own hypocrisy must be as important as teaching our young people about media literacy. Or else, we will be guilty of perpetuating the very fake news we seek to fight against.


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