Innocent bystanders and media-driven hate

Gemma Read’s background motivated her to understand and address prejudice and discrimination.

Imagine, for a moment, being the black sheep of your family simply because you refuse to dehumanise and discriminate against others; this has been my life for the last 30 years. 

I was born in Kingston-Upon-Hull and lived on the same street from 1996 until I left our family home. It was a dysfunctional family, with a family member who was charming and charismatic externally, but who judged every movement and every person; I was their favourite victim. Well-travelled, they had lived abroad, and during a family holiday to Morocco, having spoken fluent Arabic, they taught my sister and I a few polite gestures: ‘Salam Alaikum’ which translates as ‘peace be upon you’ and ‘ma’a salama’ which means ‘goodbye’. Yet they had a keen dislike for any person who was not ‘English’; one of the many biases they held. 

We lived in a diverse neighbourhood and I attended school with students of many different nationalities. My childhood best friend was of South Asian descent yet was a Polish national. I would visit her home; her parents would welcome me with open arms, and I would try dishes that her Mum had cooked. Delicious. Despite my happiness, my family member teased that I had a friend of diverse heritage. The angrier I got, the more they laughed. I hoped they would appreciate how wonderful they all were, but their biases knew no ends. When South-eastern European refugees moved into our neighbourhood, we were warned of the supposed dangers should we leave the house. Even in adulthood, things remained the same. During 2019, I brought home a Zimbabwean friend and upon arranging the meeting I was asked, “Oh he isn’t Black, is he?”; to them, all Zimbabweans were like President Mugabe. 

Thankfully, my journey into further and higher education had set me onto a course to fight against such discrimination and false beliefs. 

Towards acceptance
Whilst at Sixth Form College, I studied Black Civil Rights in America which gave me ammunition against some of what I had experienced in my upbringing. I took an informed approach and was able to name almost every organisation that fought for civil rights and relay the treatment that African Americans faced at that time; The Congress of Racial Equality, Rosa Parks, The Little Rock Nine to name but a few. More recently, I was also to explain how our society is currently mirroring some of the actions of Adolf Hitler during World War Two; the use of propaganda to target a minority population and initiate nationwide hatred.

Those words suddenly had no influence. I began assisting international students at the University of Hull and I took every opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of my friends. Most important of all, I instilled a sense of curiosity in my own children which resulted in them gaining friends from around the world. Having gained more associates of different nationalities in adulthood, my eyes were opened to the travesties that they faced as the result of their ethnicity. I watched as my Caribbean friend was ignored by a Caucasian man despite my friend addressing him by saying “Excuse me sir”. I have African friends who wished they were Caucasian as children, and I have urged them to embrace their own beauty. I have commonwealth friends who fought in Afghanistan for the British Marines and I have seen the hardships that they have faced as a result; dubbed good enough to fight for another country, but not worthy enough to gain UK citizenship. I found myself helping these people by any means necessary: sending food parcels, building their confidence, standing against racism in rude situations. 

Socially though, immigration is viewed by many sections of the media as a crisis. Terror attacks conducted by a few extremists have become enough to condemn whole populations of people. Muslim worshippers have been attacked and a number of political parties have advertised immigration and Muslim faith as a danger to the safety of UK citizens. Such preposterous ideas led me to devote my career to academic research and public education on the treatment and representation of immigrants and refugees within the media. My dissertation topic was set in stone by the end of my first year in university, and now I turn to educate wider society on the ideals and political gains we implicitly accept if we trust the mass media and politicians who serve our country. 

Taking advantage of ambiguity

Race-related hate crimes account for 76% of all reported hate crimes between the years of 2018 and 2019 (Flatley, 2019). These statistics came to pass after a terror attack outside the Houses of Parliament and international coverage of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Perhaps the increase in hate crimes becomes understandable in the light of David Cameron stating ‘…swarms of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean…we need to protect our borders…’, and Donald Trump declaring on Twitter that ‘…illegal immigrants pour into and infest our country’. But I argue that the version of reality presented by the mass media is warped, and deliberately positioned to gain support for political campaigns.  

For instance: University College London (2013) found that 43% of migrants hold a university degree in comparison to 21% of UK nationals, 26% of National Health Service (NHS) doctors are migrants and migrants are 45% less likely to claim social benefits than UK natives. So, why are we told (by, for example, The Sun, 16 Feb 2017) that ‘Brits are suffering from immigrants taking their jobs’, and how does this lead to an increase in discriminatory behaviours?

Inconclusiveness surrounding immigration can easily be perceived as a threat to UK nationals; physically, economically, and culturally. Research suggests that social powers, such as politicians and the mass media, may take advantage of that ambiguity surrounding immigration in order to dramatise mundane news stories in order to bolster a particular political agenda and increase newspaper sales. They do this by creating a crisis mentality in viewers and readers. Quite understandably, negative emotions arise within the general public and as a result, intolerance towards non-British nationals increases (Esses et al., 2013), the fear of hostile migrants grows and people begin to ‘defend’ what they perceive to be at risk (Maltese et al., 2016). Repeated television exposure allows the media to expose viewers to ideas that they may not have encountered in their day-to-day lives (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976). 

It should be made clear that this does not necessarily place the general public at fault. I argue that the mass media triggers a very natural, motivational drive to survive (Brown, 2020) and with the media transmitting personal messages, levels of persuasion are high (Bandura, 2001). Viewers become conditioned to respond in particular ways; either through maintaining the status quo as per the guidance of social powers (Esses et al., 2013; Leyens et al., 2007) or via mechanisms of social pressure to conform and gain peer acceptance (Conger et al., 2012). Fear, as a tool of persuasion, is most effective when intense emotions are evoked and relate to an individual’s personal goals (Dillard & Anderson, 2004): in this case, to maintain one’s wellbeing. 

Good news

If a crime is committed, the nationality of the perpetrator is irrelevant and potentially acts to reinforce pre-conceived, adverse attitudes toward non-British nationals. Personally, I’d like to see more frontpage coverage regarding the benefits of a multicultural society and the prosocial acts that are currently underrepresented. I’d like to hear more about Inderjit Singh, who gave shelter to 20 homeless individuals every night during the winter of 2019; the nurse, Felix Khor, who terminated his retirement to help those with Covid, resulting in him contracting the virus himself, and Dabirul Choudhury who, at the age of 100, raised £150,000 for Covid relief. By also sharing positive news, viewers will be provided with a balanced account of life in Britain. 

Another step in reducing media-driven discrimination and intergroup conflict is to further individualise and personalise those that are featured within news articles. By including expressive facial expressions, the media would be providing cues of trustworthiness which are required for any person to form social judgements (Sofer et al., 2017). A smile, for example, has been shown to increase the perceived expectations of positive outcomes and feelings of reciprocity (Heerey & Gilder, 2019). Positive portrait pictures should be used in conjunction with personal qualities, details which could contribute towards mutual feelings of similarity between the reader and the featured individual (Tanis & Postmes, 2005). In doing so, the ‘us versus them’ mentality is reduced; two groups blend into one group and their competitive natures can potentially dwindle away (Sherif et al., 1961). 

A further aspect of reciprocity and mutual similarities is the creation of common goals. When we feel that we are working towards a common goal, inter-personal competition reduces (Sherif et al., 1961). By advertising that migrants contribute greatly to the UK economy (which they do!), British workers are less likely to feel disadvantaged by their international counterparts; that is, they are not working simply to pay taxes and thus feed freeloaders (Esses et al., 2013). Statistics regarding the contribution of migrant workers to the UK economy are not easily accessible to the average lay-person. Now imagine if the headline on your local newspaper read: ‘Immigrants boost UK economy’. Rather than paint all incoming citizens as drains on our society, showing them as the valuable assets that they are would substantially improve the lives of non-British citizens and cast doubt on pre-existing attitudes held by the general public. 

Finally, we must remember that the actions of others do not define every individual. Society has been quick to label all Muslims as potential Terrorists following Islamophobic media coverage, but we don’t refer to their Caucasian counterparts as slave-owners, Ku Klux Klan and Nazi members.

If we took the time to learn, we would begin to acknowledge that our society is diverse, a place of wonder and an arena for personal growth. To be able to learn from one-another and branch out into the unknown. To make a person feel comfortable in what may be a strange new world. To accept a person for who they are, regardless of society’s pre-conceptions and prejudices. It is because of my experience of those pre-conceptions and prejudices that I have branched into a world of wonder. I now seek to spread this knowledge with others; to help in creating an informed and accepting society that is safe for all to live. 

-        Gemma Read is a BSc (Hons) Psychology graduate and a newly appointed volunteer research assistant to a social psychologist within the University of Hull.

References

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