Denise Wooten, a community activist and resident of Borchert Field, writes about the media’s blinders in covering communities of color.
A colleague invited me to attend an event hosted the day before Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day Without Mom is the brainchild of Zelodius Morton. She is an active advocate focused on the spiritual, mental and physical healing of others who live in Milwaukee’s communities. She was rekindling an activity offered years ago, as a way of helping the grief-stricken deal with the death of their mothers as the holiday approached. For some, losing their mom no matter how recent or long ago, remains a gut-wrenching tenderness. Although I believe I have weathered that personal storm after my own mother’s passing eight years ago, sometimes I just have to obey God’s urging and show up where He sends me.
Little did I know that when I arrived I would be immediately asked to sit and share why I had come with a news reporter. Cameras, microphones and unscripted questions never make me uncomfortable. Many times I have been interviewed and asked to contribute my thoughts on civic matters such as domestic violence, women’s health or community leadership development. I was there because I wanted not only to support Mrs. Morton’s effort, but also gauge whether or not this was a new life assignment for me designed to encourage others. The interview lasted no more than 10 minutes and I was happy to help promote what she is doing.
Twenty minutes later another news reporter showed up ready to film and document what was taking place, so I thought. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up in her schedule because she thought she was there to discuss opinions on the escalating issue of gun violence. She stated that a few days ago a 9-year-old girl was yet another victim of a stray bullet. Many detesting the violence had held protest in nearby neighborhoods. Her purpose was to get a response from this group on steps they were taking to quell concerns.
Determined to make the best of her time, the reporter directed questions to Mrs. Morton and assured her that she would “mention” this particular event and its purpose. She then turned to me and asked if I had anything to add. I told her I had never experienced the loss of a family member to violence of any kind. At that point she no longer seemed interested in Mother’s Day Without Mom.
As I sat there I was suddenly rattled by my own response to her question. Certainly I am grateful that I do not know the hurt and pain of losing a loved one in this manner. But I began to think that this could have made a positive feature story. Had the reporter inquired as to why might this be or whether I had any insights I wanted to share, perhaps what she recorded could have put a new spin on a tale we are all too familiar with. Let’s take an opportunity to talk about something positive that happens in African-American households.
I know that I am not alone in wanting to present the other side of lives not bombarded with daily fears and horrors that overrun mass media telecasts. Despite what communities like my own often convey, there are many of us who sidestep gang violence, assaults, robberies and the like. Not because we turn a deaf ear or are unaware. Primarily because I think we maintain a sense of kinship and integrity that is based on mutual respect, hope and a belief in the higher power that sustains each of us.
There is a long history of misconceptions that plague communities of color, driven by people who perceive that a small percentage dictates the entire populace. Many stereotypes are unfairly placed on our cultures because those who have no interactions tend to go by what they read and hear, refusing to see for themselves what is true and what is false. Sadly it appears that the inclination is to keep the mass hysteria and mistrust in the headlines and bury solutions on the back page.
Here was an attempt by my colleague to use methods she has been trained in to address a growing concern (grief) but that was undermined by the priority of getting the story that bleeds (the destruction of human life). Yes, we need answers to curtailing the senseless acts of violent behavior, but we also need to support strategies for rebuilding a sound family circle. Until we recognize that all life is sacred and brokenness is the leading cause of acting out, no amount of protesting will deliver the results we require.