Snow-white News

Colonialism and inequality are repeated in the media catalog. The Red Nose Day repeats stereotypes that it’s time to take off now. For that, white people are also needed.

Text: Kukka-Maria Ahokas. Photo: Julia Jernvall.

Originally published in the Voima Lehti edition of March 2021 (in Finnish).

The whiteness of the media is reflected in the way the Global South or racialized people are spoken of. Journalist Kukka-Maria Ahokas, who lived in Latin America and wrote news from there to Finland (white native Finn), talked about media whiteness and Yle’s Red Nose Day with Leonardo Custódio, an Afro-Brazilian media researcher at Åbo Akademi University. Custódio, along with Monica Gathuo, has founded the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance. At Custódio’s suggestion, we decided to deal with media whiteness as a dialogue instead of a traditional interview.

K.A. There are only white contributors in Voima. Should I ask someone from Ruskeat Tytöt to write this story?

L. C. Please do. At the same time, you need to remember that white Finns should also address racism and their own privileges. When I, as a black man born in Brazil, criticize colonialism, the reader thinks “of course the guy knows what he’s talking about.” In public debates, racists and their victims are easily at odds. The rest of the audience tends to be  silent because they don’t like the idea that they are anyhow included. As a writer racialized as white, you are “one of them”, a white Finn who has privileges. Racism is a problem created by white people. Then you should also speak up and act against it. 

K.A: At my request, you watched YLE’s Red Nose Day show from Kenya, which raised funds for development cooperation. It repeated an old-fashioned catalog of the global south: a middle-class Finnish journalist visits a Kenyan village for which the aid funds are raised. He is shocked by the poverty and misery he faces. What did you think about the show?

L.C. The reporter went to the village wearing shorts and a t-shirt, although his local assistant wore a formal collared shirt and long pants. The Finnish journalist did his best in trying to be polite, he greeted people by shaking hands. However, I did not hear him use formal phrases like Sir when he spoke to the community elders. The program repeatedly stated how things are “here in Kenya,” even though one poor village does not represent the entire country and the entire continent is getting more middle-class. I don’t blame the journalist as an individual, but his team could have prepared better. The team could get familiar with the local culture and customs or teach him polite phrases in the local language.

K. A. The problem may be that white people do not see their own whiteness.

L.C .: I understand that he was sent there so that Finnish viewers could identify with him, feel touched and guilty and open their wallets for charity. And I’m not saying that money should not be donated for a good purpose. But why are other continents and black/racialized people displayed in the media in the same way from century to century?

K.A. You mean big-eyed, suffering children in the south?

L.C. Black/racialized children are often portrayed as suffering little things. They think it’s OK to show their faces in the media because they need help so much. And their suffering faces will probably convince  people in countries like Finland to donate. However, similar images are not seen of white children in need of help. The point is not to start showing suffering white kids, but as Dr. Faith Mkwesha has repeated so many times, black children need respect and protection too. 

K.A. True. You don’t see a journalist go to a poor Finnish family and take close photograph the faces of the suffering children. We think that these children have a right to privacy.

L.C. The media often shows a white perspective on the world. I don’t mean this is something malicious or evil.  Sometimes, people react to criticism in an awkward way. As if it is personal. That they are bad people. They tend to get on the defensive because obviously  no one wants to be bad or racist. The authors say: we only mean good and want to help, we raise funds for the poor. Why are you complaining? To that, I would reply with a question:  Does fundraising justify repeating and reinforcing racist stereotypes? 

K.A. Maybe this has to do with the white saviorism problem? That there is always a white dude flying from Europe who comes and helps even when nobody needs his help?

L.C. White saviorism is certainly a problem, but it is also related to whiteness in general. And “whiteness” – not as an issue of skin color, but as a historically disputed factor of hierarchical power – does not only concern white people. Frantz Fanon has warned us that people who are not white can also reproduce whiteness and racism. I myself am not free from it. I study and research at a university institution that white people have developed over history. Then, it would be easy for me to pretend that institutional racism doesn’t exist because of the professional position I have achieved. My point is that people are not a problem because they are white. Hierarchical power relations are a problem, discriminatory politics are a problem. Racism is a problem. And since they have historically benefited white people, white people should be active in solving the problem too.

K. A. And then the media discusses how sorry the white journalist felt when he saw poverty or was criticized on something. His feelings are not the most important thing.

L.C. Colonialism, which still plays out today in the globalized world we live,  has given rise to a discriminatory system in which the white man is considered superior. This problem is both in my country of birth, Brazil, and in Finland, and it is reflected in the media in both countries. The white privilege is to your advantage but to the detriment of black and brown people, whether you mean it or not. And sometimes actions with good intentions can have bad consequences.

K.A. The story of Renee Bach comes to my mind. An American woman in her twenties established a health clinic in Uganda where she cared for sick children even though she did not have a health care qualification. She is now charged with the murder of more than 100 Ugandan children. By the way, Western media do not use the term “murder charge” in the news, they use euphemisms.

L. C. You see. Good intentions can lead to such shocking situations. 

K.A. A campaign called No White Saviors has been launched in Uganda. It denounces cases of white savior’s syndrome. Whites should not be portrayed as protagonists who come to help people in Africa.

L. C. Exactly. A while ago, I saw a good communication campaign here in Finland. The pictures showed development agency aid workers in partner countries. The message was that your donations will go to the salary costs of these professionals so they can help people in poor areas. In this case, you agree that after you donate your money, and it will be channeled as your local experts deem best. They know local conditions and society better than we do.

K.A. How can mistakes be avoided in the future?

L.C. There must be more diversity in Finnish media. Not only in terms of racial diversity, but people who understand racism and whiteness as structural problems to be fixed.  This applies for working abroad too. It is possible to hire a local journalist abroad as a fixer who repeats all the same old stereotypes. In my country of birth, Brazil, there is a lot of inequality and racism within the country.

Empathy is also important. The more different is the reality of the other person, the more we have to try and put ourselves in their places. Would I want something like this to be done to me? Respect is important. We have to treat people from a distant culture with the same respect as people I know, even though I don’t know their customs – but I can learn them.

I have studied the marginalized people’s communication styles Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. They have interesting solutions. For example, they produce favela local news, which is very significant to the residents of the area, more significant locally than the big media. In local newspapers and websites, favela residents appear as “people”, not as “criminals”, or “needy people”. When I look at campaigns like the Red Nose Day, I wonder: how would the campaign look like if it were produced by anti-racist African media professionals? How would it be to see impoverished Africans as people? 

Q. A. What are the other solutions?

L.C. It is not helpful to think only of the media. I know many people like to think of immediate solutions, but the root causes of the problem is colonialism and inequality. There are no simple answers. No quick fixes. I am not proposing a ban on development cooperation or foreign news. But there are some questions that media professionals and development workers need to constantly remember. Why do things like extreme poverty and racial violence happen more often to racialized people than to white people? Why is the global economy built in such a way that Finns have to send money to Kenya? How can Finns help or report without reinforcing the problem?