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Deconstructing Preconceptions

Fifty years after Meredith and the riots, Mississippi is still tarnished with negative stereotypes about race that transcend the media that uses them.

 

Riots overtook The University of Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1962. The reason – the pigment of a single man’s skin.
 
The admission of James Meredith, the first black person integrated into Ole Miss, created an integration struggle that allowed prejudice to hang heavily in the air.
 
Nonetheless, Ole Miss made a change, a change that many forms of media have hyped, whether postively or negatively. The ways media, including television shows, movies, broadcast programs, newspapers, posters and the like, have decided to portray or con- dense Mississippi since have painted a picture to the nation and to the world of what life in the South must be like.
 
“Mississippi being one of the states in the Deep South, it’s going to always, I think, carry negative historical legacies,” said Deidra Jackson, acting assistant director for academic counseling and adjunct instructor in journalism.
 

Those who have never ventured into Mississippi may have heard the state is un- healthy, slow-living, filled with the Southern drawl and still in a battle against racism. These assumptions may have been based on the surrounding media, as images of prejudice and hatred in Mississippi flashed across screens or in newspaper stands.
 

“True or not is important,” said Dr. Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of history. “It’s also important to say why are certain people emphasizing certain things.”
 
Ownby recalled the role the media played in the 1950s and 1960s, during the heart of integration. He said the issue was important to address because it made Mississippi face its racism, which had become a national public concern.
 
“There are moments when images are really important in defining a problem and making that problem as public as possible, as a way of saying ‘we have to solve it,’” Ownby said. “The goal of media in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s was to say, ‘How deep, how bad are the injustices? Let us bring them to light.’”
 

Ownby said the media at the time had a specific goal in mind: To confront the national image of Mississippi as trailing the nation in improving and equalizing education for its residents, especially those of color.
“This was an effort to say, ‘This is a problem and we need to do something about it,’” Ownby said. “At the time, it was a strategy.”
 
Mississippi was literally fighting for its own image during this time, Ownby said. According to him, some residents recognized that Mississippi was at a progressional halt due to racism and prejudice, and still others put the thought away.
 
If one looks around the state 50 years later, it is obvious a change took place. Though the state has become more inclusive and diverse, however, this does not mean racism is no longer an issue.
 
“Racism today is still all around us,” Dr. Tracie Stewart, assistant professor of psychology, said. “We just don’t necessarily see it because racism can be both explicit and implicit. There’s racism (that) you know you have, you’ll catch yourself doing it, but more often than not, it’s unconscious.”
 
Racism and stereotypes thrived in the past and contin- ue to in the present. Even the media is known to be narrow in diversity. The University of Mississippi’s chapter of the Association of Black Journalists, gladly welcoming of members of any race, aims to change that.
 

“We want people to know that it is very important that media outlets, even in 2012, are still reporting on diverse issues that are relevant to minorities,” said Ashley Ball, the University of Mississippi’s ABJ president.
 
Ball said she believes issues such as stereotyping, racism and the lack of diversity can be handled by continuing to talk about these situations.
“That continuing conversation needs to be had, and it can’t be swept under the rug,” Ball said.
 

Studies conducted at the university have shown that suppressing stereotypes only leads to stronger stereotyping.
 
“’Just say no’ is a bad idea,” Stewart said. “It’s not going to work. We’re trying to train people to just consider a different way of judging behaviors. It takes a lot of work to stop judging people that way and to consider situational constraints the way we do for ourselves.”
 
But in a world of social media, which thrives on stereotyping each culture subset, changing the way people think is a feat in and of itself.
 
“Stereotypes become timesaving devices,” Stewart said. “If I stereotype you, I don’t have to really think hard about you.”
 

The media generally uses content that features only the extreme cases in cultures.
 
Jackson said she is disturbed that some characterizations the media portrays are not as accurate as history recalls. For example, “The Help,” both the movie and the book versions, painted an emotionally stirring picture of life in the South but told the story too nicely, Jackson said. From her research, black housemaids went through much worse than the story showed. Yet she found society accepts the story as an actual representation of history.
 
“People will take that as historical record,” Jackson said.
 
Combating stereotypes and symbols that shape Mississippi’s culture can lead to the state’s progression. Stewart said the change must come from accepting that which is different and including it into the environment, adapting as cultures and people do.
 
“Our society is increasingly diverse, so if we don’t learn how to work together, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble 20 years from now, 50 years from now,” Stewart said.
 
Though racial issues still exist, most people agree that Mississippi has taken several steps forward and hope the progressive trend will continue.
 
In the past year, Ole Miss elected its first black female ASB president and crowned its first black homecoming queen. Yet no matter how hard Mississippi puts forth effort to move forward, it continues to be known by media’s extreme images and perceptions.
 
“No matter how many positive stories and stories about how Mississippi is trying to overcome its racist past and present itself as a progressive state, as a state that believes in diversity and is inclusive, you still have to battle against those perceptions that other people have, and I think will always have, of Mississippi,” Jackson said.