How Color of Change and Family Story Plan to Remove Bias From Black Family Narratives in the Media

Film placeholder film set empty
zef art - stock.adobe.com

As cries for more inclusive, well-rounded representation continue to be important topics of conversation in the media, Color of Change and Family Story have released a new guide to aid in avoiding inaccurate and/or biased language that might turn society, or an audience, against Black people and Black families.

The guide, entitled “Changing the Narrative About Black Families,” builds upon the two organizations’ previous collaboration, “A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families: Representations of Families, by Race, in News and Opinion Media,” which found that media outlets were 1.5-times more likely to represent a white family as socially stabile and 1.3% more likely to associate Black family members with criminality. Other findings included that media outlets would incorrectly suggest that Black fathers are uninvolved with their families, depicting them as spending time with their kids in news images only 14% of the time, and misrepresent how many Black families were welfare recipients (depicting 60%, when in reality Black families make up 42%).

The goal of “Changing the Narrative” is not only to help people understand how certain terms can be used to undermine the success and wellbeing of Black families so that they will stop using them and upend stereotypes and tropes, but also to dig into historical examples of misrepresentation that has lead to unfair social policies and/or expectations, as well as the institutionalization of systemic racism.

“We have a completely different sets of rules for white families and Black families, and our language reflects that,” Nicole Rodgers, founder and executive director of Family Story, said in a statement. “As the country faces a racial reckoning around anti-Black police violence, we also need to wrestle with how language about Black families perpetuates dangerous and inaccurate myths that justify everything from dismissing their everyday concerns to perpetuating violence against them. This guide explains how we got here and provides tools for more honest, accurate and productive conversations about Black families.”

For example, referring to a Black person as being from a “broken home” or a “broke family,” the guide points out, inherently states that the home or family needs to be fixed, which puts the blame for challenges the family may be facing on the family structure. A “broken home” or a “broken family” has been colloquialized to refer to a single-parent head-of-the-family structure, but the absence of a second parent should not imply a negative or unhealthy environment. The guide reports that these terms are most frequently assigned to Black families, which makes it part of a narrative that holds Black families to different standards than white families or families of other races.

Some of the other harmful words the guide wants people to be aware of are “thug,” which elicits the “dangerous Black male” stereotype; “ghetto,” which is a “racist and classist term that has become shorthand for a poor and Black neighborhoods,” as written in the guide; and “baby mama” or “baby daddy” over the use of “blended family.” For the latter, the guide notes that “when used by people who are not Black, and especially when used by white people or anyone in an official capacity (such as a newscaster) … these terms have the effect of undermining the seriousness of a relationship or implying lack of personal responsibility.”

The guide also highlights terms that exclude Black people and Black families as harmless. The prime example within is “working class,” which the guide says comes with an image “that is largely coded as white within the public imagination [and] frequently associated with rural, suburban and exurban communities.” In this instance, rather than eliminating the term, the guide implores people to continue to expand its meaning the range of images it evokes.

“Biased terms and false representations of Black families build public demand for treating Black families not only differently but unfairly, with grave consequences. Eliminating them from use is a critical step toward creating balance and fairness in social norms and social policies, and moving toward an anti-racist society,” said Rashad Robinson, president, Color of Change.

Some of the consequences discussed in the guide are redlining (being denied mortgages and being prevented from buying homes in certain neighborhoods), health inequities (including not having access to medical treatments and testing), family regulation (such as a higher rate of the foster care system taking Black children from their families), voter suppression and mass incarceration (with Black people receiving 20% longer sentences than white people, for the same crimes).

What the guide suggests, in order to turn the tide on biases, is education first and foremost: understanding why certain language and framing will reinforce systemic racism while others will dismantle it, as well as understanding from where it stems.

“Slavery is a necessary starting point to understand the American narrative of what constitutes family,” the guide states. “Slavery relied on the dehumanization and trading of humans as property. Slavery depended on extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse. And this misogynistic, racially charged behavior was accepted as the norm.”

Additionally, the guide recommends starting and keeping a conversation going amid the people with whom the reader works, lives and otherwise engages, as well as refusing to share or sharing with comment (calling out media outlets) when they see inaccurate language being used in public stories.