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What's in a Name?

Article by: Alydia Smith
Artwork by: Michelle Zeller
March 2001

Visible Minority, Ethnic, African American, Caribbean Canadian, Second Generation Canadian, Black, are some of the many descriptions used to describe me. Although none of these words offend me the use of them, as labels, does. When I was eight, we had a culture show at school and I was asked to bring 'ethnic food.' I asked my mother, a caterer who specialized in Caribbean food, to help me cook some 'ethnic food'; she looked at me and replied, 'there is a Canadian Cook Book in the Closet.' My mother was trying to tell me why our family did not call our food 'Ethnic' or 'Caribbean,' because to us and to the community I
grew up in it was just 'food.' This case is true for all of my classmates as well, except for those of European decent who were asked to bring 'traditional food' instead of ethnic. The labels describe the food to an assumed white audience, and therefore classify it as different, establishing the European white as the norm and everyone else as the other in our community and in our society.

The 'other' that labels create tends to have a negative connotation that isolates minority groups by showing them as different from the average person. Who is the average person? A typical White Anglo -Saxon Protestant (WASP).

There are many ways that the media portrays norms in society. Look at the representation of people in the news. From my observations of newspapers and news broadcasts, white victims usually have large, professional colour photos, such as graduation or formal pictures. Victims that belong to minority groups, on the other hand, usually have small black and white amateur pictures, shot at short range with the camera pointing upward. The result is a picture that resembles a mug shot. The pictures act as words, that imply the status of the victims. A professional graduation picture suggests that society has lost a future doctor or teacher, while an image that often resembles a mug shot suggests that society has lost nothing but a future criminal.

For perpetrators of crimes, if they are not white their race is usually given, and the crime report is exploited as much as possible. This representation in the media gives the false impression that most of the crimes in our society are done by people of minority groups. Resent Studies in the United States have shown that white youths are more likely to be drug dealers, that white youths smoke eight times more cocaine and that white males twice as likely to bring weapons to school then black males. This is not the reality that the media portrays.

Harmful labelling is often seen in media that is trying to be positive and promotional. Look around the Western environment. From the pictures in Western's promotional pamphlets to the course calendar book, a WASP audience is assumed. In most pictures the person belonging to a minority group in sociey, is also a minority group in the photograph. The context of the phot graph suggests a lot as well. What is thereason for the picture, is the person of a minority group in the picture a declaration of diversity? Are they a part of the action or are they passively spectating? Are they doing something stereotypical of their race? Through examining pictures in the media, we see that minorities are often seen as exception to the norm, instead of as a part of it.

A medium that all Western students must come in contact with is the course selection calender. I belong to the Faculty of Music, so I have experienced the effect of labelling in music courses. 'Music History' on the service, is a general term; however, the course very specifically focuses on Western Music, implying not only that Western music is the norm, but also that it is the important history to study. Another seemingly general course title is 'Post World War Two Music'; although many countries participated in the war the focus of the course is American Popular Music. In contrast, the faculty also offers a more specific history course called 'World Music'; interestingly, this course studies music of the world excluding music of the western cannon. 'World Music,' is to mean the world outside of the European one, presuming that no one taking the course belongs to the outside world.

As a music student, I can see the effects of labelling, assuming the norm, and the isolation of knowing that you do not fit this norm. In music I am often labelled not only by my race but also by my sex. I am very proud to be a black female musician at The University of Western Ontario. I know who I am though, and I do not need to be told by the Western Media, or any other medium. Tiger Woods once said, "I don't want to be the worlds best black golfer, I want to be the worlds best golfer." The more that people are labelled and categorized in the media, the more society makes them feel like outsiders, negative or positive, rather then participants in society.

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