Media, technology, and race addresed at National Communication Association event

by Ian Sutherland / Beacon Correspondent • March 27, 2014

A National Communication Association program entitled Clarifying Conversations was held on March 20 in the Bill Bordy Theater, where five panelists from various academic backgrounds led a discussion on the role of race in contemporary American culture. The function of new forms of media and technology played a central role in the conversation.

Sixty-four Emerson students attended, and viewers from 24 states and three countries watched the discussion live online, according to the event’s organizer, Richard West, a former president of the NCA and communication studies professor at Emerson.

“As past president of the NCA, I'm given the opportunity to have different initiatives, and one of the initiatives I do is a national conversation on race and identity,” West said.

Clarifying Conversations was initially scheduled for April of last year, but was delayed after the Boston marathon bombings. West said he was excited that the project prevailed after being postponed.

“It's the first time this kind of event has been hosted on a college campus,” West said.

He said the program represented a continuation of an initiative he organized in New Orleans in 2012 that focused on similar issues of racial disparity in the media.

“I used my initiative resources to bring this group of people together,” said West.

The discussion panel included Kimberly McLarin, an assistant professor in Emerson’s writing, literature, and publishing department; Anne Demo, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University; Tom Nakayama, professor of communications at Northeastern University; Angharad Valdivia, department head of Media and Cinema Studies at the the University of Illinois’ Institute of Communications Research; and Jeff Scheffer, a television and film producer, writer, and director.

Harvey Young, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, moderated the event.

The panelists discussed race and how it operates in contemporary culture. New forms of media and technology, like Twitter and other social networks, was a topic the panelists explored.

“Twitter is a potential hate stream,” said Demo, in response to Young's question on how evolving media technology has changed how the public talks about race. Demo cited several racist tweets in response to Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl advertisement in which “America the Beautiful” is sung in different languages by people of different national backgrounds.

Yet Demo remained optimistic about the positive sides of Twitter and said social media also provides opportunity for changing the way we think about race and combatting racism.

The group discussed race in mainstream entertainment, particularly in recent comedy films. Clips of racial humor from the film The Dictator and the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, both written by panelist Schaffer, were shown and analyzed.

Young then asked the panel whether anything considered to be comedy should have boundaries. The consensus from all panelists was no.

“Nothing's off-limits, but neither then is my critique of it,” said McLarin.  

Near the end of the event, before members of the crowd began asking questions to panelists, Young transitioned the conversation from discussions on new media to a broader topic— he asked the panelists whether or not conversations like this were worth having.

“We're not in a post-racial society,” McLarin said. “Black unemployment is at recession levels. Not talking about it is not going to reverse the problem

Freshman performing arts major Kelley Davies attended the event.

“I found this event really fascinating and thought-provoking,” she said. “These sort of events are great because they start a discourse about uncomfortable topics, but topics that should be talked about more often.”

Young said he hopes to have more events like this in the future.

“We need to have more specific conversations on social identity and social media,” he said.