The Ubiquity of Microaggressions in ‘News’ Story Headlines: A Call for Awareness

This girl is so badass it’s blowing my mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m so down with the Huffington Post contributor, Ryan Grenoble, arguing that Li Sa X is ‘breaking stereotypes’ for girls by play the electric guitar, let alone playing heavy metal on an electric guitar; but, in light of a recent and very public (i.e. a New York Times article last week) conversation about what are called “microaggressions,” I can’t help but wonder why the author felt it was necessary to include the girl’s ethnicity in the headline of the article? Why is this necessary? What does it contribute to the story? And how would it detract from the story if it wasn’t explicitly mentioned?

I’ve been going back and forth as to whether this critique is a bit of a stretch…

But then I wondered whether a headline would read the same way if the little girl was white?

It would catch a few eyes and sustain some angry responses in the comments section, claims of “reverse-racism” and the like. Granted, I’m comparing a mention of the girl’s ethnicity in the headline with my hypothetical quandary in which I replace the ethnic marker with a racial one. There are indeed [important] differences between “race” and “ethnicity,” even though they are often conflated under the diluted and buzzword-ed topic of “diversity”; and it is these differences that makes this argument even more salient.

There is substantial work in the field of critical whiteness studies that has worked to uncover how common it is for white people and the representation of white people in mainstream texts and conversations to not think of themselves as either raced or ethnic people, but rather just “normal” (see Pamela Perry’s [2001] article, “White Means Never Having to Say You’re Ethnic”). My point here is that rarely do we see people of Wester European, Anglo Saxon descent, “white” people, described or referred to [in conversation, in the media, in self-explanations] as “white” or by their ethnicity as a precursor to who they are as people, as individuals. Meaning, I don’t think the headline of this story would ever read, “White Girl Shreds Guitar, Gender Stereotypes,” because in the dominant, hegemonic discourse, a white girl doing this would perhaps be considered more “normal” or expected; the conversation would probably focus way more on how the girl playing heavy metal was breaking gender stereotypes left and right. Using “white” would be a double negative of sorts.

So back to the actual title of the article and my questions: what role does pointing out that this little girl is Japanese play in the story? In the larger narratives of gender, race, ethnicity, and the assumptions that we are often socialized to make about who is native and who is “Other”? How might we read the story differently (perhaps for the better) if the title simply read: “8-Year-Old Girl Shreds Guitar, Stereotypes”? What other stories run through our heads, what stereotypes are perpetuated when we use racial and ethnic signifiers as qualifiers when they are unwarranted (which is most of the time).

Next time you read a headline, push yourself to spend a moment with it. Deconstruct it, consider the intentionality/ies of the author, editor and/or publisher in composing the words in the headline, and the subsequent story, in certain ways. Try to remind yourself that all media messages and images are constructed, thought about, tweaked, and re-stitched so that they work for a particular audience or purpose. If you have critical thoughts, post them in the comments section or on Twitter using @usernames and #hashtags of names/organizations related to the article. Raise awareness and continue the conversation. #talkback @huffingtonpost