Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a high-profile author and pundit on racial issues in America today, was on campus Sunday night to present his ideas in a talk entitled “Countering Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes.” Touted as the keynote speech for Black History Month at Williams, the evening was sponsored by groups as diverse as the Williams Black Student Union, the Multi-Cultural Center, the English department and the Health Center.
Introduced by Royce Smith ’01, Hutchinson led an eclectic crowd of 100 through the tangles of racial issues confronting Americans in this modern age, and brought the night to a close with a deceptively simple message. A relaxed and good-natured speaker, Hutchinson stepped off the Brooks-Rodgers stage and turned down the microphone, choosing to address the crowd casually while standing in front of the first row.
Drawing on his books, which include The Assassination of the Black Male Image and The Crisis in Black and Black, Hutchinson looked to identify “the assassins of images of ethnicity and class,” and explore possible solutions to these problems.
“Who are the assassins?” he asked, calling on the audience, as he did very often during the course of the evening, to lead them to a clearer understanding of the issues at hand. The list of institutions that perpetuate the negative image of minorities, those in the working class, women, and so forth grew very long, but centered on the media.
“They’re a soft target. An easy target,” Hutchinson said with a smile. Using anecdotes, the speaker showed how, in his opinion, the media “has created an image of individuals who are reduced, devalued, and dehumanized.”
As a side note, however, Hutchinson himself realized the complexities that come with such a broad generalization. While the media, which has been characterized by some as “white, racist and up to no good,” is guilty of this devaluation, it is at the same time the conduit of the image Hutchinson focuses on so feverishly. In other words, the media relates aspects of a positive image at the same time it sensationalizesâ€”it is simply a matter of weight.
To exemplify this concept, Hutchinson spoke of several African-American students who, each year, become Rhodes scholars, and who get coverage in the so-called “racist” media. But in the end, the story about these students is subordinated in the paper under a much larger article covering the winner of a teenage dance contest. Worse, Hutchinson noted, he found this situation in a newspaper which focuses on the black community.
This led into Hutchinson’s discussion on another of the “assassins,” the African-American community itself. Members of the audience had plenty to say about this issue. One African-American student noted, “It’s ourselves who hurt our image most. For example, we often choose to show our ‘ghetto’ side,” as a manifestation of identity. Everyone has heard the story of a young white woman, sitting in her car, as a young black man approachesâ€”she locks the car, rolls up the windows, and so on. Hutchinson, in one of his most introspective moments, spoke of his own reaction to a similar situation. Sitting in his car in Chicago, he noticed a young black man approachingâ€”and for a moment thought about locking his car. “I didn’t do it, no, no, but for one pregnant moment, one frozen moment in time, I thought about it. For that moment I was ruled by fear.”
This was the heart of his lecture, the relationship between image and fear. He concentrates on imageâ€”how it is formed and what it does to a society or a groupâ€”because it is so potent in modern culture. His own polished styleâ€”casual, engaging, and very up-to-dateâ€”is a product of his keen understanding of image. The stories and anecdotes he tells are usually straight from recent headlines, such as the brutal police shooting of the innocent West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. With these references his talk rang with urgency.
And so he turned to the future. While he challenged the prevailing image of minorities with statistics, in the end he stressed that the only solutions are to be found in the individual.
“You have to show continuously the positive side. The decadent and degenerated mediaâ€”no, you won’t change that. But you must take it upon yourself to spread a positive image.”
He spoke of the Internet as a powerful new tool for spreading such an image, but also stressed older forms of communication.
“I am a great believer in protecting and upholding the image. That is why I am here. That’s what I do.”