Implicit biases are tough to let go of. It’s not just because they are so deeply ingrained in our society and in ourselves. It’s also because it hurts to realize we have them. It’s so much easier to criticize someone for pointing out our biases than it is to do some self-reflection and realize that the problem is within ourselves. And it’s even harder to admit that publicly.
It all started with a political cartoon originally appearing on January 19th in the Times Argus, Seven Days, and other Vermont media outlets. Veteran cartoonist Tim Newcomb wanted to comment on the experience of the three women candidates running for the US House. No problem—that’s an important consideration for voters, no matter who the candidate.
There are lots of subtle details in the cartoon but the important ones are that Newcomb chose to depict two of the candidates as children in car seats. Problem. And just to be sure we knew that one of them was a woman of color, in addition to labeling her with her name and giving her dark skin he drew her with big lips and a big nose. Problem.
What’s the best way to get your point across in just one illustration that people will take maybe five seconds to read? Easily recognizable visual metaphors, exaggeration, and short, pithy words. Newcomb delivered all three, relying on sexist and racist metaphors he knew everyone would recognize.
I pointed out the many problematic aspects of this cartoon and the angry response was swift and telling. Most responses reminded us that politics is a rough business and that any candidate should be prepared to be a target. They insisted that women candidates should not be treated gently just because they are women—the most frequent misinterpretation. Some suggested that the point of the cartoon was accurate so how the candidates were depicted shouldn’t matter.
These knee-jerk, defensive reactions were not surprising. What’s concerning is that established media outlets chose to join the chorus defending the cartoon just as quickly. Not one media outlet has taken a moment to consider the merits of the outcry against the cartoon. And some doubled down, defending their publication of it.
There’s Seven Days, informing us that women candidates should “buckle up” for more of the same treatment. There’s the Times Argus, which painstakingly outlined the many talents of its cartoonists, which apparently absolve them from criticism.
Here’s the thing, TImes Argus: it doesn’t matter how many awards your cartoonists won or how they’re entitled to their own opinion. Those things are true. The problem is that this cartoonist chose to use sexist and racist stereotypes to share his opinion. And then you published them.
Seven Days, you know you’re able to influence opinion and the workings of business and government by regularly calling attention to sexism, racism, and other injustices through your editorial choices. But then what are you saying when you publish that cartoon and inform women candidates that they should just get used to sexist and racist tropes? It’s hypocritical.
And then there’s Bill Schubart’s history lesson about political cartoonists. No one’s doubting the important contribution cartoonists make to political discourse. But cartoonists can share their opinions and also impact political discourse in a positive way by abandoning racist and sexist stereotypes in their art.
Those of us who objected to that cartoon haven’t lost our ability to laugh at ourselves. We just don’t think sexism and racism are funny. And comparing us to the perpetrators of the Salem Witch Trials reveals more about you than it does about us.
To be fair, some of the reaction to this cartoon has been over the top. No one needs to be fired for this. Advertisers don’t need to boycott the media outlets who published it. It is so much more important for media outlets to acknowledge their huge role in shaping public opinion and discourse.
Media outlets say they must uphold free speech—their most common defense of the cartoon. As journalists they also must hold people accountable for their actions. But there’s tension in those two missions—they must include themselves in that scrutiny. They must recognize that they are not immune to implicit bias. Defending sexism and racism as free speech while not acknowledging their own role in perpetuating them is a deplorable double standard.
Coming to the end of this post, I’m realizing that I am doing a classic white privilege thing. I’m centering my own argument and anger instead of focusing on the people that are experiencing the most harm. We’ve all been arguing about this cartoon for weeks without considering its impact on the people actually depicted in it.
I’m going to leave the last word on this to Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale. She explains, like none of us possibly could, the harmful effects of this kind of treatment of women and people of color in the media. Thank you Senator for reminding me and all of us that no matter what our intentions are, the impact we have on others is way more important.