An important new study by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) has confirmed many of our hunches about how negative media narratives and portrayals of brown people play out in the minds of non-Latinos. The report, Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos, was commissioned by NHMC and conducted by Latino Decisions. The NHMC has shared the data with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with a request for the institutions to study the impacts of hate speech in media. It would be tremendous for these organizations to recognize there’s a problem and to be accountable to our community, at the Drop the I-Word campaign, it matters profoundly.
The term “illegal immigrants” was used in the study specifically to “test the extent to which respondents would use or avoid the phrase.” Study participants were exposed to negative and positive media frames and messages in the news on TV, radio and print as well as in entertainment media. According to the study, non-Latinos no matter what the media format, think that Latinos and “illegal immigrants” are one and the same. There was a higher percentage of people who agreed that Latinos are “illegal immigrants” when exposed to negative frames, but even when exposed to good messages, people still held on to that view. Additionally “over 30 percent of respondents believed a majority of Latinos (50 percent or greater) were undocumented. And in terms of how language matters, “while 49 percent of respondents offer ‘cold’ rating of undocumented, 58 percent rate “illegal aliens” coldly.
This all points to the extent to which the racially charged and dehumanizing i-word and the concept that people could be “illegal” has become normalized through the media. It also makes it very clear that the immigration debate and the i-word, in fact, impact perceptions about and treatment of mestizo and first nation migrants with or without papers, no matter how many generations they’ve been on this land.
A Fox News Latino poll earlier this year, found that nearly half of Latino voters think the term “illegal immigrant” is offensive. I’ve wondered about the other folks that were ok with the i-word and if it’s that they found the term useful in distinguishing themselves and creating a distance from the dehumanization that comes with the i-word. That thinking will not save anyone from being profiled or discriminated against. It’s dangerous thinking that widens the net of people who are at risk of being criminalized or attacked.
The NHMC study looked at all types of ideas and stereotypes ranging from neighborliness and religiosity, to use of welfare and gang culture.
Stereotypes are unavoidable. When I first meet people and it comes up that I’m Salvadoran, I get different types of reactions. Some people smile and say, that’s cool, my dear friend such and such is Salvi, or my favorite, I’m Salvi too — to which I usually squeal with joy even at the stuffiest conference, or random bodega. Or I’ve been there, it’s beautiful. Bonus points. Those are the best interactions. Other people will confide in me that they love pupusas, or they will tell me their favorite pupusa stuffing. Very recently ever since that Marta Stewart segment, now people want to say pupusas are “the next taco.”
All benign responses, chevere. No mention of our general badassness or happy disposition. All good, because at least they are not the folks that within the first five minutes want to mention Mara Salvatrucha, sometimes jokingly, usually disgracefully. You can always tell the people who watched that unfortunate National Geographic special with Lisa Ling that depicted all gang members as monsters. The story then becomes about monsters and not the US involvement and funding of Central American wars which led to mass migration and separation and hardship for families, which led to young people seeking familial ties and being exposed to gangs in the US that were later deported back to Central America. There’s so much more to tell there. The point is, the stereotype.
In 2006 mainstream immigrant rights organizations fighting the draconian Sensenbrenner bill helped perpetuate a “good immigrant/bad immigrant” dichotomy, saying “We’re not all criminals.” This created a distance from people with a range of convictions who also did not want to be separated from their families. I was in Los Angeles at the time and even then it seemed incredible that many did not want to acknowledge how the racially biased criminal justice system would funnel loved ones and a lot of young people into deportation. At the time, the organization I’m on the board of, Homies Unidos, was fighting and sometimes winning deportation cases of young people who had convictions while they were making interventions in the community to prevent people from joining gangs and helping others make fresh starts away from gang life. The directly impacted community there remains front and center on policy and organizing. They have lived the impact of stereotypes but they continue to fight the stereotypes and the shame they come with.
Negative stereotypes often have some truth to them, but they simplify a lot of racial inequities and injustice. At the same time they challenge us to reject the shaming they are packed with, kick some serious knowledge about the systems at play and work toward justice. It’s not just offensive that people think Latinos in general are “illegal.” Or that Latinos are gangsters and criminals. What’s more offensive is the idea that any person can be considered “illegal” or be dehumanized in any way and treated unjustly. Language and stereotypes impact all Latinos because of a widely held bias against all of us. We have clarity about how non-Latinos think of Latinos. Let’s be equally vigilant about how we think of ourselves and our own communities.