Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Twice the Burden (of Representation)

I am trying to make scholarly sense of the coverage of the Indian student attacks (and the "hysterical" reaction to the same in the Indian media) in Australia's Fairfax publications. As I write, the "riots" unfolding in several cities in the UK are increasingly being touted as symptomatic of deep class and racial divides. While playing a blame-game is simplistic in both cases, there appears to be little doubt that ethnic minorities in the west, especially those without access to higher education and leafy suburbs, are also deprived of realistic media representations.

Kobena Mercer has written extensively on the "burden of representation", especially in relation to Black art. Can any individual creative practitioner or media worker do justice to this obligation to represent his/her ethnic community in a credible light? More importantly, should this burden be imposed in the first place?

Simon Cottle refers to Mercer's work in his analysis of British television, and takes it a step further by suggesting that there might be double the burden of representation for producers from ethnic minorities. Not only is there an implicit pressure from their own community to render it in a positive light, but also great resistance from white commissioning editors if they wish to create a text without a single Black character.

In my own writing, I find myself criticising the sense of alarm created by the Indian media even as I attribute its "sensational" reporting to the logic of a competitive media market and a resurgent urban middle class. At the same time, I can't help but detect orientalist undertones in some editorials and opinion pieces in the Australian media even as I put it down to a lack of cultural astuteness rather than outright racism. Perhaps this double-sided burden of representation, however loaded it may feel in the present, is the beginning of a paradigm for cross-cultural communication in a world with multiple centres and peripheries.