A Look at How Media Writes Women of Color

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

Nearly every Saturday morning, feminists of color hold Twitter discussions taking a deeper look at issues, such as gender violence. It’s the best kind of Saturday morning breakfast club. Sometimes it really takes off. In October, for example, dozens of people took on the task of decolonizing discussions of domestic violence (#decolonizeDVAM). Last week's Saturday morning hashtag immediately grabbed my attention: #HowMediaWritesWOC.

As a woman of color media maker, I was definitely intrigued—how are media outlets writing about women of color? How are they not? How can I, as one of these people who writes about issues facing women of color, do better?  

Claudia Garcia-Rojas of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women and media coordinator of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, tweeted that she and others started #HowMediaWritesWOC as a follow-up to the #DecolonizeDVAM conversation and as a way to prioritize the voices of women of color and trans women of color. By now, over 15,000 tweets have been written using the hasthag. 

While her original intention may have been to address the numerous ways that media either fails to report violence against women of color or distorts women of color who have experienced violence, the conversation quickly grew to include the numerous ways that media— particularly mainstream media—treats women of color differently than white women.

For instance, throughout the day (and even into the days that followed), various tweets pointed to a picture comparing two moms breastfeeding during their college graduation ceremony. Both were in cap and gown. Both were smiling. Both held their baby to their bared breast. But the photos were accompanied by very different headlines:

an image shows that a black woman breastfeeding is seen as "controversial' while a white woman is applauded

h/t to Twitter users @sjlittleleaf and @afroqueen1993.

Reproductive justice expert Dorothy Roberts chimed in on the conversation, pointing out that media often fails to portray the love and connection between Black mothers and their children, a perception that then supports the idea of them being unfit mothers:

Another popular tweet pointed out the whitewashing of Harry Potter. Yes, Harry Potter, that story of the boy wizard who saves England (and the rest of the world). In the first three Harry Potter films, black actresses play the character of Lavender Brown. Her role is very small in those films—she doesn’t even have a speaking part—but when she becomes a significant love interest in the sixth film, the film producers replaced her with white actress Jessie Cave.

Was it magic? Or was it the fear that showing a Black girl's first schoolgirl crush would turn off fans? And, in a world populated by wizards, witches, and giant talking spiders, why would interracial romance be less plausible?

Others took the opportunity to comment on ways that real-life women of color have been ignored by the news. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence's leaked nude photos made headlines and inspired debates about legislation criminalizing revenge porn. However, the disappearance and death of actress and Native woman Misty Upham was barely reported.

When I saw the tweet, I had to look up who Misty Upham was. For those who also don't know, Misty Upham appeared in 2008 film  Frozen River and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. In 2013, she appeared in Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. She disappeared after leaving her sister's home one night on foot. One week later, her family announced that no one had heard from her and that, although they had contacted the police department, she was not deemed a "missing person." Her family and other community members organized a search party and found her body on October 16, 2014, eleven days after she had disappeared.

True, Jennifer Lawrence is much more well-known, but the fact that Upham's death barely made a ripple in headlines, even with the added conflict between her family and the local police department, should say something about media's treatment of women of color. Why doesn't the disappearance and death of Native women merit news? Is it because there are so many of them, as the Save Wiyabi Project pointed out? The Save Wiyabi Project even created a map of all of the unsolved disappearances (as well as the solved and unsolved murders) of Native women in the United States and Canada. The numbers are frightening. Then, when you think about it, the media silence is even more frightening.

a map of missing and murdered native women in the us

When media does report on the murders of women of color, they are often portrayed in their least favorable light. For instance, when the bodies of 18-year-old Tjhisha Ball and 19-year-old Angelia Mangum were found naked, tied by zip ties and heaped on top of each other, local media reported it.

tweet reads: "how did the media portray murder victims? By using their mugshots."

Media outlets also reported that both women had previous arrests and, in some cases, used their mug shots to introduce the two women to viewers. Since their previous arrests presumably had nothing to do with their grisly murders, it's the same vein as the New York Times piece in which the writer stated that Michael Brown was no angel, as if that had anything to do with his murder. The New York Times comment inspired a twitter storm with hashtags like #notanangel and #iftheygunnedmedown, with people of color asking what picture would run in the paper if they were shot by police.

#HowMediaWritesWOC was a thought-provoking exchange of ideas. It made me pause and reflect how I report (or sometimes don't report) about women of color. While it may not hold answers to every single question about how media should write women of color, it does open a dialogue. Claudia Stellar also provided a few resources, such as how to report sexual assault (and do it well) as well as ways to shift from carceral feminism to transformative justice.

She also ends with a note to all of us media makers following (and perhaps writing about) the discussion:

tweet reads: "my hope is that reporters accurately cover #howmediawriteswoc & white women/mainstream media don't take without acknowledging our labor/ideas"


Related Reading: Five Black Female Sci-Fi Writers You Should Know.

Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system. 

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40 Comments Have Been Posted

Perhaps the second students

Perhaps the second students breastfeeding shot came AFTER the well documented controversy of the first students shot? Maybe the media already knew better than to turn her into a bad guy.
You can't really compare Jennifer Lawrence to Misty Upham, because like you said, nobody even knows who Misty was.
There is a lot here that feels like it is a stretch. Maybe the mugshots were used because they were easily accessible.
I am disturbed by the change of the black actress for the white actress. There isn't an acceptable alternative for that.

Why do you feel the need to

Why do you feel the need to try and justify each of the things pointed out in this article? Why can't you just accept that the media DOES treat women of color differently and unfairly?

Because nothing the media

Because nothing the media portrays is real. it is all an attempt to create a sensation to suit the needs of the powers at be. anyone who takes the media serious is a moron.

This is a non-answer. The

This is a non-answer. The entire article is about highlighting inconsistencies in portrayals of women; it has nothing to do with countering anything you wrote.

That the media try to shape

That the media try to shape our world views and ideas to suit the needs of the ruling classes is the exact reason we need to pay careful attention, scrutinize, and resist them. We cannot effectively resist what we do not try to understand.

"Why are you discussing the

"Why are you discussing the points made in this article? Why don't you just accept it? Just #listenandbelieve , don't discuss."

Not the best basis for public discussion, now is it?

"I don't understand how to use quotation marks"

"I refuse to examine how I've internalized racism and also don't understand that it's inappropriate to use quotation marks when I rephrase pepole's comments to express the most simplistic and irrational intepretation of their argument."

I think you should be more honest about your discomfort around people of color and you might also consider looking into how to use quotation marks correctly.

I agree

I agree with you, except for the Harry Potter bit: Harry's first girlfriend was Asian, and Crabbe (Goyle? I honestly don't know which is which) was white until the 7th movie, when he magically turned black. What probably happened was the original actors weren't available and, instead of making it into a race issue, they just chose the replacement actors who fit the role best.

As for the breastfeeding issue, the headlines were reporting the things that were actually happening. The white woman's photo went viral. The black woman's issue caused controversy. The reporting wasn't the issue, they didn't just make stories up and choose random pictures to go alongside. People have been working on the breastfeeding thing and it's going to take a while for everyone to get on board. Maybe look at the people who found the picture controversial instead of the ones writing about it.

The Native woman's disappearance is awful. But it's nothing like Jennifer Lawrence's snafu. That doesn't need to be in the celebrity sections of magazines. That's a completely different issue that deserves its own attention.

about crabbe/goyle

About your Crabbe/Goyle issue: whichever one it was, he didn't "magically turn black". If you look it up, the actor was caught with drugs and was caught up in that and couldn't film. They replaced that character with Blaise Zambini, a perfectly valid black student in Hogwarts. It wasn't "who fit the role best". It was "who is also a Malfoy's cohort because we need three people in this shot". So that argument is also invalid.

... The argument wasn't

... The argument wasn't invalidated. If your counterpoint to his statement is that switching actors and switching CHARACTERS are so different in that one is respectable and the other is racist, then you're only contributing to the problem.

Harry Potter's girlfriend was

Harry Potter's girlfriend was already indentified as Asian before filming began. It would be weird to cast a white actress to play Co Chang.

The reason the actress was

The reason the actress was changed was because in the HP books, Lavender had never been described until book 6, in which it was described when she and Ron were kissing as their pale skin morphing together in such a way that you couldn't tell where one began and the other ended.

There isn't an acceptable

There isn't an acceptable "alternative" (I think you mean "excuse") for ANY OF IT. Please do not brush off racism when it being pointed out to you.

Perhaps maybe maybe maybe

Perhaps maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe.....

It was in the book

For the record, Lavender Brown was not described in detail until she became Ron's love interest. They could have changed the script and just not followed the book EXACTLY, but I think it's only fair to mention that they hired the black actress before Lavender's physical characteristics were actually described.

Harry Potter

The actress that plays Lavender Brown was changed in the fifth movie, prior to the romance with Ron, so that argument is invalid

They still knew her romance

They still knew her romance with Ron was approaching, and they still cast a white actor to play a black character that had previously been played by black actors.


There is a point in the Half Blood Prince when Harry says he couldn't tell Ron and Lavender's limbs apart when they were making out. Considering Ron is stark white, I'm guessing she's white in the books.

Check your facts

Ummm, Lavender Brown wasn't even described in the Harry Potter books until The Order of the Phoenix, when it was revealed that she had blonde hair and was white. The actress was changed to be true to the books. That is not racism. Do your research!

And if character description

And if character description unrelated to the plot was the be-all and end-all, the blue-eyed Daniel Radcliffe should never have played green-eyed Harry Potter. A throwaway description in the books of a relatively minor character visually blending into Ron is no reason to start from scratch with a white actress when there was already a visual reference for the character in the film franchise.

With that reasoning, then Rue

With that reasoning, then Rue from the Hunger Games could've been white and no one would've had a problem with it.

Not to mention that the idea that fans can't handle interracial relationships in HP is silly-- Angelina and George did get married, Dean and Ginny dated...

Let us not forget "OH MY GAH

Let us not forget


Meanwhile, she was described as a child of color in the books. Not only is the media whitewashing, but people's brains whitewash while they read.

Also, I loved that comment someone made for Harry Potter..."Oh Harry had an Asian girlfriend so it's ok, that automatically erases any other elements of possible racism in the entire film franchise." Yeah. That's like "Oh it's ok, I have a black friend. I'm not racist."

Lavender is VERY vaguely described in the books. The Patil sisters are vaguely described, and even Cho Chang is vaguely described. Most of what we assume about the Patils and Chang is based off of their names alone. Lavender's name is even unspecific, so there's no reason based on that which would cause them to replace a black actress with a white one. They made Lavender's character white and it's not expressly stated that she wasn't black or any other color. The fact that Harry couldn't tell Ron and Lavender's limbs apart had more to do with how entangled they were rather than what color their skin was. That's some racist thinking right there. I didn't even go there when I read it. I don't recall Lavender actually being described physically at all beyond that. I mean...find the quote...other than the thing with Ron...where Lavender is described. I have found NO canon source that makes any note of her physical attributes other than the fact that she is female, so there is actually NO reason why she needed to be replaced by a white actress. Yes, Jessie Cave did a fine job, but there was no CANON reason why Lavender had to be white. I actually lumped her in as Indian with her friend Parvati.

And to the other commenter, Crabbe/Goyle is a non issue. Crabbe was replaced by Blaise Zambini for the ending films because Jaime Wyatt (Crabbe's actor) was in trouble with the law because of growing pot. That's why Goyle ended up dying in the fire instead of Crabbe like it says in the book. And that's also why he "suddenly became black," i.e. was replaced with a completely different character. So, it doesn't exactly work out by trying to turn the situation around like "Oh, they turned Lavender's character white, but look they made Crabbe black"...because they didn't.

It's racist. People of Color are treated VERY differently than whites. Stop trying to justify the BS and stop being part of the problem. Recognize what's happening so there can at least be HOPE of setting it right. Go live in a city which is a 71% POC majority population and they're STILL treated worse than the 29% of white people... and you really start to notice. Even as a privileged white person I noticed. You have to be in serious denial not to notice.

That is such bullshit. People

That is such bullshit. People here are critically evaluating some of the points being made in the blog post, and you're like "stop being critical to me, I was just too lazy to bring in all the facts known".

You are a part of the problem yourself.

Poorly argued articles like these hurt the cause

How the media portrays WOC is a real, serious issue, and deserves well-thought-out and well-argued coverage. This article, as others have pointed out, compares apples to oranges: The two breastfeeding items are clearly from very different news sources (Today vs Buzzfeed or similar, one of which sells "controversy" and one of which sells "adorable") and as I'm sure you all know, the same story in the hands of different outlets can have a much different spin. Of course people are going to pay more attention to a story about one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood over someone they've never heard of.News outlets will always grab the first available image that is public, and it's not uncommon for it to be a mugshot if the person has one on file. They're working with the public domain. It's not "racist" to point these things out. The real problem is articles like these that make it seem like these issues aren't legitimate and that people who write about them aren't doing their research and that feminists of color don't deserve better from media directed at them.

You make excuses and use fake

You make excuses and use fake concern for a cause to dismiss every point made. You say the "real problem" is "articles like these" (No. The real problem is how media portrays women of color) and criticize the level of research put into writing the piece. Meanwhile you are giving news outlets a pass on using mugshots of murder victims. Why aren't you applying that same level of research expectation on the news as you are on this article? Why do they get a pass for grabbing "the first available image" and not looking for their face book profile pics like they would have done had it been two white women? How easily you brush off a very real example of how the media portrays women of color in a negative way. Maybe you should ask yourself why that is. Your privilege is showing, and it isn't pretty.

I completely agree the way

I completely agree the way the media treats women of color, men of color, or anybody who doesn't fit the "norm" is horrible. But what I think he's trying to say is that he feels that the arguments that the blog writer uses are a little weak, not saying that the argument that WOC are treated different is false. I do agree that maybe these weren't the strongest arguments or examples of media bias against WOC, but I haven't done the research myself so in reality I have really no stance to say that this was a not so strong use of examples. But in overall the blog brings a very real and very important issue that should definitely be discussed and hopefully find a way to eliminate that bias.

I want to extend a personal

I want to extend a personal thanks to all the white women on here whitesplaining away the issues facing women of color to protect the privilege that defines your existence so very much.


Same. You had to know it was coming, though. Why do we read the comments section? :( Are we masochists or what?

Language is powerful.

I'm not here to dispute or criticize the article because I really don't care about the accuracy of harry potter discussion or the multiple news sources covered in comparison. This is an open discussion of how WOC are portrayed in the media. And I think that is a great dialogue to be having publicly.

On the other hand, how can you comment and say "white women are whitesplaining?" Minority or Majority, negatively generalizing an entire population of women based on their race.... not okay. period.

Criticism of WOC's portrayal

Criticism of WOC's portrayal in the media is necessary, but quite frankly, this article is not particularly strong. Harry Potter is not racist for casting someone who matched the books' description-- albeit a description provided later in the books.

Not to mention that the people critiquing this article are not necessarily white...

I certainly won't deny how

I certainly won't deny how differently WOC are portrayed in media, if they're even mentioned at all. Having said that, the breast feeding picture confuses me greatly. Do we know which media wrote those articles? Because last I heard (today, actually, just read another article), breastfeeding in public is hugely controversial for any race! It's still an issue for every woman, not just WOC. Seriously, did I miss something? Did everyone get together and decide that only white people can breastfeed their babies?

I am surprised that this article didn't mention that ridiculous controversy when Rue was cast as a (gasp!) black girl! Even though that's how she was described in the books... I feel like that would have made more sense to mention than the breast feeding pictures.

As for Lavender Brown being replaced by a white actor, I'm really surprised. I had no idea those first girls were supposed to be Lavender! I just figured she was one of the many extras and that Lavender wasn't even there until she became the love interest for Ron. I don't remember ever reading specific physical traits that she had, but that is interesting that they cast a white actor for the speaking role. Maybe the first two couldn't come back and the white actor was the best one for the job? Still, it's an awful coincidence if that was the case.

In all, I'm just glad this is getting attention. I'm happy this is a public discussion, even if there are still people denying that white privilege exists.

The breast-feeding shots.

There are a lot of breastfeeding support groups on FaceBook, and I'm a member of several of them. We all talked about the breastfeeding photos. The one of the Mother of Color did come out before the one of the white mother. It was the first nursing in a gown photo of the graduation season. The first one is always controversial, but you're right, the fact that she is a WOC makes it more controversial.
There is a lot of noise in the breastfeeding community about getting more WOC to nurse. Breast is best, yes, but WOC have (yes, I've made a gross generalization) historically resisted nursing. Why? They were forced wet-nurses for hundreds of years. Nursing is what servants do. Free women do not nurse. President Nicolas Sarkozy said essentially the same thing a few years ago. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/284174/My-Carla-is-a-slave-to-her-breas...
And nursing in public is controversial. The white mother is in front of a grey screen; the MOC is very obviously in an open area surrounded by people. The fact that she could be seen by people other than the photographer isn't helping. But we need to see more of it. We need more MOC to nurse publicly. Normalizing breastfeeding is best for babies and their mommies (of all colors). And if we want to lower the infant mortality rate among the black community, encouraging breastfeeding isn't a step in the wrong direction.
Thank you for this article. Sometimes being female feels like the lowest rung on the ladder. White privilege is a bizarre set of blinders.

Um, no

Yes, that's part of it but a major part of the reason many WOC don't breastfeed is they don't always have the types of white-collar, regular work schedules many white women do, and historically have almost never had access to those types of jobs. If you're working in the service industry in particular, it's hard to take the time during a morning rush to pump, and I'd imagine it's doubly true if you work more than one job, as many WOC do. I'd let WOC speak to their major reasons for choosing not to nurse, because ultimately it is a CHOICE and WOC may do whatever they wish with their bodies and for their families without judgement. Please stop telling the black community what is/isn't a "step in the wrong direction", please. We aren't a community of lost idiots in need of directives. We get enough of that already, thank you.

Not saying WOC arent treated

Not saying WOC arent treated differently... just wanted to point out that one of the Weasley twins (dont wanna bore everyone with too many HP details and junk) did have a love interest who was a woman of color... he asks her out and they go to the yule ball together... all on camera... maybe it was due to lack of forethought from the production team especially after switching directors after every movie... but since they didnt shy away from it in one case I dont see why they would in another.... J.K Rowling is extremely diverse in her pairings and her characters... if anything I feel like her stories teach acceptance and kindness to everyone, no matter how they're different from us.

They don't just go to the

They don't just go to the ball together, they later marry and have kids :)

Actually, that's not quite true…...

That's actually not entirely accurate. It's the *other* Weasley twin who marries her and has children with her.

Angelina went to the Yule Ball with Fred Weasley, but later went on to marry George Weasley.

That's actually not entirely

That's actually not entirely accurate. It's the *other* Weasley twin who marries her and has children with her.

Angelina went to the Yule Ball with Fred Weasley, but later went on to marry George Weasley.

Misty Upham

This isn't about the article itself, but the tweet above that mentions Misty Upham as a murder victim. The cause of her death has not been confirmed, but it's been suggested that she fell to her death accidentally. She disappeared while in the midst of a mental health crisis.

This doesn't mean that it was okay for police to ignore her disappearance (or the many, many other missing and murdered Native women), and it doesn't make her death less sad. People of color suffering mental illness don't get treated well in the media and public discourse either.

It is disturbing to think

It is disturbing to think that so many media outlets are consistent in their prejudices. It's easy to say that we know we can't trust them, but it's difficult not to absorb the information anyway, unless we find an alternative story. I think this highlights that we must try and find news from a variety of sources, and it is important to remember that no media source can be trusted 100% because it's impossible for people not to have an agenda, and to pass on their own prejudices even if inadvertently.

I watched Frozen River recently, and it's sad and horrible to hear that Misty Upham is dead. She was so young. It is sickening to know the local police would not help.

I didn't know they changed the actress for Lavender. It's a rather dubious swap indeed, and continuity-wise, just weird.

Using mug shots of people who have been killed is inexcusable, especially now with camera phones. There's no way there weren't some more flattering photos to use.

As for breast-feeding in public, it is ironic that sexualised womens bodies should be plastered all over our screens and magazines and used to sell stuff, but that a real boob, doing it's actual job, should be offensive. !! As a white women from Scotland living in Ireland, I have very little personal experience of the inequalities between women of different colours, I am more aware of inequalities between men and women, so I didn't realise that there was such a difference in perception in breastfeeding with white or black breasts or any other shade in between.
This all makes me feel angry and sad to read about this, and to know that things are not equal, and they won't be for some time :(

For the record, Lavender

For the record, Lavender Brown was not described in detail until she became Ron's love interest. They could have changed the script and just not followed the book EXACTLY, but I think it's only fair to mention that they hired the black actress before Lavender's physical characteristics were actually described.

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