What I'm Reading: What Does an Illegal Alien Look Like?

By Nahid Khan, Ph.D candidate, School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Accuracy, balance, completeness, and fairness are major values emphasized in news coverage; still, the field of journalism struggles with the ideas and ideals of diversity.

Recently, I was able to observe and take part in "A Day on Diversity," led by Keith Woods, Dean of the Poynter Institute, which provides continuing education in journalism for professional and potential journalists. Woods addressed a continuing debate in journalism education: how to describe people sought by the police as suspects. News stories have stopped mentioning race and ethnic descriptors. In the journalism classroom, students challenge instructors, arguing that this is important information because readers need to know "who to look for." Woods then asked us to draw the face of a "Hispanic" person. Most of us were stumped.

The exercise could have focused on any ethnic or racial group, but it seemed to me that the choice of "Hispanic" was particularly relevant since many Americans claim to "see" illegal aliens in the Hispanic population. What does an illegal alien look like? Woods showed us the 1950s George Reeves portrayal on the "Adventures of Superman" television series. It occurred to us that Superman too was an illegal alien: he arrived from another planet, without identifying papers or legal permission to enter the country!

Why was this American cultural icon and symbol of the nation's ideals never identified as an illegal immigrant or undocumented alien in our popular culture, or in news coverage of all the various forms in which this character has been portrayed for more than 70 years? Why were Superman's adoptive parents never criticized for creating a false identity for him, complete with false documents? Could they have gotten away with it if Superman was not white, and would they have even tried? To what extent would mainstream America have questioned Superman's origins and right to be in the country if he were not white? Would mainstream America have accepted his superhero status and benevolent nature if he were not white? What are some links between the origins and activities of superheroes and their apparent race or ethnicity, and their acceptability in American society and continuing popularity in American culture?

Clark Kent - that is to say, Superman's false human and American identity - is a journalist but as Superman Kent is frequently interviewed or photographed by his colleagues Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. To what extent can we say they were doing their job as journalists when they failed to issues of illegal immigration and undocumented alien-ness when covering the Superman story? It seems to me these kinds of questions could be used in discussions about the bases and characteristics for being perceived as a member of "an acceptable group" in American society, and how they change over time.

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This page contains a single entry by Johanna Leinonen published on October 27, 2009 9:50 AM.

What I'm Reading: "Honor Killings" - Then and Now, Part I was the previous entry in this blog.

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