Research uncovers the different sides of the ‘hood

When Chris Richardson completed his undergraduate degree in journalism, he had two choices: Beat them or join them?

Richardson knows what it is like for neighbourhoods and communities to be misrepresented in the media having grown up in Scarborough. While his hometown has been given a bad reputation for being a hotbed of criminal activity, Richardson’s lived experience shows a different side.

“It was a question of whether I wanted to contribute to these stigmatizing representations or whether I wanted to fight them,” he says of his decision whether or not to become a reporter.

Instead, he chose to fight and his weapon of choice was academia.

Now a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at The University of Western Ontario, Richardson is the co-editor (along with Hans Skott-Myhre of Brock University) of Habitus of the Hood, a collection of essays examining how the ‘hood has been conceived from the perspectives of residents and representations in popular culture.

His interest in the ‘hood stems from his own experiences on both sides of the media lens.

“I was coming from a neighbourhood that was very different than the representations it was getting in the mainstream media and so ever since then I’ve been interested in representing communities,” he says. “People who hadn’t been in Scarborough had a very skewed idea of what that area was like.”

Scarborough is part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), located on the eastern side. It is a diverse community with a spectrum of wealthy to lower income residents. It also has a number of public housing projects and many visible minority residents.

While he did not grow up in what would be considered the ‘hood, Richardson felt his community was being painted with a single brush by journalists who would report on crime in Scarborough, rather than pinpointing the exact location or intersection of the crime as would be the case in Toronto or other surrounding areas.

“People got this impression that there was always a shooting in Scarborough,” he says.

Areas of Toronto such as the Jane and Finch, and Regent Park neighbourhoods face similar stereotypes in the media as crime-laden communities.

“The image of these places in the media gets fixed a lot of the time, which is similar to stereotypes where it is just the same thing that gets repeated and it doesn’t make way for those diverse ideas and diverse representations,” he says.

With 52 gun-related homicides in 2005 in the GTA, including several in Scarborough, local media began to refer to it as “the summer of the gun.” At the same time his community was facing a social crisis, Richardson was studying journalism at Ryerson University.

Watching the media coverage, he was disheartened that too often reporters focused on crime, rather than looking for other opportunities to show the diversity of the community.

“There are people outside these communities representing these communities and so everyone else in Canada has this idea of these areas that definitely isn’t correct,” he says. “I wanted to ask, ‘How do we improve this?’ But I still struggle with this.”

The paradox of the issue is journalists are not falsifying their coverage – these crimes do occur and journalists relay the facts – but they are only telling one side of a community’s complex story, he explains.

“The crime reporter is covering crime; he or she is not covering good things. There is no ‘good things’ reporter. I wanted to figure out a way to talk about it and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to talk about it as a journalism student, so I went into grad school.”

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus,” Richardson examines how residents of the ‘hood, when presented with images in the media, start to internalize the stereotypes and this informs how they see the world.

“Everyone has a habitus. But for residents, if you are presented with these images in the media constantly, you start to internalize it,” he says.

“It’s not like they will buy-in to the media, but they see from the media and other people who are also inspired by the media that basically this is how they should act. Like if you are from Scarborough, you shouldn’t wear a suit and tie; if you are from Regent Park, you shouldn’t expect to become prime minister.”

It is difficult for residents of the ‘hood to act differently because they will not be seen as part of the community. The more these stereotypes are reinforced, the more they are perceived as normal.

“The more you see people arrested in Regent Park, the more you think there is a good chance, especially if I am a minority male, that you are going to be arrested,” Richardson says.

In his research, Richardson also looks at how hip-hop culture is able to provide a different story about a culture or community.

“The book is about opening up this idea of the ‘hood because we all take it for granted,” he says. “The message I hope readers get from the book is it is not natural and we have to question how spaces are represented.”

Habitus of the Hood will be published in October.