My apologies for the lull in posting! There was a bit of a technical difficulty, but I’m back in action and this is what’s been on my mind while I was away:
The postive representation of black and brown people in mainstream American media avenues is seriously, frighteningly, lacking. I get so sick and tired of always having to hunt down traces of my otherness, my blackness, in the scant TV shows and movies that will have us. What does this mean? Well it means that if I want to see a primetime TV show that showcases a person of color (POC) in the lead role or an all/predominantly POC cast one of the few ways of doing that would be to tune in to BET instead of CBS (I can only think of two exceptions which are ABC’s Scandal and FOX’s The Mindy Project). It means that if I want to hear about the recent academic success of a young black girl I have to read it in a black church’s Sunday bulletin handout and not within the ‘Education’ section of the local newspaper. It means that if I want to see a black actor win an Oscar or Golden Globe they will more than likely have to portray a slave or some servant, a villain, a historical figure that’s been featured over and over again or be objectified in some way, often sexually (I’m still really upset about Halle Berry’s “Academy-Award winning” performance in Monster’s Ball). It means that if I want the world to learn about “twerking”, its cultural origins in Africa and its place in the African American community it has to be brought to the forefront of media by a young white teenager who…isn’t even twerking…
It means that if anyone is going to take notice of me, a young African American male, it’s either because they perceive me to be a threat or a dollar sign, and not because of my humanity.
It really bothered me the other day when I saw a trailer advertising the new season of a hit TV show (I don’t remember which one) and I saw no people of color among the cast. What about the experience of American people of color? Are the only real housewives of color worth watching in Atlanta? Are there no eligible people of color who may be considered for ABC’s The Bachelor or The Bachelorette? Because in 18 seasons of The Bachelor and 9 seasons of The Bachelorette there has never been a person of color to hold the title hot seat of either show. While I personally think the two shows are lame and lack originality and creativity, I KNOW there are black folk out there looking for love, too, so what gives?
This is how bad it is, folks. According to this PBS article a Screen Actors Guild study determined that “people of color, the vast majority of humankind, are 18.3-percent of the major prime time network cast.” As far as those who have been recognize for their acting on the big screen this piece cites that more than 350 whites have been nominated for the Academy’s “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” categories with only 21 blacks being nominated for the same awards. The number of those blacks who have won are even more alarming. This past Sunday, the stunning young goddess Lupita Nyong’o (repping the dark skin beauties of the world like myself), became only the 7th black woman to win any Oscar in the 85 year history of the Academy Awards. Only the 7th in 85 years. Like her predecessors she won in the category of “Best Actress in a Supporting Role”, the only category a black woman has ever won in and similarly for portraying a character who is oppressed or suffering (exceptions being Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls). This is in no way shade toward Lupita, who I love, but it’s alarming to think that black women can’t step outside of playing sidekicks and victims of their circumstance as the Academy seems to suggest. The same goes for black men. There have only been 9 Oscars awarded to black men for the categories of “Best Actor” or “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” and two of the three awards from this side of the year 2000 were roles of unsavory character: Denzel Washington’s corrupt cop in Training Day and Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin. The black talent is out there, and some of those actors are successful in finding decent work, but the fact still remains, black actors and other actors of color remain hidden behind the likes of their white counterparts.
When I expressed my concern for this gross lack of positive representation of people of color in American media to a white friend he quite bluntly told me in his opinion that media makers are out to make money, and the only way they can make money is if they cater to as much of the population as they can. Well we all know who that is, right? I couldn’t really argue with his logic because it made complete sense to me. In addition, one must take into account those who are calling the shots in media. Again, the aforementioned PBS article reported that a study (this time conducted by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation) showed that ethnic minorities held fewer than 25-percent of jobs in television and that 92-percent of television news directors are white. While this data speaks directly to television and news, it hints that the situation in Hollywood is very similar. At least we can thank God for Spike Lee, Tim Story and now Steve McQueen.
After my friend stated this opinion, even though I understood and even agreed with his position, I was made even more angry, not at the facts, but at his casual acceptance of the facts. It was clearly a product of the white privilege that allowed him to be blind to the injustice that is done to people of color. I thought about how, as a kid, he probably didn’t have to seek out positive fictional role models because he had folk like Harry Potter being held on a pedestal. When he watched Power Rangers there were always at least two guys that looked like him, one always being the leader of the group. He probably swore by Saved By the Bell and Brotherly Love growing up as all the male leads were young white guys…people who looked like him. I was recently watching reruns of the hit 90s show Boy Meets World (which only featured one black character the entire show who was introduced in the 5th of 7 seasons) and I got to feeling all nostalgic, remembering how I marveled at the lead character Cory’s life, his big two story house with a huge bedroom complete with cool toys and an awesome crawl space. In that moment, knowing what I know now, I had to question on behalf of my childhood self…where were the black Cory’s in the world? Where were the black Doogie Houser’s? Where were there black Sabrina’s (from Sabrina the Teenage Witch) or Clarissa’s (from Clarissa Explains it All)? Of course, also in my day, there were shows like Family Matters, The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but these shows were all too often set off to the side and labeled as speciality, not mainstream, therefore not inclusive.
That idea has a bit of a “separate, but equal” taste to it.
Nowadays, you can’t even find shows like those I just mentioned on the airwaves, shows that give people of color a consistant chance to portray some semblance of human normalcy (side eye to Michael Ealy’s situation on FOX’s Almost Human where he is literally playing a “robot that can feel”). This leaves talented actors and actresses of color jocking for the scant sassy/comedic sidekick supporting roles that they want me to believe is all there is to offer for us. Too bad I wasn’t born on the back of turnip truck.
When will my brown skin be good enough?
Do not mistake my grievances, which I know to be valid, for ‘woe is me’ politics. I am merely pointing out a grave disparity in American society that diserves America’s minority communities, its people of color. I feel very fortunate to have been born into a family where my parents, family members and members of the community took the time to emphasize black greatness to me and my siblings, because left only to the devices of American education and American popular society I’d feel pretty irrelevant. Thank God, my nurturing community affirmed me as a young black person of value and worth who possessed the ability to do whatever it was I set my mind to. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a lot of other young black people. That support system isn’t always in place in our rural and urban communities of color and they have no where to turn but to American media which unfortunately offers them little to no positive affirmation. What happens to those kids? Find out next week in the Part II post.