There Is a Problem
Every year, without fail, a report will show that the American entertainment industry has consistently underrepresented people of color on screen, both in character and by actor. Even when studies show that it is actually in the best interest of Hollywood to have more equitable representation, we do not see equitable representation on screen. This is true for film, network television, and cable television and not only in front of the camera at all levels, from leading roles to background actors, but also behind the camera, from the writers, to the directors, the producers, and all over the corporate structures that run the studios and networks to even the big money interests that fund them.
And it is not only a product of racism; the inequitable representation of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups, actually contributes to and reinforces deep underlying systemic racism and other injustices not only in the United States, but also to any place where our entertainment products have reach.
And this is a problem.
What I'm writing about today is not a solution. It is a goal. It is a step that can fight the tide of injustice that continues to plague not only people of color, but also the individuals who benefit from that racism and who are frequently unaware of their privileges.
I'm going to keep the discussion focused on race for this piece, but understand that it extends to all other kinds of representation of identity, including sex, gender, culture, sexual identity, and so forth, and wherever there is underrepresentation, the logic of this argument applies.
I am fully aware that what I am proposing is impractical to realize quickly and even the establishment of the kind of justice I propose could only happen at great cost, not only to those who benefit from the current system of racial injustice, but especially from the people of color who struggle under the systems of oppression today.
However, no matter how challenging and costly such hopes may be, it is imperative that we be mindful of them, for it is only by maintaining our dreams that we will ever achieve our goal of a just society.
And for the entertainment industry, I want to suggest today that we pursue disproportionate representation in film and television, not as it is, but rather to overrepresent people of color.
Because We Want to Belong
Anyone whose identity is underrepresented in entertainment knows just how important it is for them to see themselves represented on screen. As a child, as much as I loved a variety children's movies, I never found a greater connection to another character on screen than I did to the characters of Jonathan Ke Quan, who might be best remembered as the young Asian boy who played Data in The Goonies and Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
No matter how much my own personality was much more in line with Goonies leader Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin), I always cheered for Data, because here was a boy that looked like me. And who was cool, unlike the much despised Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) of Sixteen Candles. The latter gave me no end of grief in school, the former at least proved that I could be a part of a great adventure like all the white boys I went to school with.
And that's despite the fact that both of Jonathan's roles were heavily stereotyped. To be part of those adventures, I was expected to be like Data: good with gadgets and technology. But at least I had someone to both look up to and relate to and I would at the time gladly take stereotyped cool over loser-freak.
As people of color, we had to take what we could get. And there is no end to the stories of people of color who found what little representation they could find on screen to embrace, for as similar as each individual person of color might be to an individual of a different race on screen, our experiences are still different and solely because of the way that we look.
So representation is important to people of color on a deep psychological level. It tells us that we belong. When done with stereotypes, it tells us that we belong, only if we fit into these limited roles that society has for us, but at least we belong. And when done without stereotypes, it tells us that we belong, as who we are and not as who the mainstream powers want us to be.
But this is not the most important reason for just representation of people of color in our entertainment media.
The True Importance of Just Representation
The most important significance of just representation of people of color is best represented by the words of Martin Luther King, Junior, to Nichelle Nichols on when she contemplated leaving the role of Uhura on the original Star Trek.
“Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!
As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”
The most important reason why we need to be represented fairly in entertainment media is not just for inclusion of people of color. No, it is because when it is done right, free from stereotypes, it fights racism. It is important because it helps brings freedom, not only to people of color, but to white people as well. It helps free us both from racism.
Knowledge and Fear
We fear what we don't know. Many decisions of racial prejudice are based on fear. In deep discussions about race with white friends, some have confessed that they will stay away from black male strangers, especially if they didn't grow up with black people in their lives, because they are afraid of them. And why are they afraid? Because they don't know them.
They fear because if they don't have a bevy of black men in their lives. All they know about black men is what they see in the media and, even despite the fact that black men do have some small degree of relatively diverse representation in media, they are still highly stereotyped in entertainment as criminals and treated much worse in the news, reflecting real life, where they are frequently subjected to a criminal justice system that is highly influenced by systemic racism.
But anyone who is fortunate enough to have a number of black men in their lives will attest that there is little that you can predict to be in common between two black men aside from how they are treated by others. And that's the reality. Those who know black men will know that there is no more reason to be more suspicious of a black man than they should be suspicious of a white man.
When we fear, we draw lines. We will make an "us" and a "them". We will make decisions that benefit us at the cost of them, because we fear what they might do to us. We will enact laws and protocols to strip them of their power so they cannot harm us. We will disempower them politically so that they cannot change the system that empowers us against them. We will treat them more harshly with our courts and police force, despite the fact that their crime rates are not significantly different than ours when we control for variables. That is systemic racism: the outgrowth of our underlying fear of others, pushed en masse into the greater systems of governance and commerce.
And while people of color might not be able to overcome those that have deeply ingrained their fears against them, by representing us justly in the media we can still help everyone else to get to know us. And in knowing us, in our depth, our breath, and the honest truth that race has much less to do with who we are as people than how we are treated, the lines between the "us" and the "them" across the races will diminish, because we will all find our fears unfounded.
Getting to Know You
The way that people of color can be known is the same way that they are currently stereotyped. Through the media. The reach of the media is immense. People in other countries build their perceptions of Americans, including the way we view people of different races, from our media. And if people from other countries are doing it, of course people in this country are doing it too.
I grew up in a city where, at the time, it was predominantly white. There simply weren't many other people of color around. And so almost everything I learned about people of other races was from television and movies. This includes my own race and so for a while, I strove to embody the very stereotypes that imprisoned me into being someone who I was not, because a science-geek-martial-artist is simply what I thought an Asian man was supposed to be.
But white people, they were everything. There were everywhere in the movies and television and there simply wasn't a single stereotype to encapsulate them all. White people could be everything. They could do everything. (Well, if they were men.) And because that's what I saw in my media, I simply had no reason to stereotype them. I felt as though I knew white people, because I watched them every day with their triumphs and their struggles, their careers and their families on television and in the movies.
White people and basically all other non-Asian people, however, did not know me. For them, I was either Short Round, Data, or Long Duk Dong. I was Bruce Lee or I was an Asian Whiz Kid. Because there were so few Asians in the city where I grew up, most people had nothing to go on except for popular media in their perceptions of who I was and what to expect from me. And no one likes being wrong, so most people simply would expect little else but those stereotypes from me and would get frustrated if I deviated from them. Myself included for a time.
But imagine with me. Imagine if we all grew up seeing just as many black people on television as we saw white people. Imagine if we saw them in every kind of role. Imagine if we saw them in the variety of genres that we see white people in, playing the same kinds of roles we see white people play. Would we not also feel like we know black people? Would we not feel as though black men and women could do anything and be anything? And as such, wouldn't we no longer be inclined to presume anything about a black person, simply because they are black, as we are inclined to presume little of a white person, simply because they are white?
Imagine if we saw the same for all people of color. And if there simply was no way to watch anything on television or go to the movies and not see the great diversity in each race that reflects our actual reality?
What if there were as many shows that were predominantly filled with characters of color that were on television as there were shows that were predominantly white? On network television. On cable television. What if, when you went to the theater, on average, you would see a leading man or woman of every race when looking at the movie listings?
If that were the case, it would take an active effort on the part of anyone to watch movies and television shows that only features characters of their race. White people would simply have no choice but to watch characters of color in their media if they didn't want to specifically avoid characters of color. People of color would would have to watch those of other races. And because we are fairly cast outside of stereotypes, we would see people of color doing everything. Being everyone. And we would have no reason to think otherwise.
And if that's what you saw growing up, if that's what you saw every day, this would be the perception of people of different races: they are just like everyone else. They are like "us". They are our brothers, our sisters, our cousins, our aunt, our uncles, our mothers and our fathers. And they are "us".
That is why Martin Luther King, Junior, emphatically urged Nichelle Nichols to stay on the U.S.S. Enterprise as Uhura.
I argue for overrepresenting people of color in television and movies because it is the only way to make this happen. It is the true just representation. More so than numerically proportionate representation, because overrepresentation supports justice, whereas proportional representation only supports the status quo.
There simply are more white people in terms of actual population. If we only represented the percentages that are in the actual population, we could simply avoid, whether consciously or not, watching people of different races. But if people of color were overrepresented, if every second show were built from a diverse ensemble, like Star Trek, and if every third show were to feature a cast of predominately people of color, if would take an active effort to not see characters of color regularly.
And it would not just be enough to be overrepresented in the actors we cast, but to also overrepresent behind the camera, so that the stories, the words, and the way that people of color are presented are genuine.
But if we can get there, then we could all see ourselves in our television and our movies and grow up getting to see that we can be anyone, that we can be ourselves. And, more importantly, we could all get see each other and get to know each other as we really are.
And by knowing each other, erase our fears of each other.
And by erasing our fears of each other, learn to embrace each other.
And maybe that could help "speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'" (King, "I Have a Dream")
I'm not saying that this is the only thing we have to do to fight the injustices of racism in our society or that it would be easy to accomplish. People will have to put their careers on the line to fight for more diverse casting and more diverse characters in scripts as well as put more people of color in the director's chair and take more scripts from writers of color. And actors, writers, and producers of color will have to sacrifice even more in order to struggle in the harsh, highly competitive world of entertainment en masse so that they cannot be ignored. It will not be quick and it will definitely be costly.
But this is the great hope of what just representation could accomplish for this country. Just representation can change the way that we see people of a different race. We will see each other as we truly are: human. And every step closer we get to that just representation, where we will get to see and know people of all races in our media as we see white people today, the more we will get to know each other. And the closer we get to breaking down those walls that have been created to divide us out of fear and truly become a nation with liberty and justice for all.