Living in (Color) Whiteness

Let’s talk about TV and movies.

Also known as “what I’ve spent a good portion of my summer doing.”    

I’ll be the first one to admit that my summer has felt slightly inferior to the amazing jobs, trips, and service that blow up my Facebook feed. And while I would like to claim that I’ve kept myself busy for most of the summer, I also have to admit that I’ve done my fair amount of binge-watching.

In the time that I have spent in front of my computer (it isn’t an unhealthy amount, I promise), I’ve noticed a lot of trends in the shows that we tune in to on TV, or tune in to online years later.

I have noticed, probably like most people (mainly our parents and grandparents, at least), that blood and violence have increased tremendously, that depictions of sex occur much more often, and that the number of censored words has decreased. All of these changes seem to be a product of societal evolution. As our values and practices in real life change, so do their depictions on TV.

To me, what is put on TV says a lot about who we are, how we think, and how we see the world. TV is a window into what our society views as acceptable versus unacceptable, what we believe is just enough to intrigue us versus what is taboo, and what we want to see versus what we don’t.

Yet I have to wonder, if TV is evolving, and if we are to assume that what is shown on TV is evolving because our view of life is constantly changing, why is it that nearly every show I watch, recent and not, contains approximately seven million white people and about five people of color?

I’m a little ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until this past year that I really began to notice that the main characters, and even the majority of supporting characters, of most popular shows and movies are white. It wasn’t until this past year that I would start a show or be in a theater and count the number of people of color who came across the screen. It wasn’t until this past year that I actually became unable to enjoy what I was watching because of its astounding lack of diversity.

When I rack my brain and think of the shows that are critically acclaimed and the actors who are widely loved, the one thing they all seem to have in common is whiteness.

I mention this not with the desire to detract from the greatness of any actors, TV shows, or movies, but with the desire to question why, if TV is constantly becoming closer to what goes on in everyday life, it is easier for us to show sex and violence than to cast a diverse group of people.

There are shows, great shows like Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder or Empire (all of which I love), that do have people of color as strong leading characters, but I think we have to be honest about the fact that #Oscarssowhite wouldn't be a problem if Hollywood wasn't overwhelmingly white.

Now you might be wondering why this is important or noteworthy, but I think the first question you must ask yourself is: have you noticed? Although I’m more aware now, I have to ask myself why it took me so long to notice. I have to wonder why I, why we are so desensitized to mainly white representation on TV, why our society is satisfied with the tokenization of characters of color, and why, when so much has changed about TV in the past ten years, an increase in diverse casts is not one of those changes.

I think we have to acknowledge what the shows we spend our nights watching give us: standards of beauty, stereotypes and patterns of behaviors, and a huge reminder that people are complex individuals, regardless of the dramatization of Hollywood.

For me, there are a few major reasons why I believe it is so crucial for people of color to be represented in mainstream TV and movies.

Hollywood sets standards of beauty.

It’s bigger than fashion trends, bigger than Who Wore It Better. It’s the fact that you turn on the TV and know you’re going to see beautiful people. So when all you see, when all children see, are white people, it isn’t difficult to assume that beauty means white. It then isn’t difficult to assume that the scarcity of people of color on TV means that beauty rarely means black or brown.

These assumptions just aren’t true. However, I understand personally just how easy they are to believe.

I spent years wanting the hair, the nose, and the natural beauty that seemed so innate in my friends, my peers, and actresses who were white. I spent years thinking that being beautiful was something just out of my reach, because I was a child too young to understand.

Today’s children deserve better than that.

They deserve better because being proud of who you are, where you come from, and what you look like is difficult enough without the constant reminder that sure, yeah, everyone is beautiful, but people who look like you, with the hair, the nose, the eyes, the skin, just aren’t beautiful enough to be on your TV.

Don’t people deserve to know, to understand and actually see it proven, that beauty transcends race?

Hollywood owes it to our society to normalize the beauty of people of color, to show their audience that being attracted to people of color should not be uncommon, and to remind people of color that hey, you exist! We remember, and we might actually want to show an audience.

Even when people of color are cast in roles, these roles are frequently stereotypical, one-dimensional. Oftentimes, it seem as if they were only included to add a little dash of color so the film or show isn’t labeled as racist.

You see the sassy black woman and the angry black man, the sexy Latinx person, the submissive Asian woman and the emotionless Asian man, and many more stereotypes that anyone who's ever interacted with a person of color should know are the opposite of racially universal.

To make matters worse, you only see one person of color on the screen at a time. As if anywhere you go in the real world you will only ever be faced with one person of color, as if friend groups are complete as long as you have the “token POC.”

These roles place people of color in boxes from which they can’t escape in the real world. And as much as we like to claim that we know what we see on TV isn’t reality, we sure like to project what we see on TV onto real life.

Whether we like it or not, we learn what to expect of people by watching TV, and those expectations go beyond race. As we’re exposed to stereotypes on screen, we begin to expect something particular when interacting with women, members of the queer community, and people of certain races. Then, when these expectations are not met, we push our disappointment onto those innocent individuals, we tell them how they should be behaving, acting, looking, according to what is on our TV screens, and we treat them how we believe they should be treated because they cannot be anything more than the neat little picture painted on TV.

We look at the little representation that we have, and most of the time, it isn’t even accurate representation.

Yet, I think the most important thing Hollywood does with TV and movies is to show us the complexity of human beings. When they want to, they show us, from fantasy to reality, that people are not just one thing, that people are complex, multifaceted individuals.

It’s this kind of complex representation, generally afforded to white characters, that Hollywood owes people of color.

If Hollywood depicted people of color the same way they do their white characters, they would have the power to remind our society, who so often forgets that people of color are individuals at all, that the color of one’s skin is not a personality chip that makes an entire race act, think, or believe the same ways.

We turn on the TV and we see a variety of white faces, personalities, and lives. We learn that no one white person is the same, while also learning that every face of color is just that—a color. One that can be the sidekick on any channel because the personality characteristics are all the same.

So while people of color must fight for equality and equity in every area of our lives, the fight to be seen as an individual—with thoughts, feelings, and personality traits all our own—is an extra layer of difficulty.

So the next time you turn on your TV or queue up Netflix, I urge you to notice. Notice how many people of color are on your screen and the ratio of them to their white cast members. Notice how they act, and see if it’s what you expect. Notice your feelings toward them and about them, especially whether or not you think they are beautiful.

Oh, and notice the people of color in your own life.

Notice their beauty, their personalities, their individuality.

We don’t have the power to choose who is cast in our favorite shows, and while social media can be a great way to tell a network how we feel about a lack of diversity, it won’t necessarily change anything.

We do, however, have power over our own lives. We have the power not to let what is seen on TV control our own personal thoughts and beliefs. We have the power to ignore expectations, to notice the individuality of human beings, and to see beauty beyond, but also within, skin tone.

For the first time in a long time, I don’t want my life to be like a movie or a TV show, because, if I’m being honest, that seems like a pretty colorless, boring, and stereotypical life.

So now, I’m learning to live my life in color.

by Kristina Smith

Kristina Smith