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white-washing in television: from silencing to stereotypes

800px-Modern_Family_Cast 

White washing throughout television is completely normalised to the point where audiences rarely question it. As a result, we are subconsciously digesting white supremacy. White supremacy is not necessarily always overtly expressed, as avid viewers of white washed television, we regularly intake and express white supremacy in more subtle ways.

Consider some of the most popular television shows in the past two decades. There’s Seinfeld (1989 – 1998) that centres around four white people living in New York, Friends (1994 – 2004) six white people living in New York, Will & Grace (1998 – 2006) four white people in New York, Sex & The City (1998 – 2004) four white women in New York, How I Met Your Mother (2005 – 2014) five white people living in… *drumroll* New York!

Prominent shows like Game of Thrones, Modern Family, Breaking Bad, True Detective, House of Cards, you name it really, all have a white (usually male) protagonists alongside a cast made up mostly of white people. Of course there are counter arguments to this such as, ‘Oh but there’s that one Asian character in Firefly’, or ‘what about Mercedes in Glee?’, or ‘There’s a show with black people in it: it’s called The Cosby Show.’ To validate these arguments would be to suggest that People of Colour (PoC) should feel privileged to even have one character or minor characters (or even their own show!) representing them in mainstream television.

I am not saying the shows I’ve mentioned are bereft of any redeeming features, they all offer their own qualities to television audiences. However, this does not minimise the issue of the lack of PoC characters present in these shows. If we were to only watch shows that were balanced and diverse in gender and race, shows that consisted of fleshed out PoC characters with substantial story lines, as audiences we would be limited in our choices in what shows we could consume, and therein lies the problem.

White washing in television (and anywhere else for that matter) is problematic as it harmfully perpetuates the notion that white people are the only people that matter. In a society that has oppression of PoC deeply embedded in its history (and even today), white washing concocts a false illusion that race problems do not exist, that PoC do not face discrimination and that PoC do not need representing.

Another common problem is the misrepresentation of PoC characters by being cast into racial stereotypes. For example, the only WoC character on Parks & Recreation, Donna is portrayed as the stereotype woman of colour who is proud, loud and fierce. South Park stereotypes its only two black characters – Chef as a black man who has sex with white girls and Token as being the ‘token’ black character. Fez, who features as the foreign exchange student in That 70’s Show is consistently the victim to his white friends’ jokes. The Cleveland Show racially stereotypes black people, from the way they all supposedly love R&B music to the way they all supposedly dance.  These shows, created by white people (again, men mostly), use their PoC characters to play into existing racist stereotypes. White people laugh, possibly not even considering the negative impacts this has on our social stigma towards PoC.

The consistent white-washing throughout television is conditioning us to think white people can play any character: they can be the doctor, the villain, the survivor; however, when it comes to casting PoC, it seems writers and directors cannot grasp a PoC character being anything more than the stereotype box we have created for them.

6 thoughts on “white-washing in television: from silencing to stereotypes

  1. Actually, in Parks & Recreation Donna is not the only POC character. “Ann” is said to be of mixed race, “April” is Puerto Rican, and “Tom” is Indian. There are episodes where they mention all of this information. Donna has never struck me as a stereotype of a black woman. All I ever got from that character was a strong willed women, like ALL the women characters on that show.

    • Hi Lisa, I never said Donna was the only PoC character, I said she was the only* WoC character, which she is. In terms of the other female characters on Parks & Recreation, I think they are very well written however, they all all white including Ann & April.

  2. About time someone called this out, not enough articles on the clear stereotypes that exist in our media. Great and well written I would like to see more on this topic getting the coverage it needs.

  3. There is no doubt that the American programs purchased by Australian television stations do have a disproportionate representation of white actors and few actors of colour. However, I do think an effort is being made with Australian-made television, primarily the ABC, as far as our indigenous actors are concerned.
    For example, we have the award-winning series, Redfern Now and the recently shown series, The Gods of Wheat Street. These two series feature indigenous actors almost exclusively and were shown in prime time viewing. As individual actors, we have Aaron Pederson who has starred in “white” programs such as Jack Irish, City Homicide and a number of other programs on commercial television, but not in indigenous roles.
    I googled Indigenous Actors and found a site with named photographs and I was amazed at how many of the faces I recognised from film, television and even advertisements.
    So, whilst the US is most definitely guilty of white-washing programs, I would like to think that Australia is a little more progressive.

  4. This is an interesting article and I think you have raised incredibly valid and important points, but I’wanted to mention Shonda Rhomes and her “blind casting”. She usually doesn’t have an ethnicity listed to her characters during auditions (exceptions normally being if she is casting someone’s immediate blood relative.) I agree that there absolutely needs to be people following Shondra’s example, but just thought she deserved the shout out — and perhaps it’s something for TV execs to take heed of, because Grey’s Anatomy is still proving to bring in the ratings.

  5. Such a valid point. It’s a subtle and insidious message that only white people can be diverse. We need more mindful content makers who either deliberately buck this trend, or ‘blindcast’, like Shonda Rhomes who Freya mentioned.

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