Representation Matters: People of Color Are More Than a Quota

By Janaya Greene, Intern 2015

When I was about seven years old, Disney Channel was my all-time favorite TV network. I couldn’t get enough of the channel’s funny characters like Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire, taking on life as young, female students trying to navigate a social life and find themselves. But it wasn’t until Disney Channel premiered a new show, That’s So Raven, that I really found a program that would capture my attention and grow with me throughout my adolescent years.

Raven Baxter, played by Raven-Symone, was a high-school girl living in San Francisco with psychic abilities. It wasn’t her supernatural powers that caught my attention — it was her race.

Before That’s So Raven, Disney Channel had not debuted any shows centered on an African-American woman. While Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire did entertain me, a piece was missing. My younger self didn’t understand it initially, but these characters’ race played a large part in my feeling distant from them.

As I grew up and my interests expanded, Disney Channel no longer entertained me. But my experience with TV, magazines, and movies was the same. I had — and still have — to wait and/or extensively search for shows and publications that feature Black women outside of the typical Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire stereotypes.

With more businesses like Allure magazine and Ouidad hair care products being called out for their insulting portrayals of Black women, it seems like many media outlets flee this conflict by avoiding representing any Black women in the first place.

HealthyOuidad
White people are often portrayed as the “normal” and “healthy” and the default measuring stick used to categorize people of color.

 

A recent study by Monika Gosin and Joanna Schug of the College of William and Mary suggests that when Black people are depicted in magazines, they’re more likely to be male, and when Asian-Americans are shown in magazines, they are more likely to be female. Asian-American men and Black women are proportionally underrepresented compared to almost-equal representations of white women and men — who, of course, dominate our media.

While diversity is now being addressed in some magazines, whether from a simple desire to brand a publication as having enough variety to meet a quota or from truly believing in equitable representation, gender stereotypes in relation to race can hardly be ignored.

Black scholar and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in her astute essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Intersectionality is defined as the common point of two forms of oppression, and how they work against a particular group of people. The term was used to address, for example, Black feminism.

Black feminism acknowledges that white women and Black women have different struggles, as Black women have societal burdens of their race against them in addition to gender. In her essay, Crenshaw describes how Black women have often been forced to categorize themselves as either Black or a woman to receive legal assistance in attaining justice for unfair treatment. Without being recognized as suffering both forms of oppression, Black women are often denied justice.

This remains prevalent today, as Black men are often painted as the only victims of police brutality and other violent racist acts, while many Black women suffer in silence or are forced to fight vigorously for even a small amount of media coverage.

representationmatters
Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura was one of the first Black female characters on TV not portrayed as a servant, but as a communications officer.

Media representation is often a reflection of how society views people of different identities. Black women are caught in a double bind of blackness and womanness that makes their likelihood of getting a job and receiving pay equal to white men and women more difficult. This translates into the modeling industry as well. Magazines are far more concerned with maintaining the status quo by representing those who have dominated the media since the beginning of time, leaving little room for people of color. As far as I can tell, magazines, just like the corporate job industry, are not making it a priority to portray and treat Black women fairly.

While Black women’s struggles are erased, Asian men face similar struggles in attaining fair public attention. Asian men are rarely seen in mainstream media depictions at all, outside of the Wise Old Man, the Evil Master Criminal, and the Asexual Sidekick stereotypes. For example, in the 2002 film Romeo Must Die, the main characters are mostly Black and Asian. A major aspect of this film is the love story between a Black woman named Trisha (played by now-deceased actress and singer Aaliyah) and an Asian man named Han (played by Jet Li). The original film ended with Trisha and Han kissing. But after receiving negative responses to that scene in test screenings, the kissing scene was cut and re-edited to end with a hug between the two.

hug.

As an Asian man, it was fine for Han to practice martial arts, but impossible to imagine him being appealing enough to be widely sexually desirable.

leviasianman
A step in the right direction: Levi’s latest jean campaign prominently features and Asian man (notice how the white man is smaller and behind him…)

We rarely see Asian men portrayed as sex symbols or even inhabiting stereotypically masculine spaces, such as guys who enjoy skateboarding or who are portrayed as superheroes in American comic books or film.

The abundant, over-the-top personalities of male Asian character stereotypes make the masses reject them as undesirable and unattractive beings. One of the researches for the race and gender study cited above even pointed out that Asian-American men are so stereotyped that they barely benefit from male privilege. Gosin explains:

“They don’t benefit from male privilege in the same ways as white men, because there’s a stereotype that their maleness is not enough, that they are more feminine.”

Avoiding intersectionality means denying progress, and even preventing it. Publications representing people of color for the sake of fulfilling a quota or playing up tired caricatures is not enough. There are many intersections at the crossroads of our existence as a human being. One of these roads is gender, but it’s just one road among many. There are Black people with disabilities who deserve representation, just as there are middle-aged Hispanic and Latino women who deserve it as well, among an infinite list of other diverse races, ethnicities, cultures, and identities.

Until the media starts caring about who it represents and how all people are portrayed, an unsettling status quo of stereotypes, erasure, and discrimination will remain.

 

 

 

One thought on “Representation Matters: People of Color Are More Than a Quota

Comments are closed.