Just over a year ago now, I made my first trip to the United States of America. As I was heading to the East Coast, I had the ‘joy’ of an eight hour layover at LAX. As I wandered around the airport, looking at the shops, grabbing some food I noticed there was a lot of people of colour moving around me, doing the same ‘wasting time at an airport’ type of things. There seemed to be a higher ratio of black faces than I had expected. I assumed they were African American, but at the same time it’s a busy international airport so there could have been a vast diversity in country of origin. I momentarily wondered where everyone was heading, and then focused back on not getting lost. A few days later, I came to realise that the ratio wasn’t skewered by it being an international airport. American society was far more ethnically diverse than I had pictured.
Before this trip my understanding of American society had mostly come from media portrayals. News reports, television programmes, and the occasional movie was my main access to what the country looked like, the cultures, the cities, the structures. As someone who works and studies in areas of social justice and constructions of knowledge, I have always made an effort to consider the ways we represent people and ideas. How media (re)produces constructions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. Do we only ever see black men portrayed as angry, violent criminals? Is the homosexual man only ever seen as effeminate and promiscuous? And while I work, both professional and personally to challenge the dominant constructions and open up a greater range of possibilities, this trip to America made me realise a big part of the picture I had no previous awareness of.
There have been shows I’ve watched and loved that have had no black characters. Some shows may include a character of colour but then the ratio of often very high. Criminal Minds for example has one African American character and six European American characters. I had heard of the term ‘token black’ before, but always thought of it more in terms of identity construction, rather than a simply numbers game. And often this one character of colour is supposed to stand in for all non-Caucasian people. The one African-American actor is there to show diversity, as if his face will be a representation, a connection for everyone else, for the African-American women, for the Asian men and women, for the Hispanic women and men, those from South Asia, from Western Asia, for those Indigenous to the land. How can you complain you aren’t represented, see we have one face that is of colour.
Hiring actors that bring a diversity of ethnicities to the programme is good. Writing characters that explore those ethnicities would be even better. But on an even simpler level, require the extras, the people you hire to fill the background, to have that range. I have watched a show set in DC, a city with a diverse population, and yet never once saw anything but a Caucasian face, not one of the actors, nor one person in the background was anything but Western European looking.
As a foreigner coming for a holiday, the lack of diverse representation was interesting and noteworthy. It stayed with me for months. But I can only imagine what it must be like to never see a reflection of yourself in shows set in your city, in your country. I imagine spending my free time watching television and never seeing a female face. How limiting that would feel, how separate I would feel from the world’s portrayed in my entertainment, in my media. If the only time I saw a female face was when there was a report of some violent crime, what would I see as my future.
There is an insidious nature to this. The lack of representation becomes common, expected. Damn media, and shrugged off. But eventually common comes to mean normal and true. The lack of representation becomes an accurate portrayal. I recently watched a couple of seasons of Arrow. In the first season roughly half the characters were of colour. These were regular characters, either in main roles or recurring supportive ones. And much to my chagrin, my first reaction was to be surprised they used so many non-Europeans. In the year that I had left America and once again only been immersed in television programmes, I had forgotten that there is a higher ratio of ethnic diversity that portrayed. I had returned to believing one or two people that didn’t look like me was the norm. And I do wonder why in season two, that diversity in Arrow was cut back. Is it blatant racism that restricts the diversity, or a pervasive insidious version that unless challenged is constantly creating a world where all but a few look Caucasian.