Popular Culture, Race, and Representation
Zahira Kelly, who writes an advice column for The New Inquiry and for the blog Bad Dominicana, was recently on my campus to talk about the lack of Afro-Latin@/x representations within American and Latin American culture, history, and popular media. In her candid conversation, Zahira spoke honestly about her frustrations with systemic racism and heterosexism, and she mentioned the hate mail that she receives because she speaks openly about her experiences as a Black Latina.
While Kelly's talk highlighted the personal ways that racial erasure in popular media affects her on an individual level, it also showcased the lack of representations of a variety of people of color within our popular American consciousness. This negation of difference among and between communities of color both homogenizes these complex lived experiences and reinforces a simplistic understanding of race and culture that relies heavily on skin color and privileges whiteness.
On the one hand, the stories and cultural artifacts that we, as a society, choose to produce and amplify reflect our cultural values. On the other hand, they also work to frame what we value, and how we understand difference and find moments of connection across, within, and between our diverse experiences. In a country as racially and economically segregated as ours is, cultural representations on television, in the newspaper, and at the movies may be one of the few lenses that people have to make sense of the world around them.
Yet, as Kelly notes in her blog, many of these representations are limited at best. As an example, for the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' (otherwise known as the Oscars) the nominees for acting are overwhelmingly white. This has sparked outrage, with a revival of last year's hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. In addition, the movies nominated for best picture contain mostly white casts; although there is diversity in terms of representations of gender and sexuality. The nominees for best director are male and white, with the exception of Alejandro González Iñárritu.
These awards are representative of a pattern that isn't unique to the movie industry, but also reflect a broader cultural machine that systematically privileges (oftentimes male) white bodies and white stories as the default, and ignores the lives, experiences, and stories of Black, Latin@/x, Native, and Asian communities. The stories that are told tend to focus on narrow narratives.
In the recent Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD), Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper at the Media, Diversity, and Social Change (MDSC) Initiative, found that that on screen media representations of women, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQA are low. For instance, in assessing on-screen speaking character' racial and/or ethnic identity, the researchers found that 28.3% of all speaking characters were from "underrepresented racial/ethnic groups." This is 9.6% below the national averages. Of that 12.2% were Black, 5.8% were Latin@, 5.1% were Asian, 2.3% were Middle Eastern, and 3.1% were other. In terms of showcasing a racially/ethnically balanced story, of the 414 shows evaluated: 22 (19%) were found on broadcast networks, 18 (13%) on cable, 1 (2%) on streaming, and 8 (7%) on film.
When thinking about those who operate behind the camera, 87.3% of film directors are white and 12.7% are non-white. While there may be varying reasons for this disparity, the researchers found that the race/ethnicity and the gender of a director positively impact the diversity of characters shown on film.
The debate surrounding the lack actors and directors from underrepresented groups in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality highlights the growing frustration that many Americans have with a movie and television industry that does not adequately represent the complexity of American demographics. A lack of non-white Oscar's nominees also highlights what the CARD report terms an inclusion crisis, where there are 1) limited opportunities available to queer, female, and/or people of color who are filmmakers, producers, directors et cetera, and 2) limited stories told by and about queer, female, and/or people of color.
In order to address this exclusion, some are turning to new media outlets, such as YouTube and blogs, to create and highlight their own stories. For instance, blogger and journalist, Janel Martinez, created the site Ain't I Latina. In an NBC News article, she states:
As a journalist in my 20s, I just couldn't shake the childhood longing to see myself more represented… Quite frankly, I was tired of waiting. I wanted to showcase how diverse Latinas are, and celebrate and embrace Afro-Latinas wholeheartedly…Through the blog I created, I write articles on everyday Afro-Latinas who are excelling in their respective industries, as well as my own experiences in relation to my interests, culture and identity.
Sites like Bad Dominicana and Ain't I Latina help to fill a cultural hole and provide an outlet for underrepresented groups. At the same time, however, there must be a cultural shift whereby all members of our society are included, represented, and honored.