Lee: Inclusive media isn't enough

BY ASHLEY LEE | MARCH 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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A Time article published this week says the “post-racial revolution will be televised,” that the increase in multicultural representation gives audiences the ability to see minorities in influential positions to further advance social change in real life. The more inclusive television becomes, the article supposes, the more race will transcend characters and casting procedures.

I do want actors and actresses of color to have more doors opened for them, of course. Acting opportunities should not be limited to mostly white artists and entertainers. This is why representation in the mainstream is important — it’s critical in helping to shape cultural perceptions and racial attitudes, but it doesn’t guarantee a major shift in our social climate by itself.

Television shouldn’t have to rely solely on racial themes and plot lines to develop characters of color, but race also shouldn’t be dismissed. This is why post-racialism is so problematic. It seeks to ignore rather than recognize race or color.

To yearn for a post-racial era of television in which characters will finally transcend beyond race is to want for the removal of social context and actual discussions of race in the media. It means leaving behind any understanding and appreciating the character’s unique point of view and the nuances of the show or movie in question.

Diversity in pursuit of a post-racial media is not desirable if it means forgoing discussions of race altogether.

Viewers may grow to cherish and respect a character of color on the screen, but this may not necessarily translate to enhancing multiracial interpersonal relationships, nor the way society marginalizes nonwhites in general.

For instance, African-American actor Samuel L. Jackson played Jedi Mace Windu in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels. His race was never explored in the science-fiction series. Despite seeing a black male in an astounding role, this hasn’t changed racial attitudes toward black men at large.

Multiculturalism in television by itself will not dismantle prejudices against people of color; it will require a major shift in individual mindsets as well.

There was tremendous backlash in this year’s remake of Annie being played by a little black girl. Michael B. Jordan was shunned by folks who could not fathom a black man playing the Human Torch. Donald Glover was urged by some fans to not pursue a Spiderman role because it was “unrealistic” for a black teen to be a Peter Parker.

These traditionally white characters, among many others, have become so embedded in our history and popular culture that it is almost inconceivable for some to imagine an actor of color to embody them. It goes against the stereotypical personas of particular racial groups, so there is resistance and discouragement.

For meaningful change to happen, it would require white audiences to be receptive towards people of color; to sympathize and connect with them. Not everyone is used to, nor ready to do that. Simply casting more actors of color won’t solve those problems.

With that in mind, the idea that more inclusive casting will lead to a post-racial Hollywood is unrealistic. My hope is to have more shows that feature people of color where race is not always the main factor in the series, but it is also celebrated and not ignored.

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