Is Character Visibility Just for White People

How systematic oppression has led to a dominant White visibility in media

Recently I watched the show Dear White People on Netflix. This show illustrates the perspective of six Black students who attend a prestigious, White dominated, University. While this show is fiction it portrays real situations that students of color go through. The series only has 10 episodes but in the course of those episodes it addresses issues like blackface, mixed race couples, racial profiling, police brutality, conformity to Black or White culture, and the exploitation of Black students on campuses. Almost every character in the show is Black, except for one, a stark contrast to almost every other show on TV. Each one of the main characters in DWP are diverse and complex. DWP pushes past the black character stereotype of a troubled poor black gang member usually missing one parent to portray average college students, as any white dominated show would. The narrator of the show fills us in on the thoughts that many of the characters do not express out loud so we can fully understand the characters real thoughts, and opinions. At almost every moment we know everything about our characters perspectives, except for one character… the White character Gabe.

There was an episode towards the end of the season where there is a conflict involving the White character. The show features mainly the perspective of all the Black characters but not the White character. I remember sitting there and thinking to myself “I wonder what Gabe is thinking?” and “Why aren’t they talking about how Gabe feels about everything?” when it hit me. For the first time in my life I was watching a show where the dominant race of the characters was not that of my own. For the first time the character that I identified with wasn’t the main focus, and therefore was not important in the storyline or merited having their opinion vocalized. For the first time I was feeling what I assume many POC’s have felt many times when looking at media.

So then I began to think deeper about media, and how it came to be that White visibility in media has become so dominant. In order to fully understand how society got here we must go to the beginning. Let us take TV for example. The first TV show aired in 1928, a drama that featured four characters, all of which were white. The first ever POC to be featured on a TV show did not happen until 1950 with Ethel Waters starring in the show Beulah. This means that for two decades went by where the only people on TV were white. POC were non-existent for 22 years in TV history, and even when POC finally made it on TV it was few and far between. In addition, character complexity was non existent; meaning when POC did star in TV shows they were often all playing the same stereotypical character, with little diversity. While movies were better, their history of oppression is almost equally comparable. I then tried to understand why there was no Black visility for so long in media. What I came to understand is the reason it took so long for POC to be featured in media may have to do with who was behind the camera, the audience, and awards.

Who is on the screen has a lot to do with a lot of outside influences. Take TV audiences for example. In the late 1920’s many people did not own TV’s, as they were very expensive. You had to be wealthy to own a tv in the 1920’s and that usually meant white. Therefore, the audiences were almost all white, and white people love to watch other white people. So this created a strong demand for white content. If you were creating a show, and wanted it to be successful, you would listen to what your audiences demands. Therefore the White directors, writers, and producers at the time picked mainly White actors to star in their shows. Not only that but the awards were going to white actors, because that’s all there was. So if you wanted your show to win awards, you picked actors that you knew were going to win aka White actors. Even when POC started appearing in TV shows, awards still went to white people, so TV shows still mainly picked white people to star in the shows. This entire system which prioritized white people is the definition of systematic oppression and this vicious cycle of oppression created the dominant white visibility we see today.

As we move into modern times we can start to see why POC visibility in media is increasing and it is because of the same reasons that were once used to oppress POC. According to a recent Nielsen study POC’s audience participation percentage is increasing and therefore the demand for more diverse visibility is being demanded. Awards are increasingly being given to POC actors, so the desire and profitability of have a POC actor in your series is increasing. Having POC’s in shows is often seem as progressive and “groundbreaking,” which draws more publicity and popularity towards that show. POC representation behind the camera is also increasing, having the same direct effects in front of the camera. While media is getting better, the change is still very slow, and progress is not always constant.

Problems are still very prevalent and oppression can still be seen in media today. Shows like Blackish and Fresh off the Boat are popular TV shows in today’s society, but you don’t have to look past their titles to see the problems we still have in society. These shows are rare and bare a lot of weight in society to prove POC dominated shows can be successful, and progressive. One can’t ignore that both these shows are comedies, and go about addressing serious issues in comedic ways to make it easier for their white audiences to process. In addition the characters in these shows conform to a lot of stereotypical white societal norms, another way to make their white audiences more comfortable. DWP is more serious and deals with similar issues in a more direct way, while not white washing their characters behavior and and stories, and thus DWP faces far more pushback as a show. Looking at reviews of each show online exposes this harsh reality. As progressive and advanced as we as a society think we are when it comes to media, we still are more comfortable with white narratives even if those narratives are portrayed by POC. As time continues I hope to see more real POC visibility and story lines. I hope we as a white audience become comfortable with real issues being presented to us in a real way. I hope that one day no one has to wonder why character visibility is just for white people.

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