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Diversity and Inclusion

Racism in cultural representation and the media

This piece is part of a series on systemic racism that’s a small part of Hive Learning’s Inclusion Works program. Here’s why we encourage you to see this content as a jumping-off point for your learning journey rather than the final word.

📌 We researched and wrote this series to try to make sense of systemic racism, an incredibly broad and complex topic. Our aim was to demystify this type of racism for the everyday person who doesn’t have time to read lots of books on the subject, let alone trawl through hundreds of pieces of academic research to really wrap their arms around it.

📌 We’ve curated 350 sources to give a flavor of how systemic racism emerges through a limited set of areas (housing, education, healthcare, criminal justice, media representation), introducing the barriers and injustices of these institutions using a single example from history and from the present day, and focuses solely on racism directed at Black Americans.

📌 We appreciate that there is much much more to say on this topic and we’d love to do that justice in future content. For now, take a look at the further resources linked to take your next step, start to question how the systems you’re a part of are propping up racism in our society today, and seek out actions you can take to dismantle it.

Nowadays, many see the arts and media as a utopia for diversity.

We know ‘making it’ in industries like film, theatre and television relies on a stroke of luck and a dose of nepotism.

But, actually, there’s more to it than that. Invisible structures and self-perpetuating attitudes exist in the media industry (and its audiences) that warp representation of Black people in media — with seriously damaging effects.

GIF by @georgieellen.

An example from history: blackface for comedy

In the 18th and 19th centuries, white actors often smeared themselves with burnt cork and played buffoon-like characters on stage. These productions were called minstrel shows. They gave white crowds great amusement to see Blackness portrayed as harmlessly inferior.

Minstrel shows commodified Black people, excluded them from choosing their own representation, perpetuated stereotypes and ideas of white supremacy and, no doubt, were deeply offensive, disturbing and annoying.

How did this set a lasting system in motion?

These caricatures took a firm hold of the American imagination, laying down expectations for Black people on and off stage. Everything from Black features to folk songs was appropriated and projected by this engine of entertainment and comedy.

💡 ‘Jim Crow’, for example, is a minstrel show character created when a white performer mimicked a shuffle dance jig to a folk song that originated in the Yoruba culture of West Africa.

Jim Crow from The New York Public Library (public domain).

Although Black people have always resisted victimization, many watched these shows and some even became performers to make a living.

Black performers in this position might don blackface literally or figuratively and play stage personas such as the gentle Uncle Tom, the salacious Buck, or servile maids and mammies.

This filtered a white supremacist narrative through their performance, their livelihoods, and the audience’s viewership.

Their identity was smeared by cruel racist stereotypes that they were lazy, simple, greedy, or overly sexualized. And, while minstrel shows died out by the First World War, this synergy between expectations and production of shows continued for decades.

An example from today: representation in Hollywood in the 2010s

In the 2000s and early 2010s, white casts dominated the theatrical film industry. Adding just one actor that was Black, indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC) to the lead cast resulted in earning 40% less box office revenue internationally. (Anomalies included AvatarLife of Pi and Skyfall)

But game-changing movies like Black PantherGet Out and Moonlight among others established that there is a clear market for films that cast and tell meaningful stories about Black people.

So, how close are we to fair representation in Hollywood?

Leads by race in Hollywood theatrical films, 2011-2017. (The grey line indicates U.S. ‘minority’ population.) Adapted from 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report.

The 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report suggests there has been a small but positive change towards representation in casting in recent years. Take a look — what do you think about the numbers?

However, the same cannot be said for talent behind the camera. White writers, directors and crew members are still overrepresented in the industry.

Breaking cast representation down, it seems that intersectional diversity is further behind still: representation of women of color and LGBTQ+ people of color can be described as, “an epidemic of invisibility” due to being so insufficient.

Pixar Tonko House GIF by @erickoh.

Can targets and standards help?

The British Film Institute introduced Diversity Standards in 2016. In 2020, they published their analysis of all the feature films that had tried to adhere to these standards.

The key finding was that improvements in casting alone do not mirror — and might mask — improvements elsewhere. Off-screen representation lags behind on-screen representation. And fair efforts to develop underserved audiences trail even further behind.

  • 📺 50% of films met the race diversity standard for on-screen representation (which could be achieved with casting choices, storyline, locations, characters — this does not mean that 50% of leads were BIPOC)
  • 🎬 40% of films met the race diversity standard for off-screen representation (creative team, crew)
  • 👀 12% of films met the race diversity standard for developing underserved audiences (promotion, distribution, partnerships using specialist knowledge)

🎯 This suggests stories are still being shaped by and for white audiences — with underserved audiences being catered for in only very superficial ways.

Even when Black people are represented, they are often misrepresented

Unfortunately, casting a Black actor in a role or selecting a project with diverse characters doesn’t automatically pop the bubble of pervasive whiteness. Black representation in media is subject to tropes, stereotyping and whitewashing.

DW analysis of 6,000+ movies found that, while some racist Hollywood tropes have fallen out of favor, some are going strong and rubbing shoulders with new tropes.

Essentially, writers, producers, directors, acting coaches, casting directors, costume departments and all the other facets of media production continue to work on a narrative that centers white people.

Blackface may have been eradicated but Black characters are still often used to fulfill stereotypes and tropes,

From What Hollywood movies do to perpetuate racial stereotypes by DW.

Misrepresentation is more than just annoying. It can lead to something called symbolic annihilation. This is the narrowing of what counts as valid, ‘annihilating’ people that sit outside it.

As an anonymous contributor to The Qarawiyyin Project put it:

Rather than humanizing the masses, [mis]representation creates an acceptance of a specific personality and hinges upon the individual possessing certain celebrated traits, only approved if deemed the “model” Japanese citizen, the educated Black man, or the beautiful hijabi makeup artist.

The self-fulfilling prophecy of funding

When it comes to film and television, decision-makers and funding bodies are conservative about where to put their money. But why do they see Black talent and stories as a financial risk?

There’s a chance there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at play.

The big projects (with white characters) get cast with big names and crew from the exclusive networks of the media world.

Big names get more funding because they are a pull for audiences and seem to promise quality.

This funding is pumped into marketing and distribution. More people watch these projects and the industry receives a false positive that centering whiteness is the safest, most lucrative bet.

The white talent in question will earn more experience and acclaim. So, of course, the likelihood they are selected for further projects increases.

And the cycle continues.

Poor representation in the media can have a slew of negative effects:

  • Internalized sentiments such as limiting ideas about what you can achieve, feeling dissatisfied or embarrassed about parts of your life or culture that don’t fit the norms they see in media.
  • Low self-esteem & negative mental health including depression
  • Damage to a sense of belonging in society as a whole, in certain places or certain careers where they lack role models or icons
    • Reinforced bias and stereotypes including an idea that white is ‘normal’ and that underrepresented (or misrepresented) groups must fulfill certain characteristics

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Infinite Loop Domino by @cmdrkitten.

  • Covering which means hiding or altering behavior, views, identity and even appearance💡 As children, we learn to sacrifice authenticity for attachment. We will edit and suppress what we are, what we feel and what we want so that we can feel accepted.An example of covering: research has found that Black women that want to wear their natural hair face pressures (especially from white women) to straighten their hair in the workplace.In fact, the Perception Institute found that white women, on average, show explicit bias towards Black women’s natural hair.So, covering does not always come from internalized sentiment — it can come from other people and their narrow expectations.
  • Missed opportunity for everyone to connect with stories and build empathy, sensitivity and swap understanding

 Watch, pay for, review, share and recommend film and television that contribute to a diversity of stories being told and diverse talent being hired.

 Become a patron (e.g. through patreon.com) for Black creators that produce and share resources such as through social media, YouTube or podcasting. Since money talks, supporting creators and performers in this way sends a wake-up call to decision-makers in other areas of the media industry.

✅ When you see a trope, stereotype or two-dimensional character, talk about it, challenge it and unpick it.

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Representation in media is a systemic issue that involves the development of talent on and off screen, limiting tropes and audience expectations. In particular, funding and project selection ends up developing white talent and telling stories through a white lens — giving inertia to a cycle that diversity standards and reports haven’t yet managed to break.

Racism in cultural representation and the media

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

Get in touch with us here

Inclusion Works

This resource was taken from our Inclusion Works programme, which was created with a network of more than +100 diverse contributors and advisers. We learn from, amplify and cite creators of different races, ethnicities, genders and cognitive styles and continually work to represent all dimensions of diversity.