The Entertainment Industry and Racism

Since the turn of the last century, the American entertainment industry has had an influx of non-white characters in film, tv, movies and literature. This is evident in films by director Tyler Perry, networks like ABC who have one of the most diverse television series lineups in all of television, and authors like Nancy Farmer, whose most famed book (The House of Scorpion) features an all brown and black cast. However, the lack of diversity does not reflect what America looks like today. The reasoning behind this is simple; the entertainment industry values white characters more than non-white because the entertainment industry is inherently racist.

It's not hard to observe that the majority of characters in mainstream movies, whether main or side, are almost always white. This fact has taken the interest of Dr. Stacy L. Smith of University of South Carolina who has proven that this isn't fiction, but fact.  Smith created a five year long examination of all top grossing movies for its corresponding year and presented the racial demographics. “Prevalence. Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters are Black, 4.2%are Hispanic, 5% are Asian, and 3.6% are from other (or mixed race)ethnicities. Just over three-quarters of all speaking characters are white (76.3%)”.  This is in comparison to the racial demographics of the US in 2013. 77.7% of Americans are white, 13.2% are black, 5.3% are asian, and 17.1% are hispanic. These statistics might almost parallel one another, but based on a 2012 study by Roderick Harrison, white people will be the minority in America by 2040, as the asian and hispanic population is growing rapidly (white population growth has stayed flat since last year and asian and hispanics has increased by 2.2%). Just in 2012 alone, it is clear that despite there being non-white characters, the overwhelming majority of characters being given the most important roles are white. Out of the top 100 movies of 2012, less than 24% of them include people of color being given important roles as opposed to the 76% of whites. An “important role” is usually the role as a main character. The act of writing roles that specifically target white actors and blatantly excludes people of color is an act of racism. Even if the majority of America is white, it is racist to only include white people when writing a film. Since the 2040 census projects that white will be the minority, then by 2040, the entertainment industry should be filled with movies that project black and brown faces instead of white. If this does not happen then it will go on to prove that the entertainment industry is even more racist than it already is.

In 2013, Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) gave their recent statistics to the New York Times, showing the racial demographics of their books given. “ Nearly half of the books were fiction, both middle grade and young adult. As of July 11, we had received 1,509 trade books published in 2013. I found that 1,183(78.3 percent) were about human beings. And just 124 of those (10.5 percent)featured a person of color. And that also means that 1,059 of the books about humankind (89.5 percent) are about white people.” As seen, literature is even worse when it comes to diversity. These are children’s books, and even in this day and age, it would make sense for there to be more people of color in literature. But for some reason, they're aren't according to the statistics. The reason that the top best selling books do not feature non-white characters is because the writer subconsciously knows that white characters are ideal in literature. All of the books that are considered classics (Peter Pan, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Brothers Grimm) feature entire white casts. These books were written and published during the 20th and 19th century, when racism was prevalent in reality and fiction. The authors who write children’s books of today most likely were born and grew up during these time periods (19th-20th century)and quickly learned that white is the ideal from classic books like these. Thus creating a neverending cycle of white characters in literature and the exclusion of people of color. Only representing the white part of the population in literature is purposefully excluding young children of color and perpetuating that it is okay to be unrepresented. Even young teens and children of color are being taught that they are unvalued in America. Thus perpetuating that white is the dominant and most important factor when it comes to characters in the entertainment industry.

The lack of diversity within film is not surprising when explored through a historical context. The depictions and views of black people during the 20th century were made clear. In director D.W Griffith’s film made in 1915, “The Birth of a Nation”, the main premise of the movie was that the fall of society would occur if blacks were equal to whites. The actors in the film were not black, but white people in blackface and the portrayals were horrid caricatures that enticed more brutalization of black people. The budget for this film was a mere $112,000, but the box office earnings were a large $60,000,000. Movies like this continued to be made throughout the 20th century;  the only views of black and other people of color were stereotypes (these were the only roles provided for them). For example, Stepin Fetchit was a black actor who made millions from starring in movie “Hearts of Dixie (1927)”. His character was the stereotypical “dumb, lazy, negro” of that time period, which American seemed to love (as he was even “awarded” the name “The Laziest Man in World”). Another film, The “Song of the South (1947) came from the beloved Disney franchise and was aimed at children. One of the characters, a black old man named “Uncle Remus”, was shown as someone who loved his master and loved being a slave. With box offices like that of “The Birth of a Nation” and racist white directors being in charge of Hollywood, the only representation of people of color were what white people wanted the audience to see. The aftermath of this is what is seen in today’s entertainment industry. Such as the “token black friend”.  In recent films, such as the Percy Jackson series, the main characters best friend, is (not surprisingly) black). His character neither adds nor takes away from the story line and seems to only be there for comedy relief. For a majority of the first movie, he spends most of his role as clueless and lost. Not only is this type of character present in film series, but in television. The Degrassi television franchise is famed for depicting “real teen life”. But they do not seem to want to include blacks or non-whites in this claim. One of the sole black actresses in all of the Degrassi series, Andrea Lewis, expressed her experience as black the token black character “Degrassi had an issue with my race. They told me how the writers and producers had no intentions of developing the story lines of my character unless it was to enhance the story of one of their other white characters. They had some plans for some of the other black characters on the show but their ideas were only to cover the usual stereotypes that we see of people of color on television teen pregnancy, petty theft, basketball, broken family homes etc and he usually had to fight with them to think out of the box with those characters to not have them go down the road of the usual cliches.” The hesitance to involve people of color in television has even caught the eye of the beloved animated show, South Park. The creators of the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided to poke fun at the lack of black characters in television by making a single black character on the show named “Token Black”.  As shown, the feelings about people of color in the entertainment industry have not changed as a result of it’s founding fathers. Little to no non-white characters, and stereotypes where applicable.

The lack of non-white characters in entertainment all has to do with the entertainment valuing whiteness above all else. Unless there is an interest in telling the story of people of color, fictional or not, the entertainment industry will most likely never be an option for aspiring non-white actors and actresses, or even non-white fictional characters. Representation in all aspects is very important, but the lack of it in mainstream media will only perpetuate that white people are valued above all others.

Works Cited:

Blair, Elizabeth. "As Demographics Shift, Kids' Books Stay Stubbornly White." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

FOx. "Minorities Now Surpass Whites in US Births, Census Shows." Fox News. FOX News Network, 17 May 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.

Lewis, Andrea. "(New Post) A REAL Conversation about Degrassi....#tbt."MISS ANDREA LEWIS. N.p., 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.

Smith, Stacy L., Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Piper. Race/Ethnicity in 500 Popular Films: Is the Key to Diversifying Cinematic Content Held in the Hand of the Black Director? N.p.: Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, 2013. PDF.

Thegrio. "Slideshow: 15 Films That Hurt Black America." TheGrio. TheGrio, 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.

"The Worst Thing About “Birth of a Nation” Is How Good It Is - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. N.p., 01 Feb. 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

"United States Census Bureau." USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. US Census Bureau, 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

Comments (3)

Lindsey Jones (Student 2016)
Lindsey Jones

@nebil, well the point of the racial demographics of the movies vs US was suppose to show that there is no excuse for people of color to be excluded from entertainment. And the reasoning the white population is so great compared to everyone else makes sense. Europeans colonized a majority of the world, the US being one of them. The ratio of white people compared to non-white makes perfect sense and is the reason people of color are called minorities. But this news does not mean that white characters should be the sole face of America as this is racist and hurtful

Nebil Ibrahim (Student 2016)
Nebil Ibrahim

The paper made me look back on some of the shows and books mentioned. While I can't find it relatable to me, I can understand the thesis. I feel like many examples were comparing blacks and whites and not other races at many times A counter argument would be the fact that the percentage of white people in the U.S very proportionate to that of the white main characters.