Moments of Permanence - America's ongoing return to racism, or: Where did all the TV black people go?

About America's ongoing return to racism, or: Where did all the TV black people go?

Previous Entry America's ongoing return to racism, or: Where did all the TV black people go? Aug. 8th, 2015 @ 12:35 pm Next Entry
So I was thinking about something last night.

From the perspective of an outsider, it kinda seems like America has become more racist over the last few years.

It *really* seems like American television has. And that's odd, and problematic.

See, one of the causes often cited for the rise in the general acceptability of gay people in America is "the Will and Grace effect" - basically, TV representation equals familiarity equals acceptability, kind of thing.

But at the same time, black people have become so much *less* visible, and I wonder if that increases the "othering" effect.

When I was a kid, there were lots of American black people on TV. I have vague memories of loving a show called Good Times, and of course, although now problematically, there was the Cosby Show. At some point there was Family Matters, and into the 90s there was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. There were no doubt others, but those are the ones I recall from Australian TV.

Meanwhile, not for nothing, but back in the freakin' 70s, there was M*A*S*H, which despite a white regular cast quite frequently featured black (and other POC) secondary characters, minor characters, and extras, with regards to whom their skin colour was not their defining factor, even in episodes that were definitely About Racism.

There was an episode where the doctors determine that a field officer is assigning the most dangerous duty to black soldiers, because he's a horrible racist and he doesn't like a desegregated Army and he wants them out of his unit.

For extended scenes involving dialogue, the main black characters in that episode are one of the soldiers, who nonetheless gets some chat about where he's from and is also shown having been spending time playing board games with Father Mulcahy and other things to suggest that he's actually a person, and an officer, who joins the doctors in exposing the racist commander and forcing him to resign his commission. (Who is also a dentist, and gets to tie the episode's main and sub-plots together and have one of the episode's best lines.)

In another episode, there's a field medic named Moody, who is respected and liked, but at one point turns up being treated for minor injuries to his hands after he's apparently been in a fight at Rosie's Bar. When I was a kid, I never fully understood why he'd been fighting - what he tells Hawkeye is that, "Some guys wanted to know if I could tap dance."

I understand that now, but at the time, all I knew was that this clearly bothered him, because Moody is annoyed that he let them get to him - he knows better, because he'll have something guys like that will never have: self-respect.

In another, meanwhile, there's a wounded black soldier being treated under local anaesthetic for a shoulder injury, so he's sitting on a gurney with no shirt, but some dressings visible. He's a well-built, broad-shouldered sort of fellow, and gets an admiring look from one or two nurses; when he asks if his shoulder is bad, Hawkeye tells him something like, "Are you kidding? I wish I had shoulders like yours. Compared to you I have no shoulders at all, my neck goes straight on down to my hips."

Then he says something like it's going to be fine, don't worry, I think, but... that's that.

Why is it that, forty odd years later, I find it a lot harder to think of characters on broadly popular TV shows whose characterisation is informed by their race, but not defined by it?

Why don't I know of any current all-or-almost-all-black sitcoms? I know I don't really keep up with sitcoms, generally, but you know, there's usually at least one on that it's impossible not to know is there. Currently it's The Big Bang Theory, which seems to include an Indian guy but no black people, from what I know, and for a number of years it was Friends, which managed to exist in some kind of parallel universe New York where there were no black people in New goddamn York.

But back in the day it WAS The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The Cosby Show was huge. Good Times, Family Matters, The Jeffersons - which I don't think I ever even saw, but it was famous enough that I've heard of it in the same way I've heard of Three's Company.

Current Mood: tired

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From:[personal profile] lilysea
Date: August 8th, 2015 07:06 am (UTC)
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Yeah, thinking of black characters on TV at the moment...

there's Abbie Mills and her sister Jenny Mills in Sleepy Hollow

there's Gina Torres playing the very smart and competent Jessica Pearson in Suits

there's a bunch of characters in Orange is the new black

there's two black characters in How to Get Away with murder (Annalise Keating, an academic/lawyer, and two of her students, Michaela Pratt from a very wealthy background, Wes Gibbins from a very working class background). Also Keating's love interest, Nate Lahey.

there's John Diggle, the ex-army right hand man to Oliver Queen/the Arrow in Arrow

there's The Flash's adoptive father, Detective Joe West, and the flash's love interest, Iris West

...that's all I can think off off the top of my head. Which is to say: yes, there should definitely be more!

Edited 2015-08-08 07:17 am (UTC)
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From:[personal profile] copracat
Date: August 9th, 2015 04:11 am (UTC)
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The shows below are all current with diverse casts including leading, recurring, guests and extras.

How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Empire, Power, Rogue, Being Mary Jane address race issues, sometimes organically, sometimes... not.

Blackish is hilarious and all about race issues and has got a second season.

iZombie and Beauty & the Beast haven't addressed race issues particularly, but it could be because the white zombie/beast characters have the prejudice storylines? BatB is amazing. It's the least white New York-based TV show I have ever seen. Invariably random extra who dies is white.

I'm not sure if all of these show on Australian TV. Ah, the endless whiteness of Australian TV where only Aaron Pederson can have an ongoing role and Debra Mailman a recurring one, if we're lucky.

I don't disagree that the US is wearing racism on its sleeve, though. There are a lot of white white white shows I don't watch. Cop dramas have become even more extremely fundamentalist conservative, promoting patriarchy, militarism, jingoism, cop vigilantism and cops-are-the-good-guys, navy seals are inviolate heroes. It feels like wartime propaganda.
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