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America's ongoing return to racism, or: Where did all the TV black people go? Aug. 8th, 2015 @ 12:35 pm
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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