Race From The Top

13 Sep


It’s delicate to talk about race. It’s downright incendiary to do so about a race outside of one’s own. Of course it’s the 21st century and we should have matured beyond this point by now. We think nothing of discussing religion, politics or sex at the dinner table or loudly into our phones on public transport. But race? Well, that’s a horse of a different color.

Race matters, as does religion. Many people define themselves by, well by their people. When asked to describe themselves in three words, many will default to; race/religion, gender, politics (or romantic affiliation depending on context/election year.) How we define ourselves is based somewhat on our affinity to a minority group. If one is a white Christian male, he may define himself in terms of profession or hobby. For truth be told, the majority venture through life a bit differently than anyone in an underrepresented group. (It can be confusing to consider women, who are 51% of the population as “underrepresented” but when we do so, we are referencing their position in society.) In the broadest terms, a white Christian male experiences, on the whole, fewer incidents of exclusion. They likely don’t have shop owners looking at them askew, or taxi drivers refusing their fare. They don’t have people assuming they’re the nurse (versus the surgeon) or the flight attendant (versus the pilot.) They don’t look upon the White House Christmas/Easter celebrations, year after year after year, and think; “Where do I fit into this Christian country?”

Almost any minority narrative is peppered with “where do I fit in.” We look at the culture as represented in entertainment, commerce, and leadership. We seek something familiar, someone with whom we can identify. With each decade our popular culture becomes incrementally diverse. If we were to grab the television remote today, and try very very hard, we could probably find positive depictions of more than the majority race. We may even find gay and lesbian people/characters who weren’t playing the perennial punch line. Women are more prominent in serious roles on television. But without a lofty film career or British citizenship on their resume, they are still mostly (two packs-a-day, dabbling in harmful behaviors) underweight and equipped with perfectly symmetrical faces. But they do vary in shades (if not body type.) The lighter darker skinned woman is much more prevalent on the small and sometimes larger screen. Many primetime dramas have a principle cast that includes women of (near of far) eastern, Latina or African American background. Most (if not all) are quite light. You can’t say the same for men of color in television or film. We could all probably rattle off at least a dozen high-powered/profile big box-office actors who are on the darker side. Some of these accomplished actors also wear the mantle of sex symbol. Can we think of even one actress with dark skin who is a) big box-office or b) a sex symbol? (This question is not rhetorical, please post comments.)

Recently the casting of a (n unauthorized) film about Nina Simone was leaked. Ms. Simone was a breath-taking talent (and civil rights advocate) and a dark skinned woman. The actress selected is Dominican/Puerto Rican and quite light skinned. While color blind casting can work, it does not when the subject matter is inextricably linked to race. Most likely there is no grand conspiracy at work here. More likely it is a general industry consensus that lead actresses need to appeal to the majority white male. Walk into any hair salon in any neighborhood and ask the women of any race, religion, and ethnicity if they would throw Denzel Washington or Jamie Foxx out of the bedroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. But women, to be considered desirable by popular culture, must look somewhat related to Barbie. She can be Barbie’s tanned cousin, but her features (i.e., hair, face) must still look as if they belong on the Mattel family tree.

The good(?) news is that we have made some progress in the area of dark skinned leading men (no doubt Sidney Poitier was getting very lonely.) But the much more disturbing news is that women must still conform to a perceived majority male ideal. Is there any market research to bear this ideal out? Or is it simply that there are just a handful of people in any real power in Hollywood and what we see is in fact their own personal preference? Dark skinned actors are fine, because these male producers (probably) don’t want to sleep with them. They want to hang out with them (because in their worldview of race, this will make them cooler.)

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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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