When Diversity Shields The Fact That Television Is Still Pretty White

October 1, 2014  |  

How to Get Away with Murder/ABC

I didn’t realize just how White television was until I watched the premiere episode of Shonda Rhimes’ new show, “How To Get Away With Murder” and it made sense to me.

And I don’t say this in a negative way, to bash the show or any of these shows for that matter. Nor is this some commentary on how we have culturally and socially swapped conscious consumption for actual social justice and equality (although that might make a good topic one day). But I only humbly seek to point out how racially, Black folks strive to live up to the best ideals of society, even when the rest of society doesn’t always wish to reciprocate.

And let’s consider Rhimes, who has managed to create three different shows for ABC, which have all successfully integrated diverse characters without making race an issue. There is never any real debate about their inclusion on the show. Not a single character is made to feel awkward with some light mockery about his or her diversity. In fact, race is rarely broached on any of her shows outside of a few tongue-in-cheek quips. Even the now famous “Twice As Good” speech by Daddy Pope, was an acknowledgement of race but how we shouldn’t dwell on it as much. In Rhimes’ world, there is no time for bigots of any stripes nor victims alike as everyone is pretty messed up and fucking each other. Plus there are cases to be solved, and presidencies to protect and babies to be birthed…

Rhimes’ ability to create a diverse world, which manages to cross intersections beyond race to that of gender and sexual orientation with ease, is considered groundbreaking television for not just sidestepping the often uncomfortable and difficulty of the race talk, but because of how these shows have also helped the network gain brownie points for offering diverse entertainment in the process.

And in some respect, ABC might deserve a little pat on the back considering its Fall television lineup, features four new series with minority lead characters (including “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Black-ish,” the upcoming “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Cristella”). It should be a win-win. That is until you consider the fact that most of the faces behind the diversity are White.

What I mean is that while most of the minority-produced and minority-themed shows tend to be more inclusive, many of the shows are produced by White directors and writers for predominately White audiences, tend to be more homogenous and follow the rule of tokenism. Basically, you can have a minority character or two, but most certainly he will be neutered, friend-zoned, used as an example for story lines involving race and gender and of course mocked lightly just for the laughs.

In fact, recent studies have shown that minority representation on network (and cable) television is still lacking behind the scenes. UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center for African American 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, which Jezebel summarized, said “ in terms of Lead Talent, minorities in film are underrepresented by a factor of 3 to 1 while women are underrepresented by a factor of 2 to 1. For Broadcast comedies and dramas, that number jumps to 7 to 1 for minorities.”

What this means is that unless the other content producers start incorporating more diversity (not just in front of the camera but behind it as well) – or Shonda Rhimes gets to work producing at least a dozen more of these shows for network television – we will continue to have a diversity gap on network television. As well as this weird sort of segregation, which puts the burden on Black people to fix and be the keeper of all sorts of social injustices while the shows for predominately White audiences get to go on, living in their protective television bubbles. There is something very curiously privileged about that.

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