POCs on the DL: Color-coding & Your Favorite TV Shows [TV Correspondent Tryout]

By Guest Contributor Diana Lin

Prime-time television shows may be a lot more diverse than we give them credit for. And before you jump down my throat, think about it: Darren Criss from Glee? Part Filipino. Morena Baccarin on V is of Latin American origins. And Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy—part black, part Scandinavian. See? That’s three more actors you didn’t think of as POC.

People of color have long struggled with representation on network television. We are obviated on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, where there’s never a single minority to be seen, much less in a positive light; we’re tokenized on shows like Justified where Erica Tazel’s Rachel Brooks exists simply to fulfill a racial quota in an otherwise all-white cast; or else we’re trigger-happy stereotypes in material like The Chin-Chens, which premiered a trailer so problematic it was subsequently removed. And the flip side of all this is yet another issue: color coding.

Coding occurs when the projection of identity upon a person (of any color) eclipses his or her actual ethnic identity. It is a widespread phenomenon in all media, with the oft-cited examples of Cameron Diaz and Jessica Alba as actors usually coded as white. Diaz has made no bones about her lack of identification with her Cuban background, while Alba, after facing criticism, has attempted to negotiate her identity by choosing some loaded roles.

So does this mean we’re approaching a post-racial media era? Not a chance. The pervasiveness of white as default in media leads causes casts to appear monolithic, even if actors of color are embedded within. The result isn’t diversity, because the audience views the cast demographic exactly as though the characters are white. It is unfortunate because race-neutral roles are often main characters with better developed storylines and conflicts, opportunities for minority actors to bust out their acting chops.

Cases in point:

Blaine from Glee: As one of the lead Warblers at Dalton Academy, Criss’s character Blaine is cool, confident, and dashing. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a gay male lead that embodied all these qualities. But the fact that Criss’s biracial background goes unnoticed, primetime television has missed yet another opportunity to subvert old tropes: yes, a gaysian man can have pan-sexual appeal, yes, he does have cis-hetero characteristics.

Anna from V: Morena Baccarin’s coding was spelled out to viewers from the get-go. When the alien visitors arrive on Earth, the reporter played by Scott Wolf remarks, “You all seem to be what we consider attractive.” The observation resonates, because with the sole exception of Morris Chestnut, all other visible aliens are white. I don’t know if the subtext could be any clearer: if aliens wanted to ingratiate themselves with the inhabitants of Earth, they would not elect to blend in with the most populous ethnicity in the world (the Han Chinese), but instead they would dress themselves up in really good looking white people. Of course, this plays neatly into the narrative of white as default and as the dominant standard of beauty. Baccarin fits neatly into this narrative, her own background obscured by the whiteness of the cast.

Jackson Avery from Grey’s Anatomy: William’s case is also interesting. The show’s producer Shonda Rhimes, one of the few African Americans helming a primetime show, has done an admirable job providing audiences with a diverse cast in Grey’s Anatomy. The characters of Bailey, the Chief, Yang, and Torres are clearly developed as African American, Korean American or Latin@ characters. Avery, Williams’ character, is much more ambiguous, as showcased when Avery’s grandfather, a legendary surgeon, appears in all his white prestige without the show so much as a touching upon a multiracial family discourse. This is juxtaposed against the development of Cristina Yang’s character, where the running joke of her “Jewish faith” colors her reactions to social situations. Whether this was because producers felt that minority representation was at saturation point in the show or not remains to be seen, but Grey’s certain missed a chance to engage in some riskier family dynamics.

All this said, we shouldn’t forget that we, as viewers, have some agency in this respect, that coding is in a way our projections of what color a character should be. But ultimately, within the media industry, it’s the POC viewers who lose when characters are coded as white: we are invisible even to ourselves, no nuances or complexities are brought to the same tired roles, and valuable opportunities for dialogue or positive representation are lost again and again.

  • Kuelee2

    Remember, many if not most of the whites you do not consider people of color also have a non-white ancestor (often a native American or African American in the case of white Americans). Does this make them PoC, too? Even if they look 100% white?

    The fact is if you pass as white than, in this society, your white. How many white Americans have 100% European ancestry anyway? It all comes down to passing. Just how race has always worked in America. People who can pass as white have the same privileges you attribute to blond-haired, blue-eyed white folks.

    BTW: Latino is not a race. Many latinos are white descendants of Spanish colonizers.

    In some people’s mind white decedents of Spanish colonizers are PoC, but the Irish, who were colonized, are white?? Very interesting logic.

  • nivcharayahel

    Your overall point makes sense to me. There was, however, a reference on an episode of Glee to Blaine’s background–in “Blame It On the Alcohol,” Rachel expressed a desire to one day have his “vaguely Eurasian” babies. (Which, ugh. No.) The show isn’t known for continuity, though, and it will be interesting to see what happens if we ever get to meet his parents. And, certainly, he’s otherwise coded as very white and, at least, upper-middle class.

  • Montclair Mommy

    @Sonita: Totally agree. I don’t watch Gray’s anymore but when I did it was really affirming to me to see interracial couples just hanging out without comment. It wasn’t a Thing that needed to be discussed as part of the story line. I loved seeing that a clearly biracial character had a white family member b/c it does show family diversity without making that THE issue.

    I do see the point the author is trying to make…like in the L Word J. Beals character totally could have coded as white if it wasn’t brought up and when it was brought up in the context of having a baby it was totally appropriate and it would have been disingenuous if it hadn’t come up in the discussion between her and her partner (UNLESS the show was trying to code her as white and not biracial).

  • Anonymous

    I think Jennifer Beals pushes to have her true ethnic background shown on screen.

    “We fight for minorities in tv/film to have a shot at roles regardless of race, this is absolutely true, but the prevailing result negates any space where POC presence can be felt.”

    I’m not trying to be nasty here, but to me this statement seems like a contradiction. Are you saying that POC should be able to play any part, but they should make it a point to say that they are POC? If that’s the case then I get it.

  • Anonymous

    @msgray & littleeva: The idea behind “coding” is that actors may look POC, but their roles occupy a space in which the race is blotted out and the characters are given all the privileges and associations of whiteness. We fight for minorities in tv/film to have a shot at roles regardless of race, this is absolutely true, but the prevailing result negates any space where POC presence can be felt. I completely agree with you that tv and film have a difficult time giving us meaningful POC stories, and I would view it as endemic to the coding issue.

    There is a strong argument that in media, white is the default, and Racialicious has had many posts that mention this (the most recent being http://www.racialicious.com/2011/04/19/can-i-just-watch-a-game-of-thrones-in-peace-brown-feminist-fan-rant/).

    @Kwaku , when I watch a show, I don’t necessarily want a character’s race/ethnicity dominating the role either :) (esp when the portrayal is heavyhanded or completely misguided). That’s another story though. With coding, the problem is diversity lost.

    Thanks for all your perspectives!

    - Diana

  • marlee

    what bothers me is when shows have a character who’s a poc, but who’s family isn’t? i forgot the name of the show, but it was a short lived sitcom on nbc that lucy liu was in. clearly she’s asian, but in the show her dad was white. the same goes for her character in “marry me” where her character was adopted by a white family, but that made more sense. couldn’t the producers find poc who can play parental roles? oh, and i don’t know why you included jessie in the article other than the fact that he’s a fine looking man. it’s pretty clear to me that he is biracial.

    • Mickey

      In the “Charlie’s Angels” films, Lucy Liu’s character has a white, British father and an Asian mother.

  • guest

    ok, here’s the problem with this article … the three examples are so different that it’s impossible to have a coherent argument.

    i think every grey’s anatomy viewer knows that jesse is mixed (he ain’t passing just cause he has light eyes), so i actually thought it was refreshing to have his white father show up without it being something requiring comment or explanation.

    as for morena, she’s brazilian but that doesn’t necessarily make her a person of color (any more than cameron diaz’s last name does for her … there’s a reason that hispanic is considered an ethnicity, distinct from race, in the census … there’s plenty of pure-white hispanics who want nothing to do with us mestizo/mulato latinos). brazil (like the u.s., cuba, and most other places in our vast contitent) has people who are of European, African, Asian and Native descent and every mix in between. giselle bundchen is brazilian but obviously white (of german ancestry), so i don’t think that her nationality gets her into the same multi-ethnic club as adriana lima (another brazilian model but who actually is part african and even part japanese).

    now on to darren criss … because this actually does reflect the more important phenomenon of “poc on the dl” in real life (as opposed to just tv). as a mixed father (afro-latin and white-jewish) who’s kid would have been called cuarteron/quadroon in the old days, i’m very aware of how easy it’ll be for my kid to “pass” for white like darren criss and wentworth miller. in some ways i don’t care because there are plenty of folks who look ambiguously white but proudly claim their full multi-racial/multi-ethnic backgrounds, and hope that my kid will follow in their footsteps. i’m sure there are also still people who treat their multi-racial background as a private secret or shame (like jeniffer beals did in the 80s) and i don’t want my kid to be like that, but don’t think that my white-looking kid should automatically get counted as a person of color when he’s likely to experience all of the white-skin privileges my dad and wife have.

    darren looks white. would it be interesting for him to have an asian parent on glee? sure, but the fact of his asian-ness doesn’t make it a requirement for the show’s creators. if we start making every white actor who happens to be a slim percentage of something vaguely ethnic/brown count as a person of color how will the real brown actors get any roles?

    • Val

      “adriana lima (another brazilian model but who actually is part african and even part japanese).”

      Actually, she’s not part Japanese.
      Years ago she said something very offensive about Japanese people – She said they all look the same and aren’t as unique and different looking as Brazilians, after that her publicist or whomever is her handler I assume advised her to say she is part Japanese to do damage control
      In Adriana Limas own words she says thats she is quote “African, Swiss and native indian” (i’m not familiar what native am. indians are called out side of America as I am European.)

    • nicthommi

      Well, just because someone looks “white” doesn’t mean that the percentage of brown, black, or yellow in them is small. One thing that I’d love to see if for TV to acknowledge just how diverse POC can be. I dislike hearing that someone “looks” white. To me, you look like you look, and it’s more accurate to say that someone is light or dark or in between. Leni Kravitz, Halle Berry, and Wentworth Miller all have a black parent and all look different from each other, and yet, you could find people with two black parents who look like each of them as well.

      For the record, Mark Paul Gossalear and Rob Schneider are also part Asian. If you acknowledge that on TV, then you in fact CREATE a role for a person of color, since a POC would play at least one of their parents.

  • Sonita

    Jesse Williams stated in an interview that they want to normalize Jackson’s multi-racial background by not talking about it – in a perfect world you can have a family that is mixed without saying a word because race doesn’t matter. I think Shonda is attempting to strive for a post-racial society by making it no big deal – to wit, she has many interracial couples as patients and it isn’t a part of the storyline. I think this can be just as powerful as making a controversial episode surrounding race, it’s a more subtle way to promote diversity.

  • Val R.

    You missed one; Jennifer Beals on the Chicago Code (on FOX). But the interesting thing is that the show has acknowledged her ethnic background. On Jennifer’s last TV series, The L Word, they also acknowledged her true ethnic background. This makes me wonder if it isn’t Jennifer herself who pushes to include her true ethnic background in the shows. If so good for her.

    • Mickey

      Also, in the made-for-cable movie “The Feast of All Saints” about a group of Creoles of Color in 1840s New Orleans, she played the quadroon Dolly Rose.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately for actors, who are ethnically ambiguous, there is a career benefit to being coded as white. They may completely identify with their race or ethnicity in real life, but will seize the opportunity at more auditions and roles from which visibly POC actors are shut out.

    Do they have a responsibility to be more vocal about their backgrounds if it will hurt them professionally? I don’t know. (Example see The Loop 21 article on Rashida Jones: http://theloop21.com/entertainment/rashida-jones-and-politics-passing-hollywood) The other issue is that some (not all) ethnically ambiguous actors who are coded as white don’t see themselves as people of color. Can you force an ethnicity on them if they have the visible privilege not to? This is further complicated by actors who are in fact white, but share an ethnicity with races of people who aren’t, as in the case of white Latin@s. The are many white latin@ actors who regularly work in hollywood: Cameron Diaz, James Roday, Joanna Garcia, Alexis Bledel, and the list goes on.

    All of this is to say that the real problem is the lack of integral and substantial roles for actors of color. If we didn’t have to fight just to be seen, and then to be seen with purpose or as an anomaly within a larger context of a film/tv show it wouldn’t matter so much how people are being coded. But that is a long road away from where we are.

  • Mickey

    Have we forgotten Wentworth Miller from “Prison Break”? He is also part black but the only time I’ve seen him play a character that reflected his background was “The Human Stain”.

  • msgray

    I also dont really get this article. While I agree that the characters play default roles, I don’t really see that as default to white. No way can you look at Morena Baccharin or Jesse Williams as white, Morena is clearly, well uhm….morena and Jessie is mixed. I just see poc kicking butt on TV (I happen to be a fan of V, Grey’s and Glee)! I don’t need that explained to me on TV, because then what would we get? Television and movies have historically had a difficult time translating the life and times of poc to meaningful characters and stories on the screen, big and small.

    One thing I learned attending an HBCU, you can’t put poc (regardless of the colour) in a box, big or small. There is no one socio-economic situation that applies of every person of every race (mixed or otherwise) in America, add the fact that these shows are seen all over the world (I’m in Europe) and you risk losing the audience if you choose to pick one dynamic which would only be applicable to one segment.

  • Kwaku

    I think the flip side, POC characters being identified solely by their race, can be far worse. Especially when you consider that most of the writers, executive producers, directors, etc, on these shows are mostly white. When Kalinda shows up on the Good Wife, I don’t necessarily want her to begin “a very special episode” on Indian-Americans(or Indian-Canadians as the case may be).

  • http://twitter.com/thecaitd thecait

    Fascinating! I’ve had suspicions about this many times but could not put it into words as you do.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t really get this article. The second I saw Jesse Williams I knew he was black. He only looks like half of my own family.