Study Confirms White Privilege Will Be Televised–And Kids Are Still Watching

By Arturo R. García

Courtesy: Harry Cutting Photography

You know how it goes: It’s just a television show, we’re told. Why can’t you just enjoy it?

Now a new study in Communication Research is giving more weight to critical analysis of the medium. In surveying a group of 400 black and white pre-teens in Midwestern communities, two researchers say black children end up feeling worse about themselves after prolonged exposure to electronic media, as did white girls.

White boys, on the other hand, came out feeling pretty good about themselves, according to one of the study’s authors, Indiana University’s Nicole Martins.

“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” said Martins, who works at the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. “You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.”

Meanwhile, Martins said, both white and black girls surveyed tend to see roles that are “simplistic” and focused on their looks instead of their abilities.

Martins collaborated on the study with Kristen Harrison, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.

The study also found that even with hand-held devices and video games becoming more widespread, the young people surveyed still spent more time engaging with their televisions; the black children who took part watched an average of 10 more hours a week compared to white subjects.

And what black boys particularly saw wasn’t encouraging. Martins said–and again, stop us if you’ve heard this–they tended to see themselves portrayed as “hoodlums and buffoons,” without many examples otherwise.

“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to,” Martins said. “If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact. If we think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, and not the messages, these kids are spending so much time with the media that they’re not given a chance to explore other things they’re good at, that could boost their self-esteem.”

If there’s anything approaching a bright side, it might be this: according to a 2010 study (PDF) by Martins and Harrison, video games were “the worst offenders when it comes to representation of ethnicity and gender.”

  • Silver

    Actually there’s quite a bit of interracial romance on these shows (no actual sex though) but lots of crushes and dating (even interacial marriages). Usually these are treated no differently than other relationships- still no openly gay characters though :(. I would also argue that quite a few of them are quite complex or deal with more complex issues than you would expect but deal with issues metaphorically and idealistically rather than head on. They tend to be more subtle and sneak in very complex themes. I actually  find many adult shows less complex because often they use sex and violence to provide the “maturity” for them while many YA shows can’t rely on these. 

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    That’s actually a good guess and something that could be looked at for future studies!

  • Rharry40

    As a middle aged blackman I can say this subliminal message has always been present in the media. It is sad because this article confirms much has not changed. As a parent of young children I encourage my children and try to expose them to the possibilites of what they can accomplish.

  • ThatDeborahGirl

     Actually, the only thing I can say about Howard getting married first is that it’s nearly a compliment to Raj because it’s in keeping with TV legacy where the “ugly duckling” or the most backward or least likely member of the group gets married first. I’m showing my age, but the nearest examples I can think of off the top of my head are Vera on “Alice” or “The Facts of Life” when Natalie is the first to lose her virginity.

    But you’re right- Raj not having a love-life at all is pretty sad. I keep wondering what they’re waiting for and why he is the only one still single. Maybe it’s the Applewhite effect (referring to Alrfre Woodards botchd storyline on Desperate Housewives). The writers obviously have no experience with the love lives of people of color and have no idea how to write a relationship for Raj.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Wow I really like this post!  My family was making fun of me for analyzing the messages about romance in Disney Channel shows- they’re like “maybe it’s just a little kid show and you’re making a big deal out of it.”  But I feel like there are messages in there that need to be challenged.

  • ThatDeborahGirl

    The racial divide on television is disheartening, even on shows I love the most. “The Big Bang Theory”, “The Good Wife” and “Law and Order SVU”. Actually “SVU”is a show I used to love but now only watch out of long bad habit, kind of like biting my nails.

    “The Good Wife” does better than most, but I could do an entire dissertation that Naomi Schaefer Riley would trash on the implied racism in that show, despite their efforts to show professional black people in a positive light. I can only give CBS a “C” for effort and that’s grading on a steep curve.

    I am particularly sick of the “one minority friend” paradigm. There’s
    always one now and any minority will do. One black, one Asian, one
    Indian, one whomever – but one and only one and possibly their few
    family members for an episode.

    My biggest disappointment has been “The Big Bang Theory”. I started out loving this show in syndication, flinching at the occasional racial jibes, ignoring the absence of people of color outside of Raj’s family and finally having to make so many allowances that it is almost impossible, anymore, for me to “just enjoy it”. The racism has become so blatant – and their complete failure to include black people or any other people of color, in what is supposedly geek culture, is a sour note on what used to be a fun show for me to watch. It was almost forgivable when the show was still finding it’s feet; but after five seasons, what I thought might grow into a rich and diverse universe has turned into a parody of itself. Despite Raj’s presence, or perhaps because of him, the humor on that show may as well hang a “Whites Only” sign on it.

    I scald with shame to think of children watching these shows. Not for
    just what they say about POC but for what they say about white people. As enlightened as I’m sure white folks in Hollywood believe they are, their art is for them
    by them.

    • Anonymous

      Of course, this will only become better if more POC’s get involved in the TV/movie industry behind the camera and writing scripts.

      • Mymble

        I keep hoping people like the writer of Girls will take a hint and actually hire some POC writers. But I probably shouldn’t hold my breath…

      • Mymble

        I keep hoping people like the writer of Girls will take a hint and actually hire some POC writers. But I probably shouldn’t hold my breath…

  • ThatDeborahGirl

    The racial divide on television is disheartening, even on shows I love the most. “The Big Bang Theory”, “The Good Wife” and “Law and Order SVU”. Actually “SVU”is a show I used to love but now only watch out of long bad habit, kind of like biting my nails.

    “The Good Wife” does better than most, but I could do an entire dissertation that Naomi Schaefer Riley would trash on the implied racism in that show, despite their efforts to show professional black people in a positive light. I can only give CBS a “C” for effort and that’s grading on a steep curve.

    I am particularly sick of the “one minority friend” paradigm. There’s
    always one now and any minority will do. One black, one Asian, one
    Indian, one whomever – but one and only one and possibly their few
    family members for an episode.

    My biggest disappointment has been “The Big Bang Theory”. I started out loving this show in syndication, flinching at the occasional racial jibes, ignoring the absence of people of color outside of Raj’s family and finally having to make so many allowances that it is almost impossible, anymore, for me to “just enjoy it”. The racism has become so blatant – and their complete failure to include black people or any other people of color, in what is supposedly geek culture, is a sour note on what used to be a fun show for me to watch. It was almost forgivable when the show was still finding it’s feet; but after five seasons, what I thought might grow into a rich and diverse universe has turned into a parody of itself. Despite Raj’s presence, or perhaps because of him, the humor on that show may as well hang a “Whites Only” sign on it.

    I scald with shame to think of children watching these shows. Not for
    just what they say about POC but for what they say about white people. As enlightened as I’m sure white folks in Hollywood believe they are, their art is for them
    by them.

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  • Mickinickharp

    Probably the author meant that television–the outlet children used the most–had fewer offenses than video games.  However, I agree with you that there is no bright side in this article.  As a woman, reiteration in all media that I’m primarily a sex object with limited abilities (through my own faults or society’s) is constantly demoralizing.  I cannot speak for POCs, but I would imagine that the incessant negative or low-expectation images projected by media onto to POCs compared to whiteness is stupefying and rage-inducing.  The worst part seems to be that confronting the power source–typically, white men–gains such little empathy or results, even from well-intentioned men that just can’t figure out why everyone won’t just stop complaining.  I’ve had so many debates with my husband about this issue–a sweet, kind man who “just doesn’t understand” how women, POCs, the differently-abled, etc. can complain about not being fully-realized human beings in media or life.  I wonder what it’s like to never have your abilities questioned because of something as arbitrary as your sex or color.