The American Standards of Media Consumption

By Guest Contributor OnTay Johnson

Illustration by Joseph Lamour.

According to the powers that be, I just may not be “with it” when it comes to American pop culture.  In my 30-plus years of life, I’ve noticed from time to time I’m made to be a fool because I haven’t seen some movie, didn’t recognize the face or name of some celebrity (dead or alive) and the list goes on.  I use to attribute this to growing up in a small city but as I got older and more socially conscious, I recognized that there was a pattern to this projection of person, places or things that I “should just know”.  That pattern adhered to the social construction of the status quo—whiteness.

Don’t get me wrong, as an African American in America, I’m hip to most things considered “popular” in our society.  Our education system alone makes sure you get peppered with the whiteness of American culture.  It’s the media that really hammers it home though.  How can one not be aware of whiteness when this country’s information systems constantly feed it to you as a diet day after day?  When a majority of magazines have a person that’s white on the cover and when a majority of television is white and our history books cover the “heroic” deeds of white men from the beginnings of this “unsettled” country until now, then it’s inevitable to not be aware of the whiteness screaming at you.  So yeah, I’m familiar with most things but it’s the fact that I’m a minority that I don’t always swallow everything fed to me.

I had a conversation with a couple people a few weeks ago about recognizing the face of Audrey Hepburn.  I basically took up for someone who couldn’t put Hepburn’s face with a name.  I had seen her face a thousand times but honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you her name either.  In this conversation none of us were white but there was that same expectation to know who she was.  I thought about this later and started remembering other times in which I wasn’t familiar with something that was considered popular and was condescended or at least annoyed someone because of it, and that person wasn’t always white either.

I remember talking to someone and I admitted that I hadn’t seen “Sound of Music” or “Gone With the Wind” (I can’t remember which, but haven’t seen either) and the person was so dramatic about how I didn’t see it,  how it’s an “American “ classic, and how I was really sheltered to have not seen it.  I remember thinking, “I’m black and for the most part a lot of us really didn’t have those films passed down to us as classics.”  But I knew all about The Wiz and Shaka Zulu and I bet they hadn’t seen either of those.

Another time, someone ridiculed me because I wasn’t familiar with a tennis pro.  In hindsight, the tennis pro wasn’t super famous anyway, as you had to like and follow tennis to know who he was, he was no Andre Agassi — or someone that you seen on commercials and therefore know without being a tennis fan.  The funny thing is, after that annoying conversation, I went back and researched this athlete and yea, I noticed that I had seen his face and heard his name several times while watching ESPN’s Sport Center but I never retained it for some reason.  This made me start to think about how those of us not apart of the status quo retained media and how some of us despite not being a part of the status quo we digest it and expect others to do the same.

 There’s no doubt that the agenda setting of the media affects everybody. However, it does not do so in the same way, as our experiences and culture shape how we digest what we see.  Seeing that my race is not represented in the media much, other than the usual negative stereotypes, I tend to pay attention and focus more on media (or parts of it) that resonates with me when I’m digesting it.  This is a reason that I only remember Tootie from the “Facts of Life” and know that Kim Fields played her.  Don’t remember anyone else’s name from that show.  The status quo does the same thing, however attached with this is the expectation that everyone else should follow suit and if you don’t you’re an idiot living on another planet.

How did this happen? Well look at what is considered iconic, popular or classic in American culture.  Is it not dominated by whiteness?  In fact something that emanates from someone that isn’t white doesn’t get any “real” recognition until the status quo recognizes it.  For example, a black musician isn’t considered “pop” until whites start buying their music, despite how successful and popular they are in the black community.  Keith Sweat, an R&B artist, was a staple in the 80’s and 90’s within the black community but not very many people outside of the black community knew him or knows of him today even though he had several hit records for several years.  Looking back at Michael Jackson, he was a star from the days of The Jackson Five but what took him to the top globally?  His music video appeared on MTV (his label had to threaten to go public with the racism that MTV showed before relenting).  After that, his music changed and catered to whiteness just as much as it did to his roots.  This anecdote has been repeated over and over in various realms.

In America, nothing is truly validated until it’s accepted by the status quo.  One may rebut with the fact that there’s just more white people in America so the numbers determine what’s popular.  That’s a fair point but it doesn’t explain the expectation projected that certain people, places or things are classics, icons and etc., just because a bunch of white people say so and anything outside of that is just the musings of “others”.

Look at television.  How many popular shows are full of all white or majority white casts?  Friends, Cheers, Frasier, Dawson’s Creek, just to name a few hit shows over my lifetime that contribute to this mindset.  The creators of these shows decided to place little to no people of color in these shows.  Why?  Better yet, what would happen if they had?  Would it change the nature of the show?  Maybe.  Why is that though?  Because anything other than white is playing in the fields of the others and it no longer is the typical “American” show.  It’s considered normal if it’s a majority of white people but once you get others involved the show is no longer a reflection of American society. Otherness is rarely respected unless it has a heavy dose of something very emotional and tragic and/or its created by someone white and even then the content usually just reiterates stereotypes.  If something non-white does blow up, it’s sometimes a fetish more than anything (I think hip hop falls under this category). Look at what we see in  movies; look at our sitcoms and television shows or look at the magazine covers.  If something is a majority white, it’s laissez faire.  But if something is a majority African-American, Asian or Latino and has a heavy dose of their way of life in it, then white America sees it as just another black, brown or yellow form of media and not meant for them and thus the show rarely does well.


Watching the Grammys last year, Kelly Clarkson got on stage and said how she didn’t know who Miguel was but she thought his song was sexy.  No knock on Clarkson (she just might not listen to much R&B) but it was very metaphorical of white media consumption.  It took the Grammys for Miguel to get any recognition (from a label mate might I add), despite him being on BET and being played on hip hop and R&B stations for a few years.  The gatekeepers are white and you have to cater to their methods and standards to get any “real” recognition.

The standards of American media consumption are mainly black and white.  I’m not marginalizing other group’s media but these are the two historically battling cultures when we talk about media in America.  Reminds me of a conclusion that an 11-person committee commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson came up with after researching the reasons for so many riots occurring across the nation in the 60’s, “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.”

In black households, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway are icons of musical history.  In white America, it’s Elvis and Johnny Cash.  Truth be told, I can’t tell you more than a couple songs from the latter two.  And I’m sure someone subscribing to whiteness can say the same in regards to Gaye and Hathaway.  The only difference being that I’m more likely to be seen as living under a rock and neither of my icons are usually considered as much a part of American music history as opposed to just being a part of black music history.

Whiteness decides what movies are good and which one’s suck. Some of the movies considered B Movies in the black realm might just get the kind of cult attention that some of these silly movies whites put out.  Some of the kinds of comedies that you see Seth Rogen and Michael Cera in have been put out for years by black directors with black actors.  We all laugh and watch them but they get relegated to dusty shelves because they aren’t respected enough, even though some of them are just as funny.

I think if America applied Martin Luther King’s, “…judged by the content of their character” to the way we decide what is or isn’t worthy of attention via media instead of using race as the primary indicator, we’d be a lot more informed about each other and just maybe more tolerant while still enjoying ourselves.

OnTay is a freelance writer and photographer in Los Angeles. He is currently working on directing his first film, a documentary about the history of the word, “ghetto.” Follow him on twitter @OnTayJohnson.

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  • Tim Henry

    This was very well-written, and spot-on. I agree with the expectation
    that people of color are supposed to know who is deemed iconic and
    popular. Do you have any idea how many arguments and how many times I’ve
    been shunned because I didn’t know a Beatles song or a song by Sir Paul
    McCartney? My parents didn’t listen to the Beatles, and I didn’t seek
    it out. How was I supposed to know that Sgt. Pepper (?) was supposed to
    be the greatest album of all time?

    I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when people go on and on about certain people/artists in
    the media are the greatest this or that.

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  • OnTay Johnson

    Ding! And the funny thing is it’s not even always whites that project this pressure.

  • OnTay Johnson

    Great response! Thanks for reading!

  • Alan Motley

    My god this was very well written and spot on… Thank you

    • OnTay Johnson

      Thank you!

  • byg

    what’s the sole purpose of TV? to sell advertising. to make money from the majority. the US is still a majority white –historical justice will soon come with demographic facts which cannot be ignored– and 100% capitalist. if i’m selling a product –thru a show/movie– i will cater to the majority because they have the majority of the money. yes, the pendulum of history in america has steered the gatekeepers to the recognition that “other” folks have disposable income. so those “others” got “their” shows. and you’re right, those others, specifically in media, have been black. black folk got their initial representations in the 60s and 70s and have slowly upgraded the quality and nuances of what they wish to expose as self definition… i became aware of the black image in america in 1985, age 9. when i passed the newsstands in NJ and NY, there weren’t black faces on magazine covers. today, i see black faces, our own magazines, our own stories, our own definitions. are white folk buying the black hair mags? probably not. do they need to? why? as long as black folk are defining the entirety of our culture to ourselves, truthfully, who cares. the fact that a majority of white folk may not be able to identify photos of janelle monae or erykah badu is a function of market forces/capitalism –marketing, advertising, promotion, MONEY– rather than racism. i’m sure a good number of black folk wont recognize janelle or erykah either (just now, i had to google who janelle was. i knew who i meant to write about but i kept writing jaselle)… this county has always been separate and unequal. it will remain that way; let’s not kid ourselves. part of the astute observers’ job is to ask that truth be defined thru our art. there will come a day when the fact that white folk don’t see that mos def might by the modern day james baldwin –my thoughts after listening to his solo CD, black on both sides in 1999– does not matter. i know what mos’ words and ideas meant to me at that time. that mattered to me. it still matters to me.

    • OnTay Johnson

      You might have missed the part when I addressed the majority of people in this country are white so of course there’s more whites…but that wasn’t the point of the article. The point was the expectations for EVERYONE to consume that media. I agree with some of what you’re saying but I think you missed my point.

      • kennyj

        Great article! The thinking is so entrenched that even Black shows like “Girlfriends” will bring on White male love interests. Black shows like “Cosby, Different World, Sanford and Son were huge mainstream shows and yet we don’t have even one show on the four networks! I get your point about music too. White acts from the UK have easier access to mainstream outlets than American minorities. However Michael and the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye were actually huge mainstream stars.Although Michael Jackson did take it to a whole other level after Thriller, yes.People magazine rarely has on Black folks no matter how big they are with the mainstream.,unless they are in some sort of trouble.

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  • littleeva

    Sometimes I think it’s a matter of age. For instance, my mom always told me that she never needed to see black people on TV or in the movies to know that she existed; she simply looked in her neighborhood. I’m the same way. I don’t feel that I have to see black people on TV constantly, I look in the mirror and know who I am; I live in a black neighborhood. Maybe it’s a generational thing but I really don’t care if TV is mostly white. If a program stinks, I won’t watch it, period.

    BTW, I’m 53 and I know who Audrey Hepburn was/is, but I wouldn’t go nuts if someone in their thirties didn’t know who she was.