On 2-3-14 I sat down to live tweet the television premier of the documentary American Promise. The film follows two Black students, Idris and Seun, as the begin kindergarten at an elite college prep school in New York City and highlights the challenges and as they face along the way.
And it is not only a product of racism, but the inequitable representation of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups, actually contributes to and reinforces deep underlying systemic racism and other injustices not only in the United States, but also to any place where our entertainment products have reach.
When I was 13 years old, my best friend introduced me to Doctor Who. Growing up as a brown girl in a predominantly white neighborhood in Sacramento, people would ask me, “What are you?” When I explained that my family came from Armenia and the Philippines, I might as well have said they were, like the Doctor, from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. The show played perfectly to my fantasies of escape into wider possibilities. Yes, funny smart man with your English accent, please whisk me away in your blue box as far in space and time as I can get from 1980s Northern California.
Nearly two decades have passed since I first watched the show, but on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, to my eyes, the show looked a bit… like 1980s Northern California. “The Day of the Doctor,” the episode marking the special occasion, was simulcast globally in 94 countries, an official Guinness World Record. So why was so little of the world in it? I had expected the diversity of the audience to be reflected on the screen, but instead the episode seemed Anglo in every dimension.
I monitored #DoctorWho50th on Twitter but couldn’t find many people of color livetweeting the simulcast. The few that did seemed to have “the feels” like everyone else. No one mentioned race. With Matt Smith’s tenure in the title role ending on Wednesday, I turned to Facebook to find more Whovians: friends, friends-of-friends, and strangers, mostly Americans, mostly people of color. What did they think about the whitewashed “Day of the Doctor”?
You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive.
You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail. You will fold your hands and say the blacks have no-one to blame now but themselves.
Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.
I’ll be 34 this year and we’re only beginning to see a change in the scenery when it comes to diversity and the fantastic. A recent UCLA study found that even though racial and gender diversity in television remains appallingly low, more diverse shows bring higher audiences while less diverse ones struggle. Meanwhile, some major networks may finally be getting the message. At this year’s annual Fox Broadcasting confab, titled “Seizing Opportunities,” the underlying theme was more diversity equals more money. Speaking to an invitation-only crowd of executives, producers, agents and media coalitions, Fox COO Joe Earley said this about welcoming more diverse shows: “Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business.”
Cultural critics have rightly decried whitewashing in the name of social justice. Networks are now beginning to see dollar signs where they once imagined dearth. But beyond money and morality, diverse programming is also a question of quality. “Racist writing is a craft issue,” the poet Kwame Dawes said at this year’s AWP conference. “A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure.”
Without an understanding of culture, power and history, diversity is useless; it’s blackface. And television has often given us nothing but that: cheap stand-ins and tokens to up their numbers and check off boxes.
With the combined fire power of a few cute empire waists, boxy tops, and racial stereotypes, Kerry Washington became one of a handful of Black women to host Saturday Night Live in its 30+ year history. Given the recent controversy surrounding the lack of color in the SNL cast, its understandable that the show would be eager to face the topic head on. Asking Washington to host was a nice first step, but they seem content to stop there.
Sure, SNL addressed their lack of Black women directly in the cold open, but joking about the glaring absence really loses all effectiveness if you don’t take steps to fix it immediately after. Addressing your own racist casting practices as a joke makes you seem less like a writer’s room full of subversive humourist savants than it does a room full of white privileged writers. The screen caps above represent a joke that could only retain legs if at the end of the show they’d announced the addition of a full time Black female cast member.
Of course, after seeing the sketches Washington was thrown into –especially in the first half of the show– it’s probably worth wondering how well a Black woman would fare in this era of SNL. With a sketches that included a mouthy, angry Black girlfriend, a BAPs style Black ghetto girl, an Ugandan beauty queen who reeked of Eddie Murphy’s “what have you done for me lately” bit from Raw, and the best Angela Davis impression she could muster, Washington and the SNL writers were one weave joke away from a stereotypical Black woman full sweep.
Washington put her all into everything she was given (as did Jay Pharoah, who was in all but 2 sketches on Saturday night, “because,” said the writer’s room, “if they want Black people then, goddamnit, we are going to give them black people! Take that, critics.”) but surely there have been several other hosts from popular breakout television shows who’ve knocked their hosting nights out of the park without relying on racial humour to take them through. Jon Hamm comes to mind. Unfortunately, where someone like Jon Hamm seems to inspire new, original material, the SNL writers room looked at Kerry Washington and clearly decided that with the plethora of jokes people have been making about Black women for years, they already had all they needed.
The only sketch that seemed as if it had any input from a non white writer included the Angela Davis impression mentioned above. I really do wish my white friends would stop telling me to watch The Wire. But for the most part, I still have to disagree with Kenan Thompson’s recent comments about there being no Black female comedians who are ready for SNL. It’s the SNL writers who aren’t ready for Black women.
The rest of Saturday night’s sketches are underneath the cut. What do you think, readers?
[This post contains spoilers for Seasons 1-2 of Hell On Wheels and Copper]
I didn’t watch either Hell on Wheels or Copper with the intention of comparing one to the other, but when the quality of the shows took such drastic turns, I couldn’t help myself. Hell on Wheels was meant to sate my need for violent Westerns, while I started watching Copper on the recommendations of friends and Racialicious readers. As an AMC show going into it’s third season my expectations for Hell on Wheels were high. It turns out I may have put a little too much faith in AMC –and to be fair, this was before the abysmal premiere of Low Winter’s Sun.
So before we move into Fall premieres (your suggestions for that, by the way, have been received and greatly appreciated) a little side by side comparison of Copper and Hell On Wheels: two Civil War era period dramas with different acknowledgements of race.
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.