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“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 2

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Of course, I could talk to author/activist Tim Wise about 5,000 things all day long; he’s a fascinating conversationalist.  I even asked him a question on my mom’s behalf about the Tea Party.  (I relayed his response to her.)  We flowed from the problems of  “colorblind” rhetoric as social/political policy to what we do at the R, pop culture…including the politics of porn.

Cosby Show castAndrea Plaid: Let’s talk about addressing race and racism on TV, with the discussion about Mad Men and how it does or doesn’t do that.  What do you notice about how race and racism is addressed on TV, especially on shows that take place in contemporary times, like The Cosby Show, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy?

Tim Wise: Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time. The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present? That’s interesting to me sociologically.  But my question is not about Mad Men so much, as it is about other shows like Friends, which is in the contemporary period in New York, and yet there are no people of color around, or Grey’s Anatomy or the Cosby Show, where we can have representations of folks of color, and “race,” but rarely if ever deal with racism per se. So, they can have the occasional, or even central characters of color in the case of Grey’s or Cosby, but it’s as if these people never deal with racism in their lives. It’s not that every episode needs to be about race, but when virtually NO episodes are, that’s unrealistic. I mean, even a show my kids watch, in re-runs, That’s So Raven (with former Cosby star Raven Symone) had an episode about racism: a really good one in fact. If they could do it, why can’t these shows for adults do it?

AP: The flip of that is how working-class and poor whites are portrayed as a group of people others can feel free to turn their noses at due to their outspoken bigotry and/or their impoverished lives.  Latest case in point: Arlene and Sam Merlotte’s family, the Mickens, on True Blood.  Your thoughts?

TW: Well, there’s a long history of portraying bigots as backwoods “trash” or whatever, because it allows the hip, urbane TV viewer to assume an outsider stance, where we can say “oh, thank God I don’t know people like that!” Or, “I’m not like that.” It’s why whenever one of the talk shows, like Jerry Springer or whatever would have on a racist family, it would always be some family from rural Georgia or whatever, missing teeth, mispronouncing words, or whatever. But of course, people can be elites and incredibly racist, without slurs, without bad dentition, without any overt signs of bigotry, because they have the power to do their stuff in private: old boy’s networks for hiring and contracts, zoning laws that restrict where people can live and where they can’t, etc.

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