Originally written a year ago for my journalism class, and edited a bit for academic overload, this article explores the representation of minorities on television, and how inaccuracies can be harmful to individuals and society.
American culture is media saturated. We consume television, newspapers, magazines, radio and the internet like they're food, and our technology continues to advance at an astounding rate, constantly increasing the amount of news, entertainment, and advertising we're exposed to. The messages we receive from the media, and especially television, can greatly influence our perceptions and our thinking as a culture. "Entertainment [has] important mass communication functions, including cultural transmission" and it can be detrimental to society when that which entertains "may perpetuate stereotypes or try to appeal to a certain segment of the population at the expense of others." (1)
While there are many minority groups that are underrepresented, and misrepresented, in all forms of media, for the purposes of this article, we'll be looking at people of color on television.
Irresponsible media can create racial divides, can make people of color the "other" to be feared, mocked, pitied, scorned, and mostly, ignored. “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” (2)
The people who make our media are largely white. The number of minority-controlled broadcasting stations hovers around 3%, severely under-representing the solid quarter of the US population that isn't white (US Census, 2010). Those media-makers tend to reinforce their own life experiences by promoting and distributing content that is glaringly white, which leaves a significant portion of the population seeing an inaccurate representation of themselves on television, or worse, no representation.
"Viewers who consider media portrayals as valid and realistic are more likely to internalize stereotypical messages. Over a period of time, media representations that are internalized become chronically accessible from memory while making judgments... Media messages influence racial attitudes from a very young age, especially when direct interracial contact is minimal... the impact of television is likely to be quite profound." (3)
For example, seeing only smart and awkward Asians on television repeatedly would surely result in assumptions about the people as a group. Violent black men, the Arab terrorist, the flashy, opportunistic Latino; anyone who's watched American TV knows these stereotypes, and with repeated viewing, they become etched into our brains and influence our feelings about people of color in the real world.
As a first-world dwelling white woman, it's been easy for most of my life to take what I see on my television for granted. Most of the people in my family are white, most of the people on tv are white, there's a seemingly logical parallel there. Except, of course, when I look out my front door and there are people everywhere who aren't white. In researching this topic, I realized that I can only see this subject from my own (white) perspective and that I'd need to create an objective experience to be able to analyze this issue impartially. So, I conducted an experiment.
I decided to critically watch television shows, many from the Nielsen's Top Tens (4), but some were decided on in the moment. I stuck to programming available on basic cable channels, but watched in a variety of ways (live, via On Demand, on Hulu.com) and avoided sports, news, movies and cartoons. Though I watched quite a few shows that are standards in my rotation, I watched many that I normally wouldn't, and commercials that I certainly would never sit through.
I kept a notebook handy and jotted down every time a person on TV spoke; I put a hash mark down to indicate whether they were male or female, and what race they were, using the US Census categories -White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race- and my best estimations. I included people who sang, had one-word lines, but none who only laughed or had their voices drowned out by others. I didn't count voice-overs. If a commercial aired several times during a show, I counted each viewing. I did not count cartoon characters unless it was very clear what race and gender they were representing, ie Homer Simpson was noted, but not the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
In total, I watched 23 television programs, all from thirty minutes to an hour in length. These are the observations I recorded. The letters in parentheses represent whether the show was viewed: (L) on television, either live or via DVR, (O) using my cable company's On Demand feature, or (H) on my computer via Hulu.com. The asterisks indicate whether the show or group of advertisements met the 25% quota required to represent our population's white versus non-white population accurately.
The results are undeniable: white people, mostly white men, dominate television programming. Only 26 of the 46 scored (23 shows, and their ads were scored separately) met the minimum 25% ratio of non-white to white, and that doesn't even take into consideration ethnic breakdowns beyond non-white. Of the 1079 people noted in my research, 278 were people of color. Of those, 44 were Asian, 44 were Hispanic and 198 were black. Only three of the twenty-three shows I watched - Dancing With the Stars, Everybody Hates Chris and My Wife and Kids - met that 25% quota in both the program and the advertising. The rest were deficient to varying degrees, but the least inclusive of minorities was Two and a Half Men, which had absolutely no people of color in either the show or its advertising.
A study done by SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) in 2006 stated that of the ethnicities portrayed on television and movies that year and the previous, the breakdown was this: Asians and Pacific Islanders - 3.4%, African-Americans - 14.5%, Caucasians - 72.3%, Latino and Hispanic - 6.3%, Native American - 0.2%, and Unknown/Other – 3.3%. In another study (5), it was found that minorities made up only 21% of the faces on television and that over the ten years prior, "the racial representation of television actors has not changed significantly. White actors continue to be in a distinct majority position, African American representation is in line with their percent of the U.S. population and the representation of Latinos continues to be in a distinct minority."
My research is congruent with this, showing some improvements for people of color and other declines. In the shows I watched, minority representation was up to 26%. Black people were represented the most of the minority ethnicities, at 18%, when they actually only make up 13% of the US population. Asian representation is also up, at 4% in my research, which is an improvement, but is still far from the actual goal of 6%. The visibility of Hispanics on television seems to have markedly dropped, at 5%, while their real-life population continues to grow and is currently about 9%. (6) Unfortunately, in my small sampling of television entertainment, I observed no Native Americans or Hawaiians, Native Alaskans or Pacific Islanders.
"[The] audience often assumes that the media pay attention to things that make a difference in society or things of consequence. The misconception might lead to the inevitable conclusion that Asia and Asian people make little difference in contemporary life, that they are of little consequence." (7)
When an ad comes on for, say, tires, tissues, beer, or microwaveable dinners, most of the time those actors will be white. If an ad is for a household cleaning product, it usually stars a white woman. Prescription drugs: white people. Hair dye: white women. Clothing: Thin, mostly white people.
The real problem is when our commercials are trying to sell us products, they show us something to aspire to. A group of people laughing, a stain coming out of a favorite shirt, nutritious and delicious convenience meals; whatever it is corporations are selling us, they are showing us something to want, something to aspire to. And when there are very few black people in those ads, and hardly any Asian or Hispanic people, we see that being a person of color isn't something to aspire to. In fact, they hardly seem to exist.
"Television portrayals of minorities in the United States can influence minorities' perceptions of their group identities and vitality." (8)
In a country in which racism is alive and well, in which people of color only take up a very small portion of seats in our government and a huge percentage of cells in our prison systems, we need to look closely at our media and what messages it's sending us. Are they helpful or harmful? Do they reinforce stereotypes or challenge ideas that are harmful to our most vulnerable people? Increasing the number of people of color on television, and other media, is the only way to change the inaccuracies being perpetuated. If it's equality we're striving for, equal representation in the media is a great place to start.
1. Pavlik, J.V. and McIntosh, S. (2011). Converging Media: A new introduction to mass communication. New York, New York, Oxford University Press.
2. Gerbner, G., Gross, L. (1976). Living With Television: The Violence Profile. Journal of Communication 26, 163-183
3. Ramasubramanian, S. (2001). Television Exposure, Model Minority Portrayals, and Asian-American Stereotypes: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, issue 26, July 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr26/ramasubramanian.htm
4. Neilsen. 2011. Top Tens and Trends, November 7, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/top10s.html
5. Monk-Turner, E., Heiserman, M., Johnson, C., Cotton, V., & Jackson, M. (2010). The Portrayal of Racial Minorities on Prime Time Television: A Replication of the Mastro and Greenberg Study a Decade Later. Studies in Popular Culture, 32.2 Spring 2010, 101-114. Retrieved from:
6. Humes, K.R., Jones, N.A., and Ramirez, R.R., 2010. Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs, March 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf
7. Piehl, D. & Ruppel, R. (1994). Primetime’s Hidden Agenda: The Anti-Asian Bias of American Television. A Gathering of Voices on the Asian American Experience. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press, 179-185
8. Pornsakulvanich, V. (2007) Television Portrayals of Ethnic Minorities in The United States: The Analysis of Individual Differences, Media Use, and Group Identity and Vitality. ABAC Journal Vol. 27, No. 3 September-December, 2007, p. 22-28. Retrieved from: http://www.journal.au.edu/abac_journal/2007/sep07/p2TelevisionPortrayalsOfEthnicMinorities_abacJV27n3.pdf