Growing up, I remember that on television and in the movies there weren’t any protoganist that were non-white. If there was a character who was non-white, it was usually the one token black guy who served as comedic relief and/or the poor friend. Shows like “Family Matters” and “Sister, Sister” were so important. They gave the sense that white wasn’t the only normal, or relatable color. The fact that I can count on one hand every show before Y2K that had a predominately black cast is revealing enough.
The movie industry to this day is still heavily white washed,especially in romantic comedies because the perception of beauty is of anglo-saxxon features. If a non-white woman is featured as a romantic lead it’s because the rest of the cast is also non-white. Mixed couples are also almost unheard of and unseen. The not so subliminal messages that the entertainment industry sends is no secret, and not new. We really haven’t evolved too far from a black faced Judy Garland. Nine out of ten times a leading lady is white because that is the standard of beauty. When you never see someone like you portrayed as the protagonist, it’s hard to picture yourself as a protoganist as
I attended The School for Film and Television (SFT) in Manhattan after high school. My Principles of Acting teacher told me that if I were to pursue acting I would most likely never land a lead. That I had the “look” of the best friend, the comedic relief, or an antagonist (A joke or a villain). That I did not have the small frame of a leading lady, (which, at 17/18 years old I was at an unhealthy low for me from unintentionally starving. I was broke in the city. But even if I could afford food I was too busy and stressed to go shop for or consume it.) But even beyond that I didn’t have the “look”.
“I’ll tell it to you straight, this industry is for skinny white girls. Capitalize what you are or find a different career. Maybe that’s rough, but I just saved you a lot of time and frustration” he told me.
This is why women like Mindy Kaling are such an inspiration. She too, was told the same rhetoric every woman of color in the entertainment industry is told. And instead of playing by the rules set up by the generations of white men – she made her own game and set her own rules. She became a writer, producer, and executive of her own series. (If you haven’t seen, ‘The Mindy Project’, stop reading this blog and go binge watch. Especially the episode ‘Mindy Lahiri is a White Male.’)
The truth is that now the U.S. population consists of mostly people of color, yet in the entertainment industry the most challenging roles and desired roles are predominately white. So what can we do? How can we encourage equality in the entertainment industry as well? From community theatre all the way up to Broadway and film – Writers – lets write stories that are relatable to other cultures and existences than a white male narrative. Lets start writing roles that are poignant and challenging that are specific to people of color. Directors – start being intentional of having a diverse cast. Start casting mixed couples and mixed families. Lets normalize unity and equality and love. We all exist together in this world, and normalizing division only encourages division. There is not just one ideal narrative of life – we are hispanic, black, middle eastern, white, asian, indigenous – we are LGBTQ and heterosexual, pansexual, asexual – we come from all different kinds of families and backgrounds – there should be no predominately expressed anything.
Community theatre – if you do not have the talent available for roles that call for a POC – do not go ahead and cast a white person anyways in that role. Please respect that POC do not get casted constantly in roles because of ‘historical accuracy ‘ and that there are few roles that are specifically written for us. Please pick any of the dozens of shows that are fitting for an all white cast. I graduated high school in 2006 and Houghton Academy did black face to portray slaves in their production of ‘A Miracle Worker’. One student even had an afro wig. Why? Because it is considered shameful for a white person to be portrayed as a slave, but apparently perfectly acceptable to mock stereotyped African features. Stop accepting and practicing racism in the arts!
Everyone is the protagonist in their own lives. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our art as well?