Fantasy Movies Television

Whitewashed TV isn’t Just Racist, It’s Boring

Originally posted at Salon.com

Perpetuating stereotypes isn’t just immoral — it’s bad TV. That’s why shows like Sleepy Hollow are so crucial.

When I was seven, I asked my mom if I could dye my hair blond and get blue contact lenses. It’s probably the first serious conversation I ever had about my appearance and all I wanted to do was look like Luke Skywalker. I wanted it so badly. She was appalled and I couldn’t understand why. Star Wars was Everything. There were no Latinos running through the halls of the Death Star, blasting storm troopers. Of course I was caught up.

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.

Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s runaway hit of the season, does amazing work balancing the supernatural with a modern noir aesthetic, and as NPR’s “Code Switch” points out, it features not one but two outstanding black women who are neither sexualized vixens nor Aunt Jemimas. Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters. It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.

Sleepy Hollow does best when it takes a critical, complicated approach to race and history. A scene in a recent episode grappled with the irony of Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner and father of American independence; Ichabod Crane, who has returned after a few hundred years sleeping off a mortal ax wound, ends up reevaluating his hero worship of Jefferson. With some exceptions (like, as fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed enjoys reminding me on Twitter, the continued lionization of President Washington), the show approaches race and history with a refreshingly contextual, critical lens. It doesn’t gloss over the all-American legacy of slavery and genocide. And as Mr. Dawes points out, this is an issue of craft. The critical lens gives depth and gravity to the work. Ichabod is a stronger character, more human and more humane, for deconstructing his glamorous view of Jefferson.

Game of Thrones has delivered some of the more refreshing and unusual narrative moments in recent TV memory. But then Daenerys Targaryan catapulted into her white Jesus avatar state and my entire Twitter timeline and I did a collective face-palm. The story line climaxes with the final scene of the season: Daenerys crowd-surfs over a sea of toothless and adoring brown faces. A sexless orgy of white self-adoration. Epic cliché, epic racism. Also: boring.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, a white man once again plays savior, this time to a planet of tall blue aliens unambiguously suggestive of Native Americans. What if they’d cast Michelle Rodriguez, who plays a stereotypical no-nonsense doomed Latina side character, in the lead role instead of Sam Worthington?


Audre Lorde wrote that poetry “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” TV and movies, our modern mythology, fall somewhere along this spectrum of poetry, idea, and action. The realm of the fantastic offers a rare opportunity for artists to challenge and expand our concepts of privilege, resistance and social justice. We must, after all, imagine the changes we want to see. And these images, reflected back at us again and again, have the power to filter our own self-reflection, our own sense of power toward lesser and greater purposes. What quality of light will we predicate our hopes and dreams on?

132 comments

    1. Having black or latino people in a show doesn’t make it more interesting or better quality. There is no way to say that a line delivered by a black actor is more exciting then the same words being spoken by a white one. I agree shows should be more diverse, but the quality of a show isnt based on how many black people are on screen….its in its writing and its story.

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  1. There’s a kernel of truth in every stereotype. What’s wrong with perpetuating truth? White guys typically like mayonnaise, dance poorly, and aren’t as well-endowed as other races of men. When it’s pointed out either humorously or detractingly(or both), it’s hilarious… because it’s true.
    Fox is correct in its study about diversity; it brings in more viewers.

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    1. Because that kind of ‘truth’ is so rarely pointed out, it strikes people as funny. NOC is right about a lot of things, including that it’s a failure of craft to rely on stale stereotypes.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more! I’m so happy that a show like “Sleepy Hollow” exists and is doing well. There’s also the fact that The CW is race-bending Iris West in the upcoming “The Flash” spin-off, and I couldn’t help but feel that it’s shows like “Sleepy Hollow”, “Scandal”, and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – that are willing to break the mold and cast POC in lead and important roles – that are setting up this trend to cast more diverse faces.

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    1. I also love the diversity in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Sleepy Hollow. With both shows, each character is a genuine character, and not a racial stereotype. Also, they’re both fun, well-written shows.

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  3. I was distressed when NCIS did the same this as CSI – replace a character of other than Anglo ethicity with a pale stale white girl. And I’m an anglo… to me, we are all shades of brown, but my Irish ass is definitely melanin-challenged!

    NCIS had Zeva David, an Israeli (played by the fab Latina Cote de Paolo). When she left, I felt it was the perfect time to get someone Latino or Black or Biracial to replace her. Nope, blonde girly type.

    CSI lost Gary Dourdon to drug abuse – ironically, he was struggling with that when I guess they decided he had to go, and they killed off his character. Then they ramped up the white lab guy to a CSI and imported not one but TWO white women.

    FOX News, well, don’t get me started (did you see the “Santa cannot be black, and Jesus was white, too! report this week?), but FOX also has a good thing going with the “A.I.” character on the new show (name escapes me).

    My mom used to laugh out loud when they showed Jeffrey Chandler as Jesus in the movie that played every Easter. She told me and my sisters, “Jesus did NOT have blue eyes. Jesus was from Palestine, which is…” (taking out globe to show us), “right here. Technically, North Africa. Also the cradle of civilization is here, the Tigris-Euphrates valley.”

    So that’s my two (or twenty) cents. Thank you for an excellent observation and a lively post! Amy Barlow Liberatore, Madison, WI (and yes, our governor is a mouth-breathing idiot)

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    1. Uh, Palestine is in the Middle East, not North Africa. But speaking of North Africans, you’d be surprised at how “white” they can look. Google Riffians or Kabyles.

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  4. My favorite is Charlie Chan. Three actors played the character and none of them were Chinese, or even Asian. One was a Swede. The dialogue always is silly, the Black guy is portrayed in racial tones and the sayings quite foolish. But for some reason I love those old movies.

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  5. well sometimes we can’t see racism in everything. But why isn’t there a group of non-white (I don’t know how I can say it politicly-correct) investors/producers that grabs a good storyline and makes a decent TV series out of it?

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  6. I’m crazy about Sleepy Hollow as well, and I also appreciate how it approaches race as well. It doesn’t gloss over racial history or try to deny it, but at the same time Abbie and her sister are real people, not stereotypes. It’s great. And it’s interesting that a lot of horror-themed shows are leading the way in diversity: AHS Coven and Dracula have some very prominent black characters, as well as Hannibal and The Following. I wonder why that is.

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  7. I love Sleepy Hollow because it’s a funny, well-written show with well-developed characters. To me, the fact that the characters are of different ethnicities is critical to the plot. However, that might not be the case with every show.

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  8. Since I haven’t had time to see Sleepy Hollow, I appreciate the info about it. I also enjoyed your take on Avatar, though there are so many flaws in the script of that film the racist cliches are just one more item on a very long list.

    I can’t agree with your interpretation of what went on in that Game of Thrones scene though. It’s an adaptation of a popular book series, and unlike other TV shows (Walking Dead for example) the book’s author, an executive producer of the show, has chosen to exercise proprietary control in following events and characters closely from page to screen. Daenerys Targaryen therefore has silver-blond hair and fair skin, as do all her family in the books. Both the actress who plays her, and the actor who portrayed her abusive, megalomaniac brother are themselves brunettes.

    Daenerys’ growing power as a leader backed by an army of ex-slaves is more of a personal choice, and a consequence of the character adapting and overcoming hardships. Until she survived the killing of her warlord husband, she herself was treated as a commodity, sold into an arranged marriage with no input into the matter, and ordered to submit to marital rape. Though white and coming from a once wealthy and powerful family, as an individual she understands bondage and physical / verbal / sexual abuse, having experienced all of them.

    When the ex-slaves bear her upward, they don’t cheer for her using a word that means “mistress”, “savior” or “queen”. They shout an affectionate term for MOTHER. You are free to find that boring. I saw an image of female empowerment.

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    1. Beautifully said. I wish I could agree but I haven’t read the GOT books. I became acquainted with the show when it premiered. I see no harm in keeping the details true to the book, and am often quite happy with the visual interpretation of the stories I have read.
      I’m also understanding that the obvious appearance of inequality is no where more obvious than on our televisions, where we are indundated every day with cultural messages. I suppose the question is, why are there not more culturally-diverse shows, at least as many as half of all shows? It’s not like you have to look very hard to find the source. There are only six of them.
      Perhaps the desire to enrich our information dissemination systems to recruit a larger, more diverse, culturally-accepting audience, is somehow a threat to the economy? Or, is it a threat to our uncommon identity to project commonality amongst the races, making us, in a sense, very common.

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    2. I agree – Daenerys Targaryen is treated as chattel until she comes into her own and her own recent history is her reason to free slaves. She’s revered for being the Mother of Dragons, not as a ‘white saviour’.

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  9. You seem to be awful young to have such issues. Second, it is appallingly racist as quoted in you example of Sleepy Hollow to only blame European Americans for slavery when in reality it was the blacks who captured each other and sold each other first before coming to America. Furthermore there was only indentured servitude in America until a black man decided he did not want to release his black servant from service thus creating the first very successful slave owner, a black man. Additionally everyone has been stereo typed on TV, not just you so called minorities. There have never been redneck, inbred hillbillies on TV before now have there? You want a real issue? Try to be a Ukrainian growing up in this country during the height Cold War. All us Slavic’s were “Russians” (really Soviets) whom we hated, yet we had to deal with decades of James Bond movies that made us all bad guys and that stereo type still runs rampant today. Oh yea did I forget to mention this is an anti-white stereo type? So, junior, open your eyes “minorities” are not the only ones targeted on TV.

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    1. The idea that whites were not in control of the system of slavery that brought blacks to North America is laughable. And the idea that there is anything “anti-white” in the US was created by white nationalists; this has been a talking point for you guys for the past 5 or so years, maybe more, and it seems no less stupid each time. There is no racism against white people in the US; that would require whites to be oppressed, which would require that we whites not be the majority, status quo and control every significant institution in the country. Maybe there are jerks out there that have a prejudice against white people (I’ve never met one and it seems these folks are as elusive as the unicorn), but that does not equal oppression. So just pointing out that the TV industry, largely controlled by whites, is all too often writing persons of color either out of existence, or into stereotypes, is not oppressing you. And talking down to someone about their age just makes you seem intellectually empty.

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      1. I was in an elevator in the Peters Building of Barnes Hospital. Alone. A Black man entered the elevator, and as the door closed, he looked me in the eye, scowled, and said something to the effect of: “I’ll KILL you, Cracker!” So, the idea that anti-White racism doesn’t occur is ludicrous. If you bother to read what bikerbernie actually wrote, he did not limit his discussion of Slavery to North America. The Rus were very frequently sold to Muslims after the males were castrated. If you bother to educate yourself on the History of Slavery you will invariably learn that the Radhanites were Jewish Traders who somewhat specialized in the Slave Trade. You will also learn that Whites generally stayed on the coasts of Africa and rarely penetrated the interior until King Leopold sent agents inland to secure ivory because the natives had innate immunity to malaria and other diseases. The Blacks sold their fellow men into slavery as spoils of war and to rid themselves of competition. The Whites who profited most and treated the most horrifically were not the Southern Slave-owners, but the Yankee Ship Captains who slacked the slaves like human cord wood and sometimes threw the living overboard with the dying and the dead without removing the chains. The English Protestants were instrumental in ending Slavery in the West, and the Russian Serfs were slaves for 50 years longer than American Blacks. And if you bother to educate yourself on what’s happening in the world as we speak… you will find that slavery is still rampant in India and Africa and the vast majority of Slave-holders even in America are not White Europeans. Here is some of the UN Report. Right now in West Africa there is a booming business digging liquor bottles out of the Congo River and selling them as antiques to White Tourists. No one bothers to mention that bottles originally contained liquor that was used to pay the Black men who sold their brothers into Slavery…. The grandchildren of the men who used that liquor to buy Black men cheaply… are now Liberal Progressive Power-brokers in New England…. There is sufficient blood and guilt to stain us all, if we are intellectually honest….

        bikerbernie… your comments on Slavery were essentially correct, but you undersold your own people’s past oppression.

        Michael Farkness… seems like you consider reciting a list of factitious talking points qualifies as plethoric intelligence….

        Intelligence and comprehension are different animals.

        We will never get anywhere close to equality by just trying to change the spin to fit our personal or group agenda. We need to seek the truth. Stop the spin. And value one another for the value we add to the whole. Listen to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salassie when he said the the color of a man’s skin should mean no more than the color of his eyes, but remember that while he was speaking those remarks aimed at the Italians, he was oppressing the Eritreas….

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    2. I’m Dutch and I know for a fact that most of Amsterdam’s prestige was built on our trading history. The Dutch traded in spices, suppressed and colonized entire countries and were instrumental in the slave trade. While it’s true that African warlords sold their enemies into slavery, the while slave traders were responsible for treating the slaves as subhuman, stacking negroes on coffin-like shelves like chattel, and calculating profit margin on as generous percentage of slaves dying ‘en route’. All this was documented and can be viewed in the Amsterdam Scheepvaartmuseum.
      True, if the slave traders hadn’t bought up the slaves, they would most likely have been killed, but on the other hand, the traders created demand and the warlords got incentive to wage tribal wars and sell the captives.

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  10. I’d love to see an amazing ethnic rainbow on the big and small screen, something that really represents, you know, Earth. Not just the standard, check box racial categories, but some truly unique and intriguing ones: Inuit, Maori, Mongolian, Nepali, Hawaiian, Ainu, Goa, Anangu Pitjantjatjara.

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  11. Right on! I hadn’t conceived of racist stereotypes in light of their inherent craft-deficit, but more in terms of their representing an abominable craft. But it’s true. They’re both destructive and non-constructive. Profoundly anti-human for all involved (creator, viewer, society). Too bad the capitalist–rather than authentic, human–lens prevails (for now) in terms of creating and promoting the images that make our culture. Bravo for directing us against the tide! 🙂

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  12. I’m glad I found this blog and look forward to more. I think I definitely learned something; as a writer I hadn’t considered racial stereotypes and cliches as an artistic problem and quality issue.

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  13. Interesting thoughts about “Avatar.” It would have been much more provocative to have a non-white character become a hero by “betraying his own race” (to quote a phrase used in the movie) — and imagine if they had dared to make the aliens unambiguously suggestive of white Europeans!

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  14. Excellent post. It’s sad that it’s so hard for some people to ‘get’ what you’re talking about. All you’re asking is for people to be portrayed as people, in all their many characteristics, and not to be reduced to a single, flat, token, trite, tired, oppressive stereotype.

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  15. You completely lost any credibility when you brought up the character of Daenerys Targaryan as an example of racism on tv. I don’t even know how to reply to that. Its just stupid beyond words. Not wanting to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but if you look at the circumstances as to who her character is, how she got to where she was and why people were acting as they were towards her, but no..all you see is some white chick being worshipped by people of color.Pretty sure wherever she landed, if she whipped out a bunch of Dragons and freed a people they’d be all over her. Oh wait, I bet you haven’t read the series so you have no idea how her character develops. Beyond that, the continual use of the phrase “people of color” creates a dividing line between people of Caucasian decent and everyone else out there, thereby continuing this us vs. them mentality that holds us back as a species. Are there injustices, yes, Does there need to be more representation of people from all races/ethinicities/orientations? Most definitely, but you cheapen the actual problems by making up crap like this. . Just like the white racists, you’re unable to look past the color of a persons skin. You want a successful show who’s main characters are based on African/South American/Asian medieval fantasy then by all means write one.

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  16. Diversity is more prevalent than you might think. Look at children’s cartoons: most of them are multicultural. Dora (latina), Doc McStuffins (African American), Hai Lo Kailan (Asian), Princess Sofia (a tad white washed…but Latina)…and many more.

    As the current generation grows up , I think you’re going to see a lot more diversity. And not for any other reason than the audience is much more colorful than its ever been before.

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  17. Maybe one day some people will lose that chip on their ignorant shoulder and stop using skin pigment as an excuse for all their failures in life. Most people who pull the race card can’t even tell you what the definition of what racist is. The word no longer has serious meaning. Perfect example is your post.

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  18. To be honest, I don’t watch much American TV, and my favourite TV show of all times is a BBC crime drama called “Luther”. If you were to suggest that I love Luther because of Idris Elba (swoon!), I can’t deny that it was his performance that drew me in: he’s a great actor. But I thought there are US shows like “The Wire” and so forth that kind of stymie your pitch – am I wrong?

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  19. You hit the nail on the head with this piece…It isn’t called the boob tube for nothing ..Which is why I hardly waste my time nor electricity with much of the trash on T.V..It is beyond boring…Don’t even get me started on the trashy-trash-talking show called ‘2 Broke Girls’ OMG, pure smut trash! It is going to take more POC owning their own production companies + POC as directors, producers, etc etc…before we really see colorful shows on T.V..It is happening more & more with movies(about time!) but a little longer with T.V..Some folks just don’t want to have to sell their soul and /or sell out to make a buck..(which is why Dave Chapelle walked away from mega millions) Again, 2 thumbs UP on your line of thought..I totally agree! You just gained a new follower/fan

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  20. While having shows with members of different races is all well and good, this idea of having to incorporate a different race for each character just for diversity’s sake, does not only get ridiculous at times, but the focus ON race to make up casts could be described as racist itself.

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  21. Being the Mom of two POC and madly in love with Sleepy Hollow AND Avatar, I too would have to generally agree. I think that in many cases it doesn’t really matter who delivers the “line” as long as it is done well. I do, however, prefer a multi-spectral reflection of the world since MY world is, so too are my programming preferences.

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  22. Your post got me curious so I looked up demographics on movie going and found this from 2011. I had to scroll down about 50% of the way through the pdf to find what I was looking for.

    Frequent Moviegoers (millions) by Ethnicity

    And it was clear that there needs to be more films and TV series that features minorities who are not stereotyped.

    http://www.mpaa.org/resources/5bec4ac9-a95e-443b-987b-bff6fb5455a9.pdf

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t their more films that feature African Americans than Latino?Hispanics?

    But 24% of frequent moviegoers are Hispanic compared to only 10% of African Americans. To find about about roles in film for Latino Actors, I found this:

    Not Many Roles for Latino Actors in Hollywood

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/27/roles-for-latino-actors-in-hollywood_n_3342031.html

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  23. You’ve handled the topic extremely well, and I agree, where is all the creativity? Cliches and stereotypes in literature, on the big screen, and in all the arts – is very boring. The amount of times I say to myself “Oh that’s not for me that’s for those people who live a fantasy life I know nothing about.” I have no judgement about “those people”, whoever they may be, but I simply cannot relate what I see on the screen to anything I see in the world around me. To keep these industries alive they should to speak to the interests of the audiences they wish to cultivate and mix it up a little. It’s common sense that turns into dollars and cents. Bravo!

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  24. Someday, hopefully soon, we will reach a point at which conversations about actors won’t involve the color of their skin but will focus on their skill. A role doesn’t become any better or worse based on skin color and if it does then the actor isn’t worth his salt.

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