Racism and Media: When Meaning Well is Not Enough

Psychologist Susan Linn is Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.  She is the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World and has written extensively about the impact of media and marketing on children.  A ventriloquist, writer, and producer, she worked with Family Communications, Fred Rogers’ production company, to create video programs about difficult issues for children, including the award-winning series Different and the Same: Helping to Identify and Prevent Prejudice. From 2000 to 2015, she served as Founding Director of the national advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Not long ago, in our very own galaxy, a blockbuster franchise released a new film featuring two male leads. One is an ace pilot—smart as a whip, terrific at grasping complex spacecraft technology.  The other is a brave, good-hearted, slightly bumbling, technologically challenged escaped slave. A former sanitation worker, he has no name until the pilot bestows one on him.     

Which character is black?  I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the ace pilot.

We aren’t born bigots, but in a society infused with racism, we absorb prevailing attitudes about race and ethnicity at an early age. Research debunks the myth that children are “color blind.”  Babies find their place in the world in part by noticing how they are similar to and different from other people. As children grow, they develop attitudes and judgements about race and ethnicity based on how similarities and differences play out in the world around them. Who are the good guys?  Who’s bad?  What do people cleaning bathrooms look like?  How are they treated?  What do shopkeepers, doctors, teachers, and trash collectors look like?  Who’s called beautiful? Who’s called ugly?  Who dominates and who is absent? By adolescence, we may absorb a complete set of racial and ethnic stereotypes we carry into adulthood unless we actively choose—or life circumstances force us—to acknowledge and actively change them.

The stories that permeate a culture have always been vehicles for transmitting social values and norms. Today, many children spend more time with screens than any activity other than sleeping. The stories dominating childhood today are created by a few huge entertainment conglomerates, each of which extends its program’s power through branded toys, food, clothing, and accessories. Unfortunately, many children’s primary experiences of people whose race or ethnicity differ from theirs come from media constructions, which also teach kids how their own racial or ethnic group is characterized by others.     

As public outrage over the “whiteness” of the 2016 Academy Awards highlights so clearly, institutional racism is alive and well in the media industry. Righting that wrong is crucial, yet it isn’t always enough. On Project Greenlight, HBO’s reality series about making movies, Effie Brown, production manager for the film being produced, purposely hired a multi-racial production team. Despite her efforts from the beginning to avoid stereotypical casting, in a film whose actors are predominantly white, she is horrified to discover that the lone black actor singled out is playing a chauffeur.

The character of Finn, the escaped slave in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is by no means the most harmful stereotype of black men in films. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that Finn was created with the movie makers’ best intentions. J.J. Abrams, the film’s director, has spoken out about the importance of racial and ethnic diversity in films. White supremacists even called for a boycott of the film. Good intentions alone, however, don’t prevent film-makers, or any of us, from acting on and perpetuating stereotypes. The beings we encounter in movies, television shows, and video games are conjured by producers, directors, writers and casting directors who—even with the best of intentions—create out of their own, often unconscious, history of accumulated bias.

Facing our own biases necessitates an inner journey that begins with acknowledging the power and limitations of personal experience. It’s unlikely that any of us have completely escaped the deeply embedded societal stereotypes. Freeing ourselves from them is difficult. In my experience, it’s especially hard—if not impossible—to do it on our own. As someone who sometimes writes about racism, and has written scripts for children’s media, I’m grateful for the multi-racial, multi-disciplinary help I’ve had along the way. Over the years, I’ve worked with some wise, brave, advisors who spent their lives immersed in work to eliminate racism. They never shied away from calling me out when my own biases inadvertently cropped up in what I was creating—and I and my work are better for it.

Here’s what I think they would say if they’d been asked about Finn before the film was produced:  It’s great to see a black hero in a blockbuster film. Does he have to be an escaped slave?  If he does, then at least let him choose his own name.  Can he be more competent and less bumbling?  How about making him the ace pilot? Oh—and lose the sanitation joke. It’s not worth it.