(also published on Women of Badassery)
Upon researching this topic, I found that most articles claimed that underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minorities run rampant due to the unshakable racisms of news and entertainment media. However, I believe that though this was certainly the case in the days of “Gone with the Wind,” there are too many other competing factors to extricate racism as the sole case in today’s society.
In practice, modern-day racism is arguably a subset of classism–privileges or hardships based on socio-economic status—classism having an all-encompassing impact on the ability for minorities to present themselves as much as (and in the way they’d) like to be portrayed in TV, film and literature. Though there is a definite positive mobility towards more prevalent and accurate depictions of alternative groups, most writers, creators and directors are of the Caucasian male persuasion, causing a fairly limited scope of experiences to draw from for creative inspiration and character development.
Why is this? Why is it that according to a 2014 UCLA study, almost 90% of directors, 92% of screenwriters and 90% of show creators for broadcast television are Caucasian? It certainly explains the results of a recent statistical comb-through done by USC’s Journalism School, which surveyed the top 600 grossing films over a span of five years up through 2013 and found that about 74% of all speaking character roles were Caucasian.
The truth is it’s more complicated than simple racism; it’s systemic. Most aspiring minority directors, writer, actors and creatives simply don’t make it to the point where their scripts, plays and readings could be denied, as many of their talents never make it to a bona fide arts class, let alone a pitch desk. Whether due to lack of exposure, education or economic freedom, their opportunity is lacking far before a publishing or production agency has the chance to provide a rejection based on race. And as the inspiring African American 2015 Emmy award winner Viola David said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
With stiff competition in these fields, you are expected to have a degree, a portfolio, a resume of previous works, proof of expertise and a willingness to invest in writing a full edited book, an edited screenplay or filming a well-produced spec filmed. Acquiring said clout and creating said works takes a lot of time, effort and study before you can present yourself as an economically viable venture—and it all depends on one’s level of exposure to the professional arts and one’s economic situations.
Let’s first tackle exposure. A 2009 to 2014 Directors Guild of America study found that only 13% of directors who embarked upon their first assignment in episodic television within that time-frame were minorities. Are there a high proportion of minority students with arts degrees not finding work, or are there a significantly low number of students receiving arts degrees in the first place? According to a 2008 survey by National Endowment for the Arts, only 26% of African Americans and 28% of Hispanics age 18-24 reported receiving arts education of any kind, with 58% of Caucasians reporting having received arts education. Many minorities never realize they may have a talent for writing and director. Sulin Iyengar, Director of Research at the Endowment, stated that the shortage in arts education in schools is a big reason for the lack of arts exposure in minorities since schools are the most likely place for minority and underprivileged students to receive instruction in the arts.
But the most important point is that it simply makes very little economic sense to attempt a career in writing, film, or even music for a minority especially considering the current economic climate. You’ve got to have a means to support yourself or a supportive family while creating your works. If you or your family is more focused on becoming economically stable (building a savings, working three shifts, putting children through school), it leaves little free time to make creating a priority. According to Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) and Current Population Surveys (CPS) the unemployment rate of African Americans in major cities in 2014 hold a range of 10.2% to 13.67 with Hispanics at 6.02% to 10.53% and Caucasians at 3.75% to 5.29%. These statistics demonstrate that economic stability is a greater issue for minorities than Caucasians and this in turn may keep minorities from exploring artistic careers.
I myself did not grow up in a very privileged situation, but was given the opportunity at an early age to understand and appreciate the importance of art, writing, music and creative expression as a mode of communication—not only allowing me the freedom to write and release music, and to write and publish novels, but the wherewithal to create an artistic business in order to support my artistic habits and help contribute to the portrayal of cultural diversity in the creative world.
The media portrays who ‘it’ thinks we are, and we react to that, believing ‘it’ is setting our standard of behavior. However, if one would like the media to portray what he or she wants to see, he or she must be the one to pick up the pen and write the scene. I believe it begins at the adolescent level, exposing to underprivileged students the importance of the media—arts, music, film and literature—and its portrayals on our society as a whole but also on our personal interactions, prejudices and moralizations. If one could be exposed to how much power the wielders of media truly hold, and have an equal economic opportunity to pursue that power, I believe the tone of the conversation would change drastically.
Thoughtwards is a blog celebrating forward thought and the diverse thinkers who think them.
M. Lachi is an award winning recording/performing artist and composer, a published author, and a proponent of forward thinking. Having studied Management at UNC and Music at NYU, M. Lachi employs both savvies in her creative endeavors.
For more on M. Lachi's music click here.