Wednesday, February 24, 2010

History of the Underrepresentation of People of Color in Media

When consuming mass media in either forms of advertising, film, radio etc. have you ever noticed the absence of people of color? This phenomenon has been occurring since the beginning of mass media. Films like "Ethnic Notions" (1986) by director Marlon Riggs suggests the first form of mass entertainment was in the form of Minstrel shows. Minstrel shows and other caricature entertainment is a dramatic example of the under-representation of people of color in media facets.

Although these shows aimed to imitate and dangerously mock how whites felt [all] Black people acted, usually the actors were white, males performing in "Black-face" makeup designed to exaggerate stereotypical Black "features." Only on rare occasion did Black men perform these caricatures; and when they did, they too had to wear Black-face and act out the same skits meant to mock and keep Blacks in a submissive role. Check out this YouTube clip demonstrating the extreme popularity and damaging effect of these Black-face performances and other Black stereotypes had.

Most minority groups have faced some sort of prejudice, bias, stereotype or under-representation in media. "Yellow-face" is another example of white, male actors dawning yellow face makeup and exaggerated stereotypical features of Asians. The film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn grossed $14,000,000 and used famed [white] actor Mikey Rooney to play Mr. Yunioshi (a Japanese man) complete with yellow-face makeup, thick glasses and buckteeth.

What is further damaging about these "funny" displays is that they are purely racist masked behind the title of "entertainment." Minstrel shows, as well as the audience influenced by them are a good indicator of the influence the historical context and formation of political and social narratives had.

Contemporarily, people of color still struggle to get fair representation in media. John Stossel's article for ABC news titled, "Hollywood Stereotypes: Does What We See on the Screen Affect What we Think of People?" attempts to break down one of many layers of under-represented minorities in Hollywood. In this article, an interview with B.D. Wong of "Law and Order" states how he has only ever been cast as a doctor. Similarly Black people are cast as gangsters while Italians are mobsters, Latinos are drug-lords and people not of color are cast as leads and saviors.
Check out the full article at

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