Racism is alive and well today. You don’t need television to tell you that. As a black woman, I am constantly torn between admiration for smartly written TV and frustration with the fact that all the main characters are white. But don’t mix my frustration with that of “TV is too white, let’s get rid of it.” My issue is more of that, “TV is so great, but all I see are white characters and why is that OK?”
“Mindhunter” — Netflix’s new, sharp and well written show — is composed of all things that make great television: A handsome young lead, psycho killers and love. What makes this show so frustrating to love is the idea that a great TV show has to naturally have a white cast in it in order for it to be well received. On the rare occasion that we see incredible black movies like “Moonlight” be made and win awards, we see five times that many white films be made that year.
The show takes place in the 1970s and one can assume the only leads are white people in order to “reflect the times.” However, I find this hard to believe when the black population in America was 11.1 percent in 1970 and the first issue of the black women’s lifestyle magazine Essence was published earlier that year. It was also the same year Kenneth Gibson was elected the first African-American mayor of Newark, N.J. In 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund was established by Marion Wright Edelman, to name a few. Black people were working, changing and innovating. “Mindhunter” should “reflect the times” and the FBI was (and still is) very white. However, we cannot put up blinders to the world around us in order to justify why a television show has to be white.
Mindhunter is just one example, though. There’s a whole assortment of beloved shows with almost no black actors or actresses, too. A study published last year by USC’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg found that, “Of those speaking or named characters with enough cues to ascertain race/ethnicity, 71.7 percent were white, 12.2 percent black, 5.8 percent Hispanic/Latino, 5.1 percent Asian. Thus, 28.3 percent of all speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which is below (-9.6 percent) the proportion in the U.S. population.” This is all not to say that black television isn’t prevalent, but where it is found it is diluted and made palatable to white audiences. There are examples of great black television like “Black-ish,” “Atlanta” and “Insecure,” but those are only a blip of hope in the grand scheme of whitewashing in Hollywood.
My qualms are not with overall lack of representation in media, it is with the notion that in order for a television show to be good, it must be white and that this notion has been instilled in me in growing up in America. Yes, I love “Atlanta,” but I love “Mindhunter” too. The heart of the issue lies with the idea that the norm of the characters you see on screen are that of white people and in order to break the mold, we must accept that the content of good television should not be naturally forced onto a white cast in order to ensure its popularity and success.
This is what it comes down to: black Americans remain one the highest consuming audiences of TV, according to Horowitz Research’s annual FOCUS African America report. But what we end up watching are great TV sitcoms that focus around white characters. The impact on us and our children is that we are not important. The smart TV shows we love are white because that is what society tells us is the norm.
Where does this leave me? Waiting eagerly for season two of “Mindhunter,” obviously. But also waiting for Hollywood to stop instilling the idea that they have to make great scripts white in order to be popular. I want more good television. I want smart scripts that have me thinking conceptually about social issues. I want talented actors paid fairly no matter their gender or race. Most importantly, I want fair access to those scripts, no matter the color of your skin.
Featured Photo: Ayah Mouhktar expresses her frustrations with current American television, including shows like Mindhunter. (Dominic Smith/Flickr)