They look like me.
This is something I feel without even considering it when reading most books or watching most movies. Finding characters with whom I identify—who in some way represent some significant portion of my experiences or beliefs—is so easy that I never even think it might be a privilege. Specifically, I have never struggled to find characters who look like me.
So for an entire month, I chose to only read books or watch movies written by or about people who do not look like me.
It happened this way: I wanted to show video clips to my Senior 4 general studies class. We were wrapping up a unit on communication, and I thought they deserved to have a little fun with their end-of-unit review. Making them apply all the concepts they’d learned by analysing and critiquing some interactions in movies seemed like a good idea.
Choosing clips to show them, though, turned out to be a time-consuming and frustrating task. It’s difficult to find brief interactions that are understandable without knowing the slang used, details of the culture, or the broader context of the film.
But the biggest challenge I faced was finding clips that portrayed diversity.
Because none of my films are Rwandan, I was inherently presenting a series of tiny glimpses into American culture. And yet it seemed every example I could find (that wasn’t peppered with slang or dependent on culture and context) showed the same thing: white upper- or middle-class Americans living white upper- or middle-class lives.
Now, in interest of full disclosure, I do not have the entire internet at my disposal. I could not simply open my browser and search specifically for films portraying more diverse realities. And I’ll be quick to admit that my collection of films is likely not representative of the entire body of Western entertainment.
But… I have nearly 550 films and TV shows on my hard drive. I ran some numbers, and here’s what I came up with. Of those ~550 films:
- 349 feature an entirely white main cast
- 61 have a mostly-white main cast featuring one or two token characters of colour
- 26 feature a character of colour in the lead (sometimes sharing that space with a white character)
- 97 feature what I deemed a diverse cast
- 63 of those diverse casts feature white lead characters
- 22 include no white characters
- 15 feature a majority of characters of colour
Factors that should affect the conclusions drawn from those numbers:
- I did not include sequels (so, for example, seven diverse Fast and Furious films only total one point for diversity)
- many of thse include characters of colour fulfilling (usually negative) stereotypes
- the numbers do not account for minor background characters of any colour
- some are international films and by default include entirely non-white casts (such as my small Bollywood collection)
- some are set in a time/place in which racial diversity would be incorrect (i.e. Jane Austen films)
- some, especially animated films, include characters of colour played by white actors
- at least six of the “majority-non-white-characters” films arguably portray white saviour complexes
Twist my numbers however you want, but I don’t think you can work out a way to make them match up to US demographics, especially if you remove the Japanese and Indian movies, which make up the bulk of the “POC Lead,” “Majority POC,” and “All POC” columns in my spreadsheet.
There’s a difference between knowing that entertainment features and often propagates a lack of diversity and experiencing firsthand the frustration of actively looking for diversity and not finding it.
At this point, a friend and I decided that for the month of June, we would only read books or watch movies that were created by people of colour, featured a person of colour as the main character, or included a majority non-white cast.
I quickly became frustrated with my movie options. Not only were they severely limited in number, but they were also seriously limited in genre. If I wanted an action film, Denzel Washington or Jackie Chan had my back. But try finding a chick flick that isn’t about white people. (J-Lo saved me there, but my point stands. You can only watch Maid in Manhattan so many times in a month.)
I’ll be the first to concede that not every film should include racial diversity (as I’ve mentioned above, I own an insane number of period dramas, which in general do not and, for historical accuracy, should not include racial diversity)—but there should be more.
We need more.
I should see people who don’t look like me across the spectrum of genres and across the spectrum of character types—not just the bad guy, not just the soldier, not just the inner-city kid. I want more than the token Asian guy, the sassy black woman, or the expendable first-to-die-in-any-horror-film.
And people who don’t look like me should be able to see themselves in media. They should see themselves portrayed honestly, not boxed into stereotypes. They should see themselves in every genre and every form and every personality. They should see themselves breaking boundaries without overtones of white saviour mentality. They should see themselves as complex villains and complex heroes.
Creators of fiction, whether in print or on film, have a responsibility not only to portray the world as it is, but to portray the world as it could be.
We aren’t limited by the demographic statistics. We aren’t limited by reality. We have the freedom to dream up and share the world that we want to see.
And the world that’s limited to white characters with the occasional extra tossed in to fulfill the diversity quota…that’s not the world I’m dreaming of. That’s not a world I want to live in.
My students here hold the beliefs that all Americans are white, that being white by default makes you smarter, that having lighter skin makes you more attractive, that all white people are richer than all black people.
I want to change these beliefs.
But right now, the media is not helping me.