Monday, May 24, 2010

TV Tokenism: A Follow-up

Last week, Mr. B presented a provocative look at tv tokenism: a practice whereby under-represented groups (women and people of color) remain largely absent from network dramas.

A quick recap: When the under-represented actors do appear, they are often marginalized (literally in advertisement photos we examined), receiving much less screen time and narrower, two dimensional characters to portray. In an attempt to placate opposition — such as the NAACP opposition we examined — network dramas often reserve apparent positions of power to under-represented actors (judges on Law and Order, police chiefs on every police show you can think of) all the while minimizing the screen time and complextity of these characters. If anything, these characters are mere obstacles for the white male leads to hurdle. At the end of class, we wondered whether the tokenism we observed in tv dramas mirrors such marginalization in our society. That's why the following story about minority contracts in Chicago caught my eye:

$1 billion in contracts that were supposed to include projects of firms led by minority and women were circumvented so that they appeared to comply with federal guidelines even as they perpetuated the practice of "whites only" contracting.

Consider Republican National Chairman, Michael Steele, who is African-American. He is the party's first minority leader. Yet many see many see him as a figure-head, a cynical attempt to attract votes from people of color (since roughly 5 out of every 6 black voters are Democrats) without any real clout of his own.

At my old school, which was on the South side of Chicago, there was only one African American teacher on a faculty that was over 100 people strong. There were three people of color in the entire faculty. Women fair better in education circles — slightly more than half the faculty were women. How does New Trier do by this measure? Do you think television networks, city government projects and public schools have an obligation to represent the American society in which they reside?

13 comments:

Molly said...

From what I have seen, New Trier does not have a lot of diversity within its teaching staff. I have never had an African American teacher, and I have only had one teacher who is Asian. I have had one Hispanic teacher and another that is Argentinean. That being said, If I have approximately seven teachers each year, I have had 21 teachers here, and three have not fit into the "white" category. I have been blessed with several caring, knowledgeable, and inspiring teachers, but the statistics do not bode well for the diversity within new trier.
One difficulty in getting qualified, diverse teachers to want to teach here is that they my feel uncomfortable being one of a select few from a different ethnic background. I'm not sure, but this could be why we have had difficulties replacing our currently nonexistent diversity coordinator.

nathans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nathans said...

Reading the article I couldn't help but notice striking similarities to the Kentucky Cycle. In the City of Chicago's case they are forced to give money to minority business groups, although clearly since they are failing to do so even under the provision, they do not want to. They are simply doing it to have "good looking politics". This reminded me of a passage in the Kentucky Cycle in which JT spills his heart to Mary Anne on the reality of his job:

(In reference to John Rockefeller): "See he'll give some money to a school or something, and grateful people will call him a hero.. and that story will survive... while the other story, that he's just a thief, that'll fade away. Thats your truth" (165)

I see one connection with what we discussed in class today in regard to the education of Mexican Americans in Arizona on the social disadvantages their ancestors have faced. We debated whether the truth was really the best thing to tell the Mexican American children. I see the connection that just like the KC that there are always two sides to a story. Like Mr. Bolos always says, "There's the story you hear, and then there's the truth"

Now I wouldn't go as far as to say that Mayor Daley is a thief, but I would say that he is robbing minorities the equal opportunity that is offered to their white counterparts by not honoring the agreement of the distribution of the funds. Now as far as an obligation goes, I think government does have one. I say this because clearly as we have seen with Mayor Daley, equal opportunity will not happen on its own unless it is strictly enforced.

DPark said...

Like Molly, I have had a minimal number of minority teachers (1).

I also totally agree that New Trier's student racial composition may serve to intimidate or disappoint possible teachers. I'm not sure if this is true, but some teachers might feel comfortable with a group of students that shows diversity. Our American Studies class is a great example; through our vast array of experiences and backgrounds, we can synthesize and contrast in a rich environment.

As for TV networks, I think that they do not have an obligation to represent the American society in which they reside. The actors that play the parts are the best ones for the position and I don't think that the quality of television actors should be sacrificed for racial composition accuracy.
It's similar to any team or committee. People are not going to magically align to be perfect for the positions desired.

S. Bolos said...

Danny, think about what you are saying: "The actors that play the parts are the best ones for the position."

If that's true, consider that since there are nearly no examples of a minority actor at the center of a network drama, it must mean that minority actors are just not very good. Right?

J.D. M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madelaine C said...

As Mr. Bolos told us in his presentation, the only reason we even have television is for the commercials. The sole purpose of television is to make as much money as possible. Because of this, I don't think that television networks have an obligation to represent American society. It is incredibly racist and horrible that television networks fail to show the diversity of America in its shows, but I think that is just a fact of the entertainment industry that cannot be changed (not any time soon, at least).

No one knows if a big network show with a main minority character would succeed because, as we discussed, it hasn't been done. Numbers and ratings show that main characters who are white males rake in the most money, so why would a television network want to change what has been working for so long?

J.D. M. said...

Millions of Americans invest time each day to watch news on television. Local and national alike, it seems like people of color play a very minimal role as news anchors. And when they are included it is apparent that the reason for their inclusion is solely to diversify that station's newscast. Take for example the Chicago NBC 5 news cast. Of the entire cast there is one woman of color. (http://www.nbcchicago.com/station/about-us/?page=2). Our society consists of many diverse races, however, often times our news stations fail to represent our society truthfully.

Sarah. said...

I want to attempt to answer the last question you posed about whether or not schools and government projects should have an obligation to represent the American society in which they reside. I think it's extremely necessary to represent large, public groups of people in a diverse way. But I don't think we should do it for the sake of doing it. My thinking goes back to the TV Tokenism presentation Mr. Bolos did at American Studies Day. I thought to myself that including token characters would further promote racial and ethnic inequality in society because they are there solely for the sake of money. What I mean is that, if a judge is black on Law & Order, I'm not going to think he did anything to deserve that job position (fictitiously, of course). He got it because he's a black actor, and because he would reassure audiences across the nation that the show's writers were not racist. But that further limits what an ethnic person can do in reality. Those token characters become token people - sidekicks, not fully-deserving of what they have. The token character will be played by a token actor who will be perceived as a token person.How can we reflect a diverse society if like you said, token characters become "obstacles"? Instead of belittling roles of ethnic people, we might as well eliminate them all together. It would be more representative of our society, in my opinion.

Sarah. said...

I didn't mean that there should be no race seen on TV, I meant that only if people genuinely want and appreciate diversity should it be there. Sorry if that was not clear.

Claire m said...

If these organizations fail to properly represent American society, then the American public begins to perceive different races through the lens of those organizations. Television networks certainly serve as a type of media, and therefore must be truthful in order to maintain a democracy. In this instance, the democracy might not be representing the government but rather the idea of racial equality. So if TV networks do not represent the diversity in America, the country is misinformed about 'racial' democracy. This should certainly not occur because Americans might fail to recognize the importance minorities have in creating our society.

Anna H. said...

As far as teachers at New Trier, I also have only had one teacher that is considered a minority. But what I find interesting is that the two of the three language teachers I have had have been white and the third is half Argentinian. So, even in the department where I think there is a great opportunity to have diversity, there isn't.
Ever since TV Tokenism has been brought to my attention I can't seem to escape it. Just the other day I was watching Friday Night Lights where a black character was being referred to as a "voodoo" woman. I think that television networks have an obligation not to necessarily represent the society that we live in by purposefully placing minority groups on network dramas. But, I believe that they have an obligation to choose the best actor for the role regardless of their race.

Katie O. said...

I agree with Molly and probably many others who have only had a few teachers who were not white. I have had only two teachers that were not white in my three years at new trier. I think in a school where the majority of our teachers are white, and the majority of the students are white, teachers who are not white, as Molly said, may be more hesitant and uncomfortable with this type of environment. Especially with schools in the area like Evanston Township and Lane Tech that have much more diversity than New Trier and are still extremely good schools, non-white teachers may be more compelled to teach at school like these.