Hollywood and the corporate media conglomerates that provide most of our entertainment are solely concerned with profit. They aren’t interested in productively addressing racial tensions or questions people struggle daily to answer. From the time of the ancient Greek playwrights until the early part of the 20th century, most writers telling a story to an audience were motivated by a wish to enlighten them about themselves and life. Exploring human complexity and understanding one’s fellow man was the goal. But today, many of our writers and producers want us to feel that it’s O.K. to think, “She’s black, so she must be/act like/speak like/come from …” or, “He’s Asian, so he must be/act like/speak like/come from …”
Growing up and watching television and movies, I didn’t see a lot of actors who were black, Latino, or Asian playing roles that made me say, “I want to be like them!” The Asians were body-chopping fighting machines or restaurateurs. Latinos were thugs if they were male, or maids if they were female. Blacks were slaves, oppressed, drug dealers or users—stereotypical stuff. I was lucky to escape into books that couldn’t tell me that their heroine must be white and that this story couldn’t be about me. Because a character was a different race didn’t mean that I couldn’t relate—but it would have been great having someone who looked like me doing something adventurous, positive, or exciting. As I got older, I noticed a common thread in entertainment: in stories with white lead characters, race never came up … but in stories with lead actors of color, race wasn’t merely a given circumstance, but the reason the characters did what they did. As an artist, a Christian, and young woman who happens to be of color, I have a major problem with this.
Many of us look to theater and film to explore something profound about the complexity of the human condition. But a lot of directors and producers seem to think actors of ethnicity are only believable and marketable when playing roles that help perpetuate stereotypes. To be fair, there have been a few movies in recent years that break the mold—likeThe Pursuit of Happyness, Enough, or Reign Over Me—but they are few and far between. Most of the images of black people that we see on the screen are negative and demeaning. Writers seem endlessly fascinated with the stories of black people who are unemployed, sell drugs, or commit murder, but haven’t we told those stories enough? What about the hundreds of thousands of other black people who have jobs and live successful lives but often grapple unfairly with assumptions that they are incompetent and uneducated? Why can’t we tell stories like Sleepless in Seattleor Atonement in which the central characters might be played by actors who happen to be of color? Minorities call in to radio shows, don’t they? There was a class of affluent blacks in Britain during the 1930s; why don’t we hear those stories?
This isn’t simply a “black problem”; it’s a human problem. I’m tired of stories that use race to define someone’s character—that help brew suspicion, contempt, and anger among people. How long is it going to take for all stories to be told without a color bias? In the end, aren’t we just human beings under the same skies?
So how can you and I—as audience members and especially as artists—put an end to this destructive form of storytelling? Not just by writing articles about why it’s a problem, or debating it endlessly. And certainly not by reading this article, feeling a bit of conviction, finishing your coffee, and choosing to forget what you read. Here’s a solution: Stop supporting films and plays that perpetuate stereotypes. Stop a friend who makes any remark about someone’s character based on race. Stop creating work that perpetuates stereotypes. Stop attaching unnecessary race qualifications in character descriptions. For the sake of understanding all of us, whatever our race or color—please stop!