Compelling Issues

How Hollywood Brainwashed Us Into Seeing Whiteness As The Default Identity

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When I was a teen, I fell in love with tons of fictional characters that looked nothing like me. Most of them had blue-green eyes, slim figures and silky hair that was easy to comb through. They wore cute new outfits every day, lived in beautiful homes with spacious back yards and had pet dogs with really cool names, too. I couldn’t relate to any of this stuff because as a dark-eyed, chocolate-skinned girl, I was more familiar with kinky hair that defied gravity and small apartments where no pets were allowed. But even so, I could see bits of myself in these white TV and movie characters. For instance, I could relate to Mia Thermopolis, the awkward outsider who lived in a New York City apartment and had big frizzy hair that could literally break a brush (this definitely happened to me, FYI). However, a tiny part of me always wondered why I never saw such relatable qualities in characters that actually looked like me.

Sure, I noticed characters of color sprinkled in the mix on a few occasions, but even then, I noticed that the amount of white characters far outnumbered the characters of color. In the rare cases where a non-white character did become the focus, though, they were almost always defined by their race, unlike their white counterparts. For instance, think about how Fez, the offbeat foreigner from That ’70s Show, practically idolized American culture and was always the butt of his friends’ jokes. Or consider the fact that Beverly Hills, 90210 specifically added black characters in order to address racism in “One on One,” where the school recruited a group of black boys to join their basketball team. Not only is this problematic, but it reveals how the entertainment industry cleverly tricks people into seeing whiteness as the norm and everything else as an oddity.

Several studies have proven that this idea is taught through kids’ shows and films, meaning that people start to internalize these beliefs from early childhood. In one 1983 study, 1,100 characters from 20 children’s shows were analyzed. F. Earle Barcus, who conducted the study, found that only 42 in that group were black, while 47 belonged to other non-white groups. This project sparked an ongoing study of diversity in animated kids’ shows by the Children’s Television Project at Tufts University, and from the looks of it, there’s been little process since then. Even though there’s a slight improvement in racial and ethnic diversity, researchers have continued to see a similar pattern where the white characters vastly outnumber minority ones, which are still often stereotyped. This is part of how we’re conditioned to accept being white as the default, even if it turns out that what we see on our screens don’t reflect the world we actually live in. And sadly, that’s just the beginning.

Kids’ shows and movies plant the seeds of this belief and then Hollywood waters the sprouting garden of racial bias all the way into adulthood. They spend more time promoting the whitest shows, allowing racially diverse shows to exist (“a win for representation!”) without really incentivizing people to watch through marketing campaigns. Even further, they consistently whitewash characters of color in adaptations and they shamelessly use non-white characters as one-dimensional tokens to tout as a progressive win.

Meanwhile, we’re expected to accept that white entertainment is what’s “mainstream,” and non-white entertainment won’t be financially practical because white Hollywood made the rules years ago and refuses to challenge itself.

On an episode of Master of None, Aziz Anzari‘s character, Dev, perfectly addressed this in his talk with Danvers, who claimed that a TV show could never do well with more than one Indian characters. He said: “If I do a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everyone’s gonna think it’s an Indian show. It wouldn’t be as relatable to a large, mainstream audience.” Dev replies, “But you would never say that about a show with two white people. Every show has two white people.”

Notice how he didn’t say two “German people” or “British people” or “Swiss people.” Why? Because what really matters is that they are white, as it automatically qualifies them to play the quintessential white character in yet another mainstream project.

Actress Issa Rae hit the nail on the head when she discussed this in her book The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl. She said: “Girls, New Girl, 2 Broke Girls. What do they all have in common? The universal gender classification, “girl,” is white. In all three of these successful series, a default girl (or two) is implied and she is white. That is the norm and that is what is acceptable. Anything else is niche.”

So if, say, a Muslim couple or a black group of friends were on a promotional poster for a new show or film, chances are, nearly everyone would assume that these shows were made for a specific group of people. It’s why we still don’t see as many actors of color with complex lead roles, because as Danvers put it, they apparently aren’t be “relatable” enough. Rather, they’re limited to playing the sidekicks that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or pushed to the sidelines in a sloppy attempt to achieve diversity.

It’s as if Hollywood has been trying to tell us all along that being white is what’s “in.” That no one cares to see the stories of people of color, to learn about their culture, what they love, or how they bond because unless they’re being oppressed in some way, they’re irrelevant (think 12 Years a Slave or Precious). Sure, I’ve grown to love and connect with countless white characters over the years, but at the same time, it’s disheartening to see mostly white families, white neighborhoods, white BFFs, white couples, white schools, and white workplaces. It’s frustrating because for years, Hollywood has turned a blind eye to the fact that relatable, three-dimensional people of color actually exist.

But thankfully, we’re now living in a time where Hollywood finally seems to be grasping the importance of diversity. Groundbreaking films and shows like Crazy Rich Asians, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther and Insecure not only prove that there’s been some progress, but they also show that white stories aren’t the only ones worth telling. Not only are they worth telling but they’re profitable, something that white Hollywood didn’t want us to believe until now. It’s so exciting to see this growth, but of course, these are only the first few steps. This isn’t to say that Hollywood can singlehandedly shift everyone’s perspective or completely remove whiteness as the default identity. However, what they can is help break down the status quo by consistently striving to make racial and ethnic diversity the new norm. Maybe the next generation won’t see whiteness as the default because of the changes our generation makes in the movie and TV industry.