Growing up, my father, an educator, made sure that I saw multi-dimensional representations of people of color. When I was six, he even ordered me a set of books that were personalized, so there was a character named after me. In one of the books, based on Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the Zen character was invited to be the Mermaid’s friend, but I wondered – why couldn’t Zen be the Mermaid herself? That was the first time I learned that young women of color were written into narratives, but only as bystanders. I couldn’t be the main character. I also remember when, as a young teen, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won their lead actor Academy Awards in 2002, I was equal parts thrilled, frustrated that it had taken so long, and hopeful that things might change. Both as a young girl and as a teen, I learned what Hollywood thought of me, if they thought of me at all.
My experience of not seeing myself represented in media is why I advocate for diverse media representation. It’s why I work at The LAMP (Learning about Multi-media Project), a non-profit using media as a tool to educate students of color, mostly teens, on how to comprehend, create, critique and ultimately challenge the media. As the Education Associate, I help teach our students to be active, responsible consumers and producers of media.
For example, in a recent LAMP workshop, students aged 13-15 were learning about the six major media companies that control 90% of the media in America. One slide conveyed five white men holding all media messages in their hands. One asked, “These are the men that decide what I watch?” Facilitators nodded and asked, “What do you think?” One young lady raised her hand and pointed out the absence of women. Another raised his hand and said, “Everyone’s white.” It’s in moments like these that transformations occur.
In a world where black and brown culture and contributions are marginalized or ignored, the absence of diversity in the 2016 Oscar nominations for the second year in a row matters. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag serves as a symbol of the power structure that’s been ingrained in our culture. Race, class and gender are constructs but the systematic barriers that house them are real. The fact is that the current Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences make-up is 94% Caucasian and 77% male and continues to reinforce a hegemonic white narrative.
The Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted an analysis of diversity in the top 100 films in 2014. It found that 73.1% of characters were white – or three out of every four characters. 12.5% were Black and just under 5% were Hispanic/Latino. These findings make sense when taking into account the current Academy makeup.
These films are backed by executives, directors, casting directors and production teams who act as gatekeepers to select who/what gets portrayed and who/what gets rejected. Recently in an interview with CNN, Spike Lee stated, “The real battle’ over racism in Hollywood is not with the Academy Awards but in the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks, where gatekeepers decide which projects get made and which don’t.“ Lee followed up on his Instagram to add, “People, the truth is we ain’t in those rooms, and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.”
When you see people who look like you in roles that are layered, it activates a strong sense of self. In 1902, sociologist, Charles H. Cooley coined the concept of the looking-glass self, in which a person’s sense of self grows out of or is influenced heavily by society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. Currently, media serve as the primary source of socialization. They heavily influence our thoughts and ideas and affect how we internalize ourselves in society. Seeing people who look like you in movies transmits a message not only of validity but also of visibility. The phrase “you can’t be what you don’t see” is real for many. Young people are viewing these images on the big screen and internalizing a very monolithic version of what it means to be human. Young people of color are internalizing images conveying that in order to make it in Hollywood, you have to play a gangster, abusive mother or maid. These images are extremely problematic.
While Hollywood gets to choose what stories are told, students in LAMP workshops are learning how to deconstruct these stories and ask questions. Through hands-on participation students learn how to critically think about the media messages they are consuming on a daily basis all while learning to create their own new media messages that challenge stereotypes. My hope is that they will continue to demand more from mass media producers and add their voices as makers and creators of their own unique narratives.