Black representation on television is not enough

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HBO

The conversations on diversity in entertainment pretty much amount to a "Hurrah!" after the Emmys: We awarded a few people of color, some people of color were represented; let's pat ourselves on the back.

“To me, it feels embarrassing that we are still in a place in which we still have to note these moments..." Shonda Rhimes told Vanity Fair after last month's Emmys. "I’m hoping that it’s not a trend. I’m hoping that people don’t feel satisfied because they saw a lot of people win, and then think that we’re done.”

In the words of Rhimes, viewing this as the finish line is embarrassing. Awarding a few people for the first time ever after decades of hardly investing in black projects is not enough to absolve studios and award academies of racial bias.

Representation is not cause for celebration when there has been no deep, lasting change. It's surface-level bullshit in place of actual diversification. Our superficial view on representation allows white studios to sidestep criticism with lazy, quota filling representation that leads to applause during awards season.

All of this laziness allows for lazy content. A glaring example of this complacency: the tiresome clueless white person gag. It's ubiquitous.

Take, for example, Larry David, a man who loves this schtick. Curb Your Enthusiasm is about how David irritates everyone. It finds humor in how people tolerate -- or don't tolerate -- the character. But the show also gives a spirited defense of his behavior.

In every scene with a black actor, David embodies the clueless white person that unintentionally irritates touchy blacks. The result are long scenes with angry blacks hollering at the hapless, innocent white man. It's one of the few times David's character doesn't push back.

The thing is, David is aware that his principles may chaff, but he's carefully thought them out and believes in them and holds fast. This is how these interactions tend to go on TV: a black character rolls their eyes or pushes back, while the white person quietly affirms their assumptions. It's a very shallow affirmation for both sides and, ultimately, kinda racist.

This type of interaction shows up on both white and black shows. It's inescapable. And it's not funny anymore. We need to dig deeper into these characters and their interactions. It has the potential to be rich terrain, and that's why everyone goes back. But too often everyone just laughs and doesn't think about it.

We need to linger on and explore these things. We need richer character development and interactions.


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