All those white faces on television still not looking like real life

by | Nov 22, 2013 | Opinion

Sara Yonis

Sara Yonis, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Michael Jackson once famously sang that it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White—but evidently it still does in TV land. Nearly every show on television is dominated by a Caucasian cast.

TV has always been about the family. It’s been about families sitting together, watching TV shows and relating to characters who’ve grown up in front of our very eyes. But it’s hard to relate to the cast if everyone looks the same.

This is not a big surprise, as it’s always been that way. The most beloved shows on television have consisted of an exclusively-Caucasian cast including Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld and Beverly Hills 90210. In fact, despite their lack of a diverse cast, no one really seemed to mind.

After the series Friends and Seinfeld came to an end, they were finally met with some scrutiny. Both shows, which were comedy giants throughout the ‘90s, were set in New York City. Yet for shows based in NYC, a metropolis hugely known for its diverse population of people from all over the world, neither commonly featured guest stars who weren’t Caucasian.

The ‘90s did have their fair share of successful TV series that focused on African Americans families. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and The Cosby Show were all extremely successful television series. But no show is safe from criticism.

The Cosby Show, starring comedian Bill Cosby and his fictional upper-class African American family, was met with a lot of flak from black viewers who said the show was an “unrealistic” representation of African American families. Is it fair to say The Cosby Show was unrealistic? Most of the criticism came from African Americans who deemed the show “whitewashed,” mainly because the cast steered away from typical “poor, broke and black” stigmas that had been prevalent on television for years.

Most of the time when producers receive pressure from the public about the lack of diversity on their shows, they place a ‘token’ character. You know the type: the quiet and smart Asian, the intimidating ‘thug’ black guy or the pretty-but-dumb blonde.

Certain television series have progressed when it comes to casting.

HBO’s The Wire, a show praised for its realism, was also applauded for having a cast that consisted mostly of African Americans—one of the first serious dramas to have such a thing. Many TV shows have since followed suit.

TV series like Grey’s Anatomy and Glee have casts that include people of various ethnicities. In fact, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and its spinoff Private Practice, is one of few show runners who hires African American women in leading roles.

After years of Disney channel series focusing on Caucasian families, they have finally branched out. Raven Symone, star of That’s So Raven and Selena Gomez, star of Wizards of Waverly Place, are the networks’ first all-African American and Latin American family shows.

And as of last year, actress Kerry Washington broke some records. Not only was her TV show Scandal ABC’s biggest hit, but her role as Olivia Pope is considered groundbreaking for television. It was the first time an African American woman stood as the female lead in a network television series in nearly 40 years.

Network television shows have progressed in terms of their casting through efforts to depict the real diversity of the outside world, but they’re not fully there yet. Most network hits are still dominated by Caucasian cast members and I really wonder when TV shows will start looking more like real life.

In this day and age, when one of the most powerful countries in the world has an African American president, isn’t it time for television networks to catch up?