Sunday, April 6, 2014

BlackFaces…the portrayal & progress of black TV characters

So on Buzzfeed, you can take a plethora of trivial quizzes which tell you which state you should live in, what your career should be, and what TV character you are from popular sitcoms. More often that not, when people are getting their results back from these “Which TV character are you” quizzes, you don’t see a plethora of black characters in your quiz results.  As I think about it…it’s been a while since I’ve related to a black character on television.  I remember the first time I did relate to a black male TV character, and that was Tahj Mowry playing the role of TJ Henderson in Smart Guy. It was finally nice to relate to someone who looked like me (and wasn’t a white cartoon character like Nickelodeon’s Doug or an aardvark like PBS’ Arthur).

Fast forward throughout my adolescent, teenage and adult TV habits…I’ve noticed that I haven’t felt there were many opportunities to relate to characters that look like me. On some levels I’m not upset by this and don’t view it as entirely problematic. It definitely supports the “we’re all the human race” ideals that allow me to connect to different gender, racial, cultural and socioeconomic groups.  Simultaneously, my limited opportunities to relate to a black character show that there is an underrepresentation and narrow/archetype representations of black characters in television.  This in turn limits the opportunities that non-blacks have to connect to a character unlike themselves/ or is black.  I am fully aware that TV is not the only way different races can connect. Through this post I am simply focusing on the lack of opportunities that blacks and non-blacks have to connect to black characters through the lens of television.

With all that said, I’ll continue with some feedback I got from other blacks around this idea. I put it together in a short montage video, which highlights the driving sentiment of this post.

After thinking about the implications and solutions to the problems and progress that were raised from my “research” (lol…) I came up with the following:

Problem:  Confusing Positivity with Relatability
Some writers are confusing “positive” and “relatable”.  Sure there are black women dentists, yes there are black male therapists…but flooding TV viewers with squeaky clean/nearly perfect/unrealistically successful adaptations of these black professionals combined with clichĂ© storylines and weak dialogue often leaves viewers let down and unfulfilled.  Relatable characters are flawed, have various socio-economic backgrounds and occupations, and are complex beings with many endearing character traits.

Solution:  More Black Writers, Producers and Directors
Get more skilled black writers, directors and producers who can tell the range of narratives and experiences of blacks. There are countless names for white TV screenwriters and producers, how come we can only think of Shonda Rhimes when it comes to black TV screenwriters???

Problem:  Typecast Tokens
Black characters on TV often exist in siloes with assigned archetypes.  While it helps to get blacks exposure on the silver screen, it limits and stifles the range of black experiences and opportunities for people to connect to black characters. Also, sometimes the typecast role of tokenism perpetuates stereotypical and damaging perceptions of black people.

Solution: Cast Multiple Blacks on a TV Show
I know it sounds crazy…but there are lots of places in America where there is more than one black person interacting with whites, Asians, and Latinos. I don’t know who got the idea that you should just have one black person, but casting multiple black people on a show normalizes and differentiates blacks’ representations. It increases the opportunities that blacks and non-blacks have to connect to TV characters.

In the interim, I’ll be waiting to get a black TV character result from a Buzzfeed quiz that feels fitting and doesn’t leave me thinking, “Did I get them because I’m black??!!?!”


  1. Thanks Jon! I appreciate your contribution to the post and wish you success as you continue to do your thing in the acting arena.

  2. Wow! Very nice read.

  3. Love this! I want you to start having a broader audience base. Your posts are always really insightful.


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