The portrayal of Black people in the entertainment industry is becoming more sensitive, equal, and reflective of society. Showing Black faces on the millions of American TV screens helped amplify this community’s voice and break down some barriers of discrimination. Although, the road has been bumpy and not always flattering.
To bring awareness to this history, Troutman Robbins and Daniel J. Leonard have put together a two-volume encyclopedia that documents the representation of people of color in American television. “Race in American Television: Voices and Visions that Shaped a Nation” contains commentary spanning five decades of TV, exploring how stereotypes and racism were perpetrated through this medium.
“Early television really reflected a very narrow representation of non-white characters. And a lot of the earlier characters were caricatures and racist depictions in many ways,” Robbins said to Futurity. “For a while in television, you had extremes. You had the Black criminal stereotype and all the negative tropes associated with Blackness on the one hand, and then you had good, assimilating, respectable Black characters on the other.”
As years went on, television became more representative of the Black experience and portrayed more complex and varied types of people. Racial diversity in casting has also improved, though Robbins shines a light on the importance of considering racial stereotypes when colorblind casting. This is where a person’s race is not taken into account in the context of the role.
“Colorblind casting sometimes does not include a critical and authentic consideration of folks’ experiences and identities. It matters because certain things take on a very different meaning depending on who is in the role,” Robbins explains.
“Say I have this character who’s an angry woman. It’s really different if she’s an angry white woman versus an angry Black woman because of the widely circulated, negative stereotype of the angry Black woman.”
Of course, there is still work to be done on some fronts. Robbins believes diversity in kids’ shows seems to be lacking. He makes the point that one of the only Black Disney princesses – Tiana in Princess and the Frog – is actually a frog for most of the movie. Representation on TV is especially important for children, being able to see someone who looks like you on your screen and in films boosts self-esteem and self-worth.
Overall, though, Blackness on TV is evolving into a more inclusive and representative space, with more opportunities for Black producers, Black crew members, and Black actors being created. Shows like The Chi, Insecure, I May Destroy You, and Pose, explore the rich landscape of Blackness, including lesser voiced stories from women and the LBGTQ+ community.