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On Reel Diversity: Adding Color To The Casting Call

Juliette Lin |
September 24, 2014 | 4:28 p.m. PDT


Shows like The Goldbergs seemingly exclude people of color. (@TheGoldbergsABC / Twitter)
Shows like The Goldbergs seemingly exclude people of color. (@TheGoldbergsABC / Twitter)
Much is to be commended for this year’s fall line up, with several shows featuring casts of color, from “Black-ish” to “Cristela” to “How To Get Away With Murder.” A time has come where the recognition of minorities as principal characters is becoming normalized. But while these new additions are trailblazing the way for increased representation on screen, the issue remains that many shows with a predominantly white cast lack diversity.

There seems to be a segregation of shows that fall into two categories:

1) Shows about a specific ethnic group centering around problems of ethnicity and

2) “Normal” shows, which feature white people facing circumstances involving their careers, relationships and values.

But either way, these shows seem to perpetuate the idea that people of color are foreigners finding their way in a white world.

Then, there is the occasional show—like "Scandal"—that may star a minority lead in a predominantly white society and deals little with notions of racial identity and controversies.

READ MORE: Fall TV 2014 Preview: 9 New Shows To See Or Skip

So who is to blame? Casting directors claim that they don’t purposely cast all white characters; it just happens. They label themselves “color-blind,” meaning that they don’t consider ethnicity as a factor when auditioning actors for the role. While this may be ideal, the truth is that no one can ever be impartial to skin color.

Our media has the tendency to place the white male on a pedestal, therefore ingraining in our minds that they are the superior race. It is not a coincidence then that more than 75 percent of cast members on each of the four biggest networks are white.

The “color-blind” argument does not change the fact that such a low percentage of minorities are currently featured on screen. Not paying attention to color by extension means not paying attention to cultural distinctions. Our ethnicities inherently contribute to who we are as individuals. So, why shouldn't we wear our identities proudly?

Writers are often hesitant to state the ethnicity of a character. But without defining ethnic traits that tie characters to distinct backgrounds, they cannot be well-rounded characters that resonate with diverse communities.

When agents see character breakdowns with the ethnicity listed simply as “American,” they automatically assume “Caucasian.” This is evidenced by the fact that in shows not deliberately featuring a cast of color, the main protagonists are predominantly white (and male - but that’s a different story). The minorities are often left to play stereotypes or ethically ambiguous characters with no acknowledgement of their background. Casting directors have become complacent in their ways, but this stagnation is ultimately a detriment.

Additionally, actors of color have a hard time finding roles for which to audition. Prominent actor, Michael B. Jordan, states, “I want the scripts Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have time for. Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t available? Call me.” Here, he makes the point that actors attached to high-end films are typically expected to be white, unless explicitly stated. As a black man, he is rarely given that opportunity. And while it may be difficult to imagine your new favorite Scorsese film starring anyone other than DiCaprio, it would make sense to have someone of a different ethnic background in the limelight, considering the ethnic make up of our population.

READ MORE: Yellow In A White Industry: Asians In American Film

As of now, nearly 50 percent of children in America are non-white, but this diversity found in our society has yet to be translated to television. It’s time to make a conscious effort to bring people of all backgrounds to the forefront of our media. As a new generation of people phase out the current industry leaders, we will hopefully see a movement towards improved representation on screen. Because a show that lacks diversity consequently lacks authenticity. Our world is full of color and that should be reflected.

While television is primarily a form of entertainment, it also holds the power to fuel social and culture change. Stories about interracial friendships and relationships are those that produce the most interesting commentary and are the ones that should be given attention on screen.

The responsibility falls upon all of us, whether we be casting directors, writers, agents, actors or mere viewers of television, to advocate for ethnic diversity. It's time to embrace what makes us unique.

"On Reel Diversity" is a column exploring the dynamics of ethnicity in film and television. Reach columnist Juliette Lin here.



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