The Race to Representation

Why racial representation in Hollywood goes beyond casting directors 

Alisha Samnani // Opinions Editor

Christine Wei // Illustrator

As a mixed-race woman, I had quite the identity crisis growing up. I often felt like I didn’t belong. When I was a kid, it was challenging to find myself represented on the big screen. Where I could see parts of myself on a superficial level, they weren’t things I could relate to. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words—so what was I supposed to think of my worth when I wasn’t even in the frame? 

In her book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen pointed out that “racism, in the form of job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles, has defined the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s.” Indeed, horrifying—at least, by modern standards—caricatures and blatant examples of yellowface and blackface ran rampant in early Hollywood. From the release of the film Birth of a Nation in 1915, stereotypes surrounding people of colour have been interwoven into a startling amount of visual language that some are now attempting to undo. For example, minstrel shows popular in America at the time often satirized black people as dim-witted, lazy, or buffoonish—not exactly an ego-boost, now is it? 

While it is challenging today to find the share of movies and television shows that have non-stereotypical ethnic characters, what can be found are the number of non-Caucasian actors cast in popular media, as well as the number of directors and writers of colour that see their projects come to fruition.  

Although the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has chronicled an increase in racial representation in mainstream Hollywood, the 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report shows that only 19.8 per cent of lead roles were played by people of colour in 2017, while a minute 12.6 per cent of movies were led by directors of colour. If we make this pool more diverse, then there are more opportunities for women, POC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups to see themselves represented not only on the screen, but in all facets of society.  

Consumers of film and television have more of an impact on representation than you may think. Actively supporting and demanding media developed by, directed by, and made with marginalized minority groups in mind can push inclusion and real diversity of —not just perception—across the board in Hollywood.  

My lack of interest in movies as a child seems abundantly clear. Entertainment exists so that we can find connections between ourselves and the world around us. During our formative years, seeing ourselves reflected in the media we consume can play an important role in discovering who we are, and what kinds of things we can accomplish. During my formative years, I wondered how I was going to contribute to a society that didn’t seem to know I existed. In 2020, it’s naive to claim that these alternative perspectives don’t already exist—but it’s time to push them to the forefront. It’s time to have art imitate life. 

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