The unbearable whiteness of TVing

There have been few times in my life where I have had a single-race group of friends. Living when and where I have, there have even been few examples where I was the only person of colour (PoC) in my immediate social circle. Part of it came, to be sure, from the fact that my high school was ludicrously multicultural, and I went to university for the next 6 years of my life before moving to Vancouver, a city with a huge PoC population. Simple probability theory dictates that you can’t really put together a monoracial group without more than a little bit of intentionality behind your friend selection.

Which is why shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother annoy the living shit out of me. Well, to be fair to HIMYM, they eventually cast Kal Penn, so now the only thing that annoys me is the terrible writing. Anyway, these shows somehow manage to be about a group of white people living in one of the most multicultural cities in the world who only have ny kind of meaningful contact with other white people. Sure, PoCs occasionally pop into existence on these shows, but it’s almost always as either one-off characters or as “hilarious” jokes based on stereotype.

Last week I invited you to think about privilege as a pair of coloured goggles that prevented you from being able to see certain parts of the spectrum. Of course, if it were simply the case that privilege caused you to ‘miss out’ on things, it wouldn’t be much of a privilege, would it? Here’s the thing – that kind of selective blindness has consequences:

A longitudinal panel survey of 396 White and Black preadolescent boys and girls was conducted to assess the long-term effects of television consumption on global self-esteem. The results revealed television exposure, after controlling for age, body satisfaction, and baseline self-esteem, was significantly related to children’s self-esteem. Specifically, television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for White and Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys.

The Claim

The authors look at previous research in the area of self-esteem, and note the fact that there is a relationship between self-esteem (particularly body shape satisfaction) and the amount of television watched. This relationship is likely to be exaggerated in girls and black children, as media analysis suggests that the portrayal of these groups is less than flattering (when compared to for white boys)*. Furthermore, there may be an effect on global self-esteem due to differences in gender and race role portrayal. The authors ask the following research questions:

  1. Is there a racial difference in the relationship between television exposure and subsequent self-esteem?
  2. Will gender and race moderate the relationship between television exposure and subsequent self-esteem?

The Prediction:

If it is the case that television viewing provides skewed socially normative models for gender and race (skewed towards white men), then we should see two things: 1) an inverse relationship between television viewing and self-esteem will be viewed in the population at large (i.e., if you watch more TV, your self-esteem goes down), particularly in girls and black children; and 2) this effect will persist even when controlling for body shape (i.e., it’s the role, not just the appearance that makes a difference).

The Test:

Panels of elementary school children were asked to answer questions about their television watching habits. The panelists were also asked to complete global self-esteem scales and scales that explicitly measure body satisfaction (i.e., how you think you look vs. how you wish you looked). Body satisfaction was used as a control variable, to ensure that the investigation could determine changes in global self-esteem from the already-known effect that television watching has on perceived body shape esteem. These tests were conducted at two different time points to observe change over time.

The Results:

A table from the study showing study outcomes (white vs. black and boys vs. girls)

Click to enlarge

 We can see from the above table that there are racial differences in the study variables observed between boys (white boys watched significantly less television at the second observation point) and girls (black girls watched more TV at both time points). There was no significant racial difference in self-esteem or body shape esteem.

However, that’s not the end of the story. The authors constructed a linear regression model to observe the effect that television has on self-esteem when controlling for age, race, and body esteem (and various interactions thereof). The results were, depending on your perspective, either shocking or shockingly predictable:

Another table showing the results of the model

Click to enlarge

We can see from the above table (kind of – I’m not exactly wild about the arcane way these results were presented) that there is a relationship between race, gender, and television watching. I’ll break it down the way the authors do:

  • Television watching was associated with negative self-esteem scores in girls, but not in boys (when race was not included in the model)
  • Television watching was associated with negative self-esteem scores in black children, but not in white children (gender not included in the model)
  • Television watching is associated negatively with self-esteem in white girls, black girls, and black boys, but positively associated with self-esteem in white boys. In fact, the magnitude of the positive association was as large (positively) in white boys as it was (negatively) in black girls, who had the largest effect size.

The rightmost column (ΔD2) shows how much more of the variance is explained by the addition of new variables into the model (it’s perhaps easiest to think of this as how ‘strong’ the model is at ‘predicting’ the independent variable – self-esteem in this case). As you can see, controlling for race and gender isn’t exactly the ‘silver bullet’ of self-esteem prediction, but the associations are statistically significant.


The authors give an explanation, grounded in the literature, of the mechanism by which increased television viewing may vary self-esteem among gender and racial groupings. They posit that the way different groups are portrayed on television plays a role in how children come to see themselves. Given that the majority of television characters are white men (given positions of high status with a frequency that is disproportionate to statistical reality), and that women and characters of colour are usually either absent or play very stereotyped roles, the authors suggest that repeated and ongoing exposure to television gives children a distorted view of their own place in society, and in so doing warps their sense of self-worth.

The authors note my main misgiving about this study – there was no attempt made to determine the type of television that the children watch. It is certainly not inconceivable that kids don’t all watch the same shows – that boys differ from girls, and black children differ from white children in their show preference. As a result, there is no way to directly test their proposed mechanism.

The other variable that is unmeasured is the presence or absence of adult supervision or control over television watching. A kid may, for example, watch a lot more TV because their parents work all the time – this would mean less time spent talking about what ze saw on hir favourite shows, which may moderate the effect that those shows have vis a vis self-esteem. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that parental availability differs along racial lines (and perhaps gender lines too).

Regardless of these weaknesses, it’s an interesting study that may serve to demonstrate that the messages we receive from our connection to popular culture are very different depending on what else is going on behind the eyes watching the tube.

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*To hopefully forestall the predictable objection, the authors do in fact note that media portrayal of white men does present white boys with a distorted self-image. This also has an effect on their self-esteem. The size of the effect, however, is much smaller than for girls and for black boys.


  1. mynameischeese says

    I give you 10 points just for the Kunderalicious title of this post. And a big Yes to everything else.

  2. says

    At all.
    Of course, I have to make the effort to notice the whiteness, to me it’s the maleness that really gets me.
    Having two young daughters, their media consumption is one of the areas I’m really working on, trying to present them with examples of strong, kick-ass women* (or women at all, seems like most of humantity reproduces asexually).
    It’s not just TV and movies, it’s books, too. If you look at the winners of the Caldecott medal (the nobel prize for children’s literature, so to speak) you see a striking discrepancy between books about boys and books about girls.
    Because things about girls are for girls, things about boys are for everybody. I guess the same holds true for race: things for black kids are for black kids, things for white kids are for everybody. Leaves you with the white boy.

    *And most annoyingly, those examples then usually portray “feminine” stuff as bad and second class. Their opponents are cute girls, girls who wear pink, play with dolls. Way to ingrain them with self-hatred.

  3. Cuttlefish says

    With my own privilege-goggles on, I had not been annoyed by these shows (other than, as you say, the writing), and only occasionally and casually noticed their monochromatism. You are in Vancouver; I am in Cuttletown, where I literally cannot (despite living here for 20 years) tell you where the nearest PoC live. I taught for 8 years here before having my first PoC in a classroom.

    I have lived in New Jersey, in a beautifully multi-ethnic area, and in theory I know what I am missing in pale-ville USA…but that’s the insidious nature of privilege-goggles. I grow accustomed to my status quo, and only notice that human beings come in different configurations when I visit the real world. And the worst of it is, when I do visit a city, it feels alien, instead of feeling comfortable (as it did when I lived there–I know how it is supposed to feel).

    I also grew up in a midwest state (many different towns), where diversity just didn’t happen unless you were in a city. I had PoC among my friends (and enemies–it was grade school–and my first crush) up until grade 5, when we moved to a new town, and then it was 10 years of all of the colors of white.

    So when you saw all-white shows as artificial, my experience would have seen multi-ethnic groups as odd. And frankly, that’s sad. A side effect of privilege that I don’t even notice most of the time, but it’s like having peanut butter sandwiches for every meal and not even realizing that there are other foods. Diversity is its own reward.

  4. says

    That is why it is all Buffy all the time in my house. Just kidding since Buffy is pretty white most of the time too. This is really interesting and I am glad you break it down for the less statistically literate person like myself.

  5. mythbri says


    Since this is a subject dear to my heart, let me make the following reading recommendations for your girls:

    Song of the Lioness Quartet, by Tamora Pierce

    It’s Pierce’s first series, which is a little bumpy but good for setting up what is to come. Fairly monochromatic as far as races are concerned, but definitely the kick-ass female thing going on. Although it has its problems, it’s well worth reading.

    The Immortals Quartet, by Tamora Pierce

    Second series, much more diverse and explores a lot of different issues in a very good way. Perfect for people who love animals and awesome women.

    Protector of the Small Quartet, by Tamora Pierce

    The best series so far, IMHO. The main character, Kel, is a truly believable, competent, level-headed, all-around cornucopia of awesome.

    Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

    Now, this series suffers a little from the “white person swoops in to fix everything for the brown people” trope, but it’s not quite as ham-handed as that and there are good things to be had.

    Beka Cooper Trilogy by Tamora Pierce

    This is the most recent series and the point where Tamora Pierce really dives into making her cast of characters diverse and believable people. Much love for this.

    Tamora Pierce also has another universe of books – The Circle of Magic. I’m not as familiar with those, but they are by all accounts very good. I suspect you will have the most luck in providing your daughters with good, realistic role-models through YA fiction, since it’s a medium that is a little less about mass appeal (Twilight notwithstanding) than other media.

    Tamora Pierce also has an eye-sore website with lists of her favorite books in different genres and years. She’s also on GoodReads and writes very thoughtful reviews and makes good recommendations:

    Crommunist, sorry for the slight OT – I’ll be back with another, more appropriate comment soon.

  6. mythbri says

    Oh, sorry – the Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett is phenomenal. But what else could you expect from Sir Terry? Also, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.

  7. Pen says

    I must say that I’ve been associated with a large group of white east coast Americans for some eighteen years and they do not have a single black person in their close circle (but one or two Asians), despite living in theoretically multiracial areas. I can confirm what Cuttlefish said for Britain also – lots and lots of white people in various parts of the country who never so much as pass a person who isn’t white on the street because there aren’t any there. Equally, of course, a smaller number of areas where white people are a minority. Those people who live in the all-white areas are informed of the fact that they live in a multiracial society solely through the television and other media. I’m not even going to start on the consequences of this.

  8. mythbri says

    First off – internet points to you for the title of the post.

    Second, the results of the study don’t surprise me at all. I can see your concern about not tracking the specific TV shows watched by the participants. But even shows that are geared toward those respective demographics aren’t necessarily free from images that would have a negative impact on white girls, black girls and black boys. When I was growing up as a white girl, I found myself rejecting a lot of the shows that were “meant” for me and I instead watched what my brothers did. The result of that and other factors in my upbringing bolstered an unconscious disdain for other “stereotypical” women, something that I’m still trying to get over.

    From my reading of Sikivu Hutchinson and others, I have a lot of sympathy for the black girls and other women of color. The stereotypes they have to deal with in media are much worse than the ones that are typically applied to me.

  9. says

    Also not taken into account is the effect of advertising in addition to the shows themselves. The achromatism of families, experts, drivers, groups of friends, shoppers etc. in commercials is getting better, but still doesn’t reflect reality. I won’t even go into the ubiquitous sexism and heteronormativity.

    One area of the media that’s improved quite a lot is news media (at least here in Canada). There seems to be just about as many women on camera as men and there’s a lot of racial diversity too (though I’m white, so my impressions may be off due to privilege–I can tell that it’s much better than either advertising or mainstream television shows though).

  10. says

    And now that I’ve read everyone else’s comments, I wonder if your experience living in Canadian cities is different from that of people living in either the US or Britain? I myself grew up mostly in Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa, and the last 3 years of highschool in a satellite town near Toronto (by far the whitest of the lot). My adult years (aside from the last three) have been spent in Toronto and Ottawa. My experience has been like yours–I always had lots of PoC in my groups of friends over the years. It would have been strange (and deliberately racist) to have had only white friends, so Friends and Seinfeld etc. always looked more than a bit artificial to me as well.

    Now I live in a small village east of Oshawa and it’s really rather noticeably pale to me. I find myself surprised that I’m surprised when I encounter someone who is brown or is speaking a language other than English (even if they’re speaking French). Very monocultural out here in pretty much rural Ontario, even though it wouldn’t be more than a half-hour’s drive to find lots more diversity). Is it any surprise we keep voting Conservative? (Come to think of it, Bev Oda is the only person of East Asian descent I can remember seeing out here.)

  11. says

    My experience has been like yours

    Somehow I doubt that 😛

    Actually, many of my friend groups have been ‘multi-ethnic’ only by virtue of the fact that I’m in them, although that usually depends on how small the group is. I have a group of black friends here in Vancouver, but even then it is rare for us to get together in a group larger than 5 or 6 before there’s someone from another ethnic group in the mix (especially if Isaac brings his girlfriend whose parents are Chinese). I don’t think it’s deliberately racist; I think it just happens when you look for friends who share similar interests and personalities and life circumstances. Those things often align with race.

    And yes, the idea of a multicultural Canada fades pretty quickly once you get outside the major urban centres (with some important caveats in the prairies, Atlantic Canada, and a teeny handful of places here in BC).

  12. Emburii says

    I actually don’t think much of the third Tiffany Aching book, ‘Wintersmith’, at all and would NOT suggest it to children; there is that strong thread running through it where the girl who is more suited to be a wizard is bullied into being a witch instead, and this is treated as good by everyone including Granny Weatherwax (who should know better, at least from the third book of the main Discworld series). They even recommend she get all this fake stuff to look the part of a witch and make it work, rather than once suggesting she go to UU.
    I don’t want to tell a gay kid, even through fiction, that they have to act straight. I don’t want to tell someone who is trans that they have to accept the body they were born with if it’s not working for them. I don’t want to tell someone of Latin@/Hispanic extraction that they have to go to Mass if they don’t want to. Unfortunately, that message of conformity is easily the takeaway a younger person could get from ‘Wintersmith’.

  13. Emburii says

    This whitewashing of television is one of the reasons I’m done with Doctor Who unless they feature either a woman or a person of color as the next Doctor. Eleven iterations of the White Man’s Burden is already boring, a twelfth would be unbearable.

  14. mythbri says


    I can see that. Granny always thinks she knows best, even when she doesn’t. But there are some important issues that are discussed in that book as well – so while you might not want to recommend it for children, I see nothing wrong with recommending it to mature young adults.

  15. Emburii says

    It seems like a good idea to at least discuss that issue in particular if you do recommend the book, though, before and after, because it is a really toxic idea that gets pushed constantly. Even an otherwise mature young adult is most likely dealing with that pressure, and the questions comes to whether or not the good parts of the book outweigh the extra bars it might put on a developing person’s psyche. +

    I also dislike the book in that it makes Tiffany a Mary Sue in the sense of deforming existing canon and characterization to support her story (as noted, the difference between Granny Weatherwax’s behavior in ‘Equal Rites’ and ‘Wintersmith’. But that’s going way off from Crommunist’s original post, so I intend to stop after this comment.

  16. says

    The one positive takeaway that I’ve got for that show (I’m halfway through the 2006 season – still waiting to learn why people like it so much) is that Mickey does not adhere to any black stereotypes that I’ve seen, with the exception of the time he pretends to be a tough guy sitting in his car. He’s a dork and a bit of a goof and has his own personality that is not simply a stereotyped outcropping of his skin colour.

    The other thing that blows my mind about that show is that even in the distant future, white people are running things. The fact that they exist blows my mind, but they’re still the majority both statistically and politically. One of those weird products of not really having to think a lot about demographics, I guess.

  17. Iain says

    I can add a couple of data points on de facto racial segregation in the US and England. The two mid-size (c. 100,000 people) towns I lived in for the longest – Boulder, Colorado and Cheltenham, England – both had overwhelmingly white populations. My school in England had a handful of Pakistani kids, of whom one was in my circle of friends. But literally the only time I ever saw a black man in the town was when the local Conservative party shipped in a parliamentary candidate from Birmingham. In Boulder, there were some Hispanics (though remarkably few for the Southwest), but if Crommunist had come for a visit, he would have found himself constantly asked if he was on the football or basketball team, because that was pretty much the sum total of the black population.

    So when I watch those TV shows, it’s not just my white-guy goggles that make me not notice the lack of diversity – it’s also the fact that this is what the world around me has looked for most of my life. One of the things I find most appealing about Toronto is that it’s not just incredibly diverse – with substantial populations from practically every country on the planet – but that those populations don’t wall themselves off into isolated communities.

  18. Emburii says

    Mickey is one of my favorite characters, right up there with Martha (though unfortunately she gets saddled with a unrequited romantic longing fore the doctor, bleh. ‘Doctor’…she’s the doctor, he’s just a pretender. For him to claim that with her on the show was doubly irritating.) I was really upset that we didn’t get to see more of them. Amy Pond’s daughter gets to be important to the very fate of the universe, but Mickey and Martha and their UNIT work are completely forgotten…

  19. says

    worth noting HIMYM had Wayne Brady as a Barney’s recurring brother… not really much but hey 😛

    I don’t know if we get an accurate sampling of American TV here (I’m Australian) but as far as sitcoms go, you either get your two-and-a-half-men/how-I-met-your-mother type all-white comedies or stuff like My Wife & Kids where it’s pretty much the exact opposite.

    At least stuff like King of Queens, while crap writing, had the African American best friend, a bunch of Italian American characters, etc but now that I think about it most of the cast was still of western European descent, if not specifically anglo saxon…

    Does Becker count? 😛 That’s going back a fair way though…

  20. says

    To go off on a modest tangent, video games have the same issue. Just to run down some popular games series…

    Mario – The plumbers are white, Peach is white, and Bowser’s not even human so I’m pretty damn sure that doesn’t count as diversity. Please don’t bring up different colored Yoshis, either. I will facepalm.

    Zelda – Link and Zelda are both white. Ganondorf is a little bit of a toss-up, since it’s not really clear whether the Gerudo are supposed to be a different race or merely a different tribe. In any case, casting the one important dark-skinned character as the villain is not helping.

    Metroid – Samus is white, and she kills non-human creatures. Very few human characters appear in the games and the related canon as a whole, and all of the others I can think of off-hand are also white.

    Contra – White guys blow up aliens. The slaughter of non-human things in games sure is popular.

    Metal Gear – Solid Snake is white, though he sometimes gets help from protagonists who aren’t obviously white or at least have some modest ethnic differences (ex: Eastern European or Far East Asia). Similar kind of breakdown on the antagonist side.

    Starcraft – Almost everybody is white, unless they’re an caricature of some random ethnicity. The main characters in the story line don’t have much going on in that respect.

    WoW – There’s a bunch of different races. I suppose that’s an improvement in some sense, but the humanity of some of these races (orc, etc) is not entirely clear.

  21. Holms says

    I don’t know about the other shows because they are both horrifying wastelands of vacuousness, but Seinfeld is set in New York. I may easily be wrong seeing as how I have never set foot outside of Australia and only have tv shows to go by, but isn’t New York predominantly white?

    “…and only have tv shows to go by…”
    That there is likely why I am wrong, if indeed I am. In which case, point taken.

    While I suspect that there is some truth in this survey, I always take subjective self reporting with a 1kg bag of grains of salt. Self reporting is moderately unreliable even with binary and/or factual questions, but this goes through the roof when asking hugely subjective questions, such as anything that relates to self esteem.

    It is entirely possible that the kids gave answers that they thought the adults expected of them, even if they were reassured that they could give any answer they thought of. I suppose it could be argued that I should not question the methodology from what is potentially a position of ignorance re. statistical analysis and weighting of surveys, but there it is: I have reservations.

    Speaking of the diversity or lack thereof in our respective backgrounds, I remember my primary school having a grand total of zero black kids for the longest time. Plenty of asians and hispanics, but no black kids… until one day when a whole bunch enrolled all at once. I remember thinking something like “wow so many all at once, wtf” before realising that this sudden ‘massive influx’ was actually just four (yes FOUR) kids who were all brothers and sisters anyway, and so were arguably just one unit.

    The mere fact that I regarded the change as remotely significant at all says something about just how few black people there are in Adelaide, South Australia.

    They weren’t even native Australians, but African immigrants. Says something about the state of systemic social racism I guess.

  22. Steamshovelmama says

    I’d be careful about talking about the majority experience in the UK. The bulk of the UK population is urban. The urban centres are very multi-racial. My own city is made up of over 40% non-white – Caribbean, African, Pakistani, Indian, Chinese and Japanese plus non UK whites from Eastern Europe. This is pretty much true of all the urban centres, especially in England.

    It’s certainly pretty white out in the country and in the well-heeled small towns like Cheltenham – though this is more an expression of economic privilege than anything else. In this country the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to live in the country.

  23. says

    Seinfeld is supposed to be set in New York City, not upstate (mainland) New York. I hope it’s not necessary to say, but NYC is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the entire country.

    It’s also true that the particular neighborhood, the Upper West Side, became rather gentrified during the second half of the 20th century. So the diversity trend has perhaps been moving in the wrong direction there.

    However, that is all irrelevant to the reality, since Seinfeld was actually shot in Los Angeles. Of course, LA is also extremely diverse. Although it’s highly debatable whether they represent a single unified race (or how you would even tell), Hispanics are almost half the population in LA.

  24. Iain says

    I’d say my experience of England is actually more typical than yours. England is almost 90% white but, as you note, there are urban centres with up to 40% non-white populations. By my calculation, about half of the non-white population of England lives in London (which is also where most of the wealth is – the only wealth in “the country” is in the ring around London). Add in a handful of other particularly diverse urban centres – like Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, etc. – and you’ve accounted for the vast majority of the non-white population, leaving the rest of the country lily white.

    A similar story can be told about the US. Even where you have a diverse population overall, it is usually very unevenly dispersed. And this applies at each level of analysis: even in towns and cities with large non-white populations, the different ethnic groups tend to live in different sections, and seldom interact. This means that, for a significant proportion of the population, everyone around them looks just like them.

    To bring this back to the original post: my guess would be that, in most of the UK and US, if five friends are hanging out in a pub, and two of them are white, the chances are extremely high that the other three are white as well. In Toronto and Vancouver, I’d say the odds are still pretty good, but not nearly as high. So HIMYM and the others aren’t really that unrepresentative – though the proportion of largely (entirely) white shows is no doubt out of whack with the demographics. (Note: none of this is intended to justify the exclusion of non-white characters from these shows – I think there are good reasons for not having TV mirror reality in this instance.)

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