I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:
Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”
It wouldn’t surprise me if none of them noticed. Because the mechanisms by which this happens are part of the social structure itself – they run beneath the surface. It doesn’t even require malice on anyone’s part to happen – the problem isn’t racist white people as much as the social system of white supremacy. I recommend reading sociologist Allan G. Johnson’s framework which describes such systems of privilege. Here’s a short lecture by him on the topic, for more read his book Privilege, Power and Difference:
Yes I’m aware it’s problematic to use a white sociologist’s work to talk about this. The reason I am doing so, is that I’ve found his framework to be fertile, in the sense that it accurately describes not just white supremacy but other social systems of oppression too. (If you have other works to recommend by people of colour, please do so.) As Johnson explains above, there is a difference between people and the systems in which they operate. One can’t exist without the other, sure, but oppression is systemic, it is structural. Johnson describes oppressive social systems as having four characteristics: domination, control, identification and centeredness.
Domination refers to the fact that positions of power in the system are occupied by the dominant group, and the higher up the ladder you look, the more members of the dominant group and fewer members of the marginalised group you’ll see. Looking at Hollywood as a social system within the larger system of society, it’s evident that the power structure is white-dominated.
Control refers to the implicit coercion of people to follow paths of least resistance though these systems. If someone strays off the path, control mechanisms act to pressure them back onto the path of least resistance. For a filmmaker casting a Hollywood film, the path of least resistance is to cast white actors. If they suggest casting an actor of colour for an important role where race isn’t relevant – Suraj Sharma as Rapunzel’s prince, say – eyebrows will be raised, justifications demanded, criticisms made. The path of least resistance is for people of the dominant group to play along, to not question the system (even if Anna Kendrick realised the problem, there would be pressure on her to keep quiet and not rock the boat). For members of the subordinate group, the path of least resistance involves not challenging their subordinate status. Straying off the path, as we know, can be extremely harmful to them – anything from harassment to unemployment to assault and worse. Actors of colour who make too much noise, who protest, are probably even less likely to be employed. And so they stay on the path of least resistance by gratefully accepting the table scraps that are thrown their way.
Identification means that members of the dominant group are the “default” human being. America, and Hollywood within it, is white-identified. When a Hollywood filmmaker thinks of a “normal character” for a film, they’re subconsciously thinking white. To be white is synonymous with being human. So unless race is relevant to the role, the character is invariably going to be white. The screenwriter of the film “Noah” unwittingly gave a beautiful demonstration of white-identification in an interview – the filmmakers decided that “the race of the individuals didn’t matter” and that they would look for the “everyman”, the “stand-ins for all people” – and everyone turned out to be white.
Centeredness means that the focus, the spotlight, remains on the dominant group, while the subordinate group remains on the margins, in the shadows. It’s a characteristic that’s sort of created by the other three. Hollywood is white-centered in the sense that stories about white people are more likely to be told, and will receive more attention, press and acclaim. Once on my Facebook page I wrote a short post about the film The Hobbit, criticising its snow-white cast (this is the time when there was that controversy about a brown woman who came to an audition to play a hobbit, and was turned away because she wasn’t white). A white person (whom I didn’t know) showed up on my page to justify it by saying that it’s based on Norse mythology, hence the characters should be white. Presumably his justification for Into the Woods would be that it’s based on European and English folk tales, so the characters ought to be white too. So we have a situation where more films about white people are made, and this is used to justify a white cast in those selfsame movies! In the future when the structure of domination-control-identification-centeredness is broken, stories about people of colour will receive their due. In that future time, this “authenticity” justification might hold water. It doesn’t today. Note too that “authenticity” isn’t a problem when a white actor plays a character of colour. Here is an Indian equivalent. The justifications conveniently change; the end result is the same.
Domination, control, identification and centeredness are characteristics of systems of privilege. How this comes to be is by the various mechanisms studied by social scientists. Note in particular the role of social capital. White people in the film industry have bonding social capital (networks of reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations with other white people) and linking social capital (connections to power), which people of colour lack. Add to this the social psychology of prejudice – things like implicit bias, in-group favouritism and out-group prejudice. Add to that some explicit prejudice and discrimination. Then you begin to see the scale of the problem.
Coming to the “fertility” I referred to earlier: all of the above also applies to other systems of privilege. Patriarchy is a social system that is male-dominated, male-identified and male-centered. Heterosexism is a social system dominated by straight people, identified with straightness and centered on straight people. Ableism is a social system dominated by people without disabilities, identified with them and centered on them. So in films, just as there are few people of colour, there are also few women, LGBT people, people with disabilities, fat people, trans people – and so on. In India, the caste system is a system dominated by the savarna, identified with them and centered on them. If you did a caste analysis of characters in Bollywood films, you would undoubtedly find most of the roles are savarna roles (here is a caste analysis of roles played by Amitabh Bachchan).
Finally I suppose one should address the question why is it important to have diversity of characters in films and TV in the first place? One reason is fairness to people who work in the industry. The second involves the consumers. Popular culture has a significant role in shaping social attitudes today. So when we see a multitude of social groups represented on screen as “thinking, moving, deciding creatures” (that definition of a “strong character” remains the best I’ve heard), it helps in breaking these systems, in realising that the “other” is human just like you. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it to Nichelle Nichols,
For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors…
Related reading: 2013 study of the racial demographics of Hollywood films.
PS: In case anyone is wondering why I, an Indian who doesn’t even live in America, care so much about fighting racism – it’s because I have close family and friends who live there, and racism harms them. Also as I’ve explained above, the same patterns repeat in various systems of oppression, and one learns a lot by looking at other systems.