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How Pop Culture Helps Fuel Systemic Racism

By Nicole Edry | TV | June 26, 2020 |

By Nicole Edry | TV | June 26, 2020 |


Racism can be quiet, too. As a society, we tend to fixate on the loud, dramatic, life-or-death examples — when we bother to notice at all. We are not wrong to do so, because the Black Lives Matters movement deserves our full attention and more. But what about all of the other, subtler manifestations of racism? All the creeping, crawling, toxic ways it seeps through the roots of our society until it has spread so deep that we can no longer see it in our own reflections?

Those aren’t quite so easy for us to trace, face, or counteract. The latest example of this is the absolute uproar sparked by Jenny Slate’s (correct) decision to quit Big Mouth, so that the biracial character she voiced can be voiced by a Black person instead. Missy is a strong, funny, intelligent and truly unique mixed-race girl who doesn’t traffic in tropes or stereotypes. She is a character, not a caricature. She unfortunately represents the types of roles that are so rarely on the table for BIPOC actors.

It’s not just BIPOC actors who are affected by these toxic, pervasive roots of discrimination, either. There is a similar ongoing debate around whether or not we should exclusively be casting trans or LGBTQIA actors in transgender or LGBTQIA roles. Pop culture purists demand that casting should be “colorblind” (or in this case, gender-identity-blind and sexual-identity-blind) in order to not limit the creative expression inherent to a story. To them I say: I don’t entirely disagree with you.

But I also ask you to look to your conscience. Because this ideal of artistic freedom and casting blind is impossible to consider in the society we live in today. It is only truly possible in an equal world. One where non-white, non-cisgender people get every single opportunity that white, cisgender people do, from birth. Where racism doesn’t run so rampant that Black people are murdered on our streets with impunity.

A world where Hollywood is willing to tell a broader range of stories reflective of all voices and perspectives instead of simply peddling the same exact story over and over. A story that’s predominantly white, predominantly cisgender, and predominantly male. One we have willingly helped nurture, support and finance even as it continues to prop up a system of systemic racism. Why? Because we seek refuge in pop culture, now more than ever as different crises wreak havoc on our country. So as a people, we are very, very reluctant to rock the boat or disrupt said refuge in any way.

We saw it with studio heads refusing to green light movies fronted by women, BIPOC or LGBTIA characters for years and years because they thought it wouldn’t be a draw for the audience. We saw it in the “pretend everything’s OK” treatment we gave and continue to give to disgusting power players like Mel Gibson, Max Landis and Roman Polanski. Now we’re seeing that the very same “give creatives/geniuses a free pass” approach that birthed our modern #MeToo movement shockingly isn’t working too well when it comes to racial equality, either.

By consciously expanding our storytelling and including a broader spectrum of voices and perspectives, we are opening ourselves up in a way we desperately need. Plus, with this approach, we can stay “faithful” to certain adaptations that may require blind casting while still leaving room on the table for other stories that do not.

We, the people, need to face our reflection. All of it. Not just the lovely parts or the parts we’ve polished to a high gloss. It is on us, the consumers, to demand this change by making it clear that modern audiences expect more than the same old stories. That we want to retrace our roots and build this ideal world grounded in a true, lasting, even playing field for all. Until we get there, we can’t seek refuge in the status quo anymore. It is past time for pop culture to change, and for us to change along with it.

Nicole Edry is a professional chameleon working in a small-town digital agency. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Netflix/Getty