Institutionalized racism has pervaded all levels of society, and are at times most clearly depicted in our media. Popular media is framed towards the preferences of the dominant audiences, which in America particularly include those who generally identify as white, male and middle class. Ethnocentric and racial superiority tendencies within our culture frame our media to showcase what the dominating populations want to see: other people similar to their demographics. Consequentially, minorities have been historically excluded from popular media.
While white actors and spokespeople are prioritized across the board for spotlighted roles, when a role of a person of color is needed to be filled, oftentimes that position is tokenized or white-washed. Tokenizing, in the context of racial issues, can be defined as the practice of including a minority person as a representation of their social group. Doing so is usually with the intent of claiming that minorities are included, but it ultimately trivializes minorities’ experiences to that which could be superficially acquired, rather than respectfully integrated. We might see this in television shows, for example, where the cast is all white but there is the “one black friend” included, in attempt to suggest that the other cast members aren’t racist. People of color might feel used simply for their identities if treated in a tokenizing manner.
In addition, white-washing is another practice used too often that harms minority communities. White-washing is when people of color are showcased to look and behave more similarly to white people and their culture. A hard-hitting example is the feature movie recreation of the show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The original television series was set in an Asian community with all Asian characters. However, producers working on the movie version were criticized for only casting white people. Thousands of fans subsequently boycotted the movie, which ultimately failed in the box office (Press, 2010). The movie’s critics say that the white-washed cast is just another example of an institutionalized trend in media of demeaning people of color.
Organizations that have been caught misrepresenting minority groups have faced serious criticisms that are difficult to bounce back from. A case in point is the 2016 Oscar nominations with an all-white ballot, which sparked harsh criticisms from audiences for its lack of diversity. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral, with which individuals expressed online their frustrations against the major awards show (Buckley, 2016). While it wouldn’t be appropriate to tokenize a person of color in the ballots just to include them, it remains unnerving that across the board white people are seen as the most skilled and deserving of such honors. As the date of the Oscars continues to approach, it seems predictable that the criticisms will only further taint the credibility of the award show’s brand.
Not being conscientious of racial representation in your media can be very detrimental to not only minority groups, but also your brand. In our digital age where independent bloggers and media curators have significant voice and outreach to our publics, it seems evident that offending marginalized communities is no longer tolerated. Public relations practitioners need to be aware and prepared to actively prevent and deal with these situations, as the call from publics for racial equity is only bound to become louder. Anything that is considered offensive will be called out. No brand should afford the risk of viral backlash for topics as sensitive as racial diversity. Being inclusive of all identities is not simply just making audiences feel more comfortable, but it establishes healthier dialogues and social initiatives within our media and popular culture.