The Shifting (Skin) Tone of American Popular Culture.
For this blog post I wanted to discuss the emergence and progress of the (partially colored) multiracial identity in popular culture. In order to give you an understanding of the state of multiracial identities I will provide artifacts that span the spectrum of America’s popular culture mediums. America is a land of cultural and ethnic diversity. Children are born within this diversity of backgrounds who have multiple racial heritages. For this post, when I say multiracial, I am referring to a person with at least two distinct racial backgrounds, one being considered a minority. A 2010 census states that over 1.6 million Americans claimed both Black and White on their forms, that is 138% higher than the decade earlier. This statistic echoes the truth, more and more Americans are having children that have more than one race.
However, one would of not necessarily see that by viewing older popular culture. America has a history of not properly representing multiracial individuals in popular culture. To prove my point, we have to look no further than comics. Comics have always provided a glimpse into the happenings of the time they are printed. During World War II, Captain America was created as a way of compensating for the fear and anxiety of Americans during that time. Looking at old comic books, one can see that often times cultures and ethnic groups were reduced to crass stereotypes. All superheroes who were Asian were kung fu masters. All Black characters had being African as an emphasis of the character, and often had Black in their name, such as Black Panther of the Avengers movies. With such a stereotypical and horrid depiction of non whites, what hope could there be for a group considered even more of a minority. The lack of a nuanced understanding of strictly non Europeans precluded only the most rudimentary representations, or characterizations of every one that was brown. It seemed like asking some to see grey, when they can only can see black and white. This sentiment of being such a minority, that you do not even get a negative stereotype, could have been applied to any other popular culture medium.
However, there has definitely been headway in the establishment of more complex racial identities. For this project, I wanted to review how just within the last decade, the identity of biracial or multiracial individuals within popular culture has been established and how it continues to develop.
I think in part, the presidency of Barack Obama helped spotlight multiracial individuals, for better and worse. One of the largest issues with culture’s perspective on multicultural individuals is to place them in the category of the parent with the darkest skin tone. This can be seen by looking at President Obama, who is biracial. Barack Obama’s father was Black, and his mother was White. He is equally either, and both, yet he is often referred to as the first Black president.
One of the main issues facing multiracial individuals, is the lack of a unique identity. Instead, multiracial individuals are often placed in the same category as the darkest skinned parent.
To see this in action, I decided to utilize videos about Barack Obama. Upon researching videos that spoke on Obama’s race, I noticed that the video almost all had a negative view of him. Often, Caucasians in these videos make issue with Obama being too Black, and the videos in which he is accused of being too White, are all filmed by African Americans. This type of racial conundrum towards those of mixed heritage could be, and still can be, seen in popular culture. In part, this inability (or lack of desire) to differentiate between multicultural individuals is the cause for a lack of cultural identity. However, I noticed the reverse to be true, many people who were considered minorities were extremely critical of Obama.
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization, located in Washington DC. It is one of the artifacts I chose to utilize. First I watched a large amount of Youtube videos about Obama. I chose to use the videos this group produces and posts to YouTube. After looking through a pool of different forums and political debate groups, this one seemed the most bipartisan. The production value is high, and the group is a valid government run group. I chose a table discussion/video made shortly after Obama left office, discussing his presidency as a whole. However, this video echoed a strange theme I had seen in my research, that there were those who perceived Obama as too White, or not Black enough. He received much criticism from minorities for not acting more Black, or for acting too Caucasian. I personally understand the frustration of this situation, both having a Black father and White mother, I was often asked why I acted so White, or so Black by the different sides of my family.
The slow development of multiracial identity in popular culture stems from the prejudice and ignorance that is a fundamental part of eurocentrism. It precludes understanding of others. Eurocentrism is a dominant part of our American culture, and thus heavily influences cultural elements such as the news. American news programs have had a strong tendency to be focused on Caucasian aka eurocentric issues, both domestic and foreign. Past manifestations of this is in the 1990’s, when young Caucasian girls went missing, national news organizations would sometimes pick up the story. However, when little Black girls went missing, no one cared, as was retroactively self evident. It can still be seen in towns such as Flint Michigan, and the lack of drinkable water in a supposed first world nation. Many news organizations either did not report or underreported this event, and other similar events that affect predominantly non Caucasian groups. This systematic ignorance of race issues extends to all who are non Caucasian, or not fully Caucasian.
All people use what they see around them to inform their view, both of others and themselves. As adults, when television was the main form of information,it was frustrating to see African Americans disproportionately portrayed as thugs, criminals and the poor. Yet as adults we understand that what we see is not always true. However, as a child of mixed race, being told they are black, seeing bias prejudice and negative stereotypes woven into their cultural landscape can seed hatred in the form of self loathing or racism. Yet, as a multiracial child, you are placed under the label of colored. So, many multiracial children end up absorbing the only source of cultural identity they could find, negative depictions and stereotypes they had seen on television. The means by how this affects children was reviewed in week 4. The way in which stereotypes were depicted, from the news to commercials, enforced a non positive self image. However, modern day examples of positive and amazing multiracial individuals can be found in abundance.
One such modern example is Spider-Man, Miles Morales, from Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man comic publications. The new Spider-Man, named Miles Morales, is an individual of Hispanic and African heritage. Miles’s heritage plays a role in the world and relationships in which Miles participates. The character and his heritage are an essential role of the character, and is treated with respect, without being a defining attribute. However, Miles Morales’s Spider-Man is just one in a line of the welcomed, recent characters whom are also underrepresented multiracial minorities. However, when researching how people view Miles Morales, I came across articles by individuals that expressed dismay at a “Black Spider-Man” (even though the fictional character is also Hispanic.) This serves to illustrate the upstream battle of establishing a racial identity for multicultural individuals.
Another of the positive multiracial growth popular culture artifacts I chose, addresses eurocentrism and multiracial and colored individuals in the news. The show was call The Nightly Show, and was produced and hosted by Larry Wilmore. The Nightly Show was a night time news talk/comedy show. It followed a very similar vein as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Nightly Show had a racially and culturally diverse news crews. In addition, The Nightly Show discusses news in a way that is far more removed from eurocentricity than most any news or news like show. The topics were mostly domestic, but topics and reports pertained to issues involving all Americans. In other cases, the reports were also those that mainstream news opted to ignore or underreported. The personalities of the host and cast are a mix of respectful yet introspective.
THE NIGHTLY SHOW
One of my peers in my discussion group for this class suggested that I use the show Black-ish as an example.This show is a sitcom type show, with a cast of famous actors, most of which are predominantly Black. Reading a bit from Wikipedia before watching the episode, it said the show attempts to relate issues facing minorities amid its comedy and sitcom trappings.
It is interesting observing a popular culture artifact free of foreknowledge. I watched the episode that the classmate had mentioned, and was surprised to see how the show dealt with sophisticated elements of racial identity, and in regards to those of mixed race nonetheless. However, what surprised me more was that this show was not pitched solely as an urban show, which was once code for things consumed by African Americans. One of the main characters, the main male character’s wife, is both Black and White. She also has perception issues as to how she is perceived by those of other races. Personally it was fascinating to see such a realistic yet positive individual who dealt with the issues that come with be multiracial.
The show was aimed at the general audience, and has also won many awards. For a show that is not considered “urban” to have a predominantly Black cast, and also speak about the racial identity of multiracial individuals was unheard of. The suggestion from my classmate definitely helped to improve my perspective of the popular culture perspective on multiracial individuals.
Popular culture has shifted over the last few decades years. The awareness of a multiracial identity has grown greatly since the turn of the century. However, the presence and perspective on multiracial individuals in popular culture, for better or worse, helps enforce said racial identity.
Children utilize popular media as a way to inform their identity, because of this it is important for every child to have healthy information of not only other racial identities, but of their own.
I think that week 2 in our blog, the reflections of others in the Popular Culture Mirror Blog, was very relevant to my blog post. Specifically the concepts of portraying individuals as one dimensional. Frankly, as someone who is multiracial, I get called Black, or African pretty often. This is not an issue in regards to individuals. However, as a person, it is frustrating, I am proud of both sides of my heritage, and when someone makes a point of assuming what I am, I find it disrespectful and lazy. Nonetheless, after this class, I have come to understand that people who have a lack of real life experience with brown people, often rely on the only experience they have with them, which is from the television. With the way in which media of all forms relies on tropes and stereotypes, it is easy to see the seeds of ignorance on the range of racial identities.
KEY AND PEELE VIDEO
However, from the tropes and stereotypes, an amazing comedy duo, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. These two actors, star in their extremely popular television show, called Key and Peele, that airs to this day on Comedy Central. These two actors, in their 40’s, are both biracial, or of black and white heritage. They use their own personal experiences and comedic sense to talk about racial issues. One of the main topics they choose to parody: the struggle of biracial people. The clip I chose is from a movie they made “Keanu”, it has some profane language, it is about a biracial man who was raised “white” yet talks black to trick people. Challenging norms of convention while utilizing comedy helps to examine the multiracial identity. However, because the two actors are themselves, it lets them explore the subject of the biracial dichotomy, in a way someone who is not biracial may feel uncomfortable doing.
The best way in which to combat ignorance and promote multiracial identities is through breaking down old conventions. It would seem that society often attempts to classify things into groups. In my view, this old style convention of a need for a strict sense of understanding and organization is detrimental. Concepts such as transgender equality, gay marriage and interracial relationships suffer from the negative stigma placed upon them for being ambiguous, or for what is considered falling out of line with what is perceived of as “normal”. Once the concept of having to have others fall in with one’s worldview is gone, the space for identities of all types are allowed to grow and flourish.
America is often referred to as the great melting pot, yet this is at odds with the history of racial strife within America. However, as time progresses, the evidence can be seen in our nation’s children: racial barriers are slowly being broken. As each year passes, the cultural identity of multiracial individuals in popular culture becomes more diverse as it becomes evermore mainstream.
Bendis, Brian Michael et al. Ultimate Comics. New York: Marvel Worldwide, Inc., 2012. Print.
“Black-Ish”. NBC, 2014. TV programme.
Csizmadia, Annamaria. “The Formation Of Positive Identity Development In Bi -Racial Children”. Sociology Compass 5.11 (2011): 995-1004. Web.
Keanu. United States: Jordan Peele Keegan-Michael Key, 2016. DVD.
“Miles Morales Is Coming To The Big Screen, But Is That Enough?”. Movie Pilot. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Willmore, Larry. “The Nightly Show – Alton Sterling’s Death & Black Lives Matter”. YouTube. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.