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Why I Think (Lack of) Racial Diversity in Media is a Global Issue

Posted by on August 6, 2013

If this is the first time you’re reading me, let me first share with you the basics of where my perspective comes from. I’m a white Australian woman who has lived in Malaysia since November 2008. I travel a lot, and I consume media. Film and TV have been my preferred mediums, but I also read and listen to music.

Where you live, and where you travel, can influence you greatly on how you see the world. Some people may stick to their own, limited, worldview, but others will grow. I’m going to attempt to address both Western and Eastern cultures in this. I may get things wrong, but I welcome the discussion.

In the West, media presents white people as beautiful with tanned-skin. The darker, the better, apparently. Yet, in the East, dark skin is seen as bad. Skin whitening cream is popular in some parts of Asia… I’ve definitely seen it in stores in Malaysia, and the range was even bigger in India — even having it specifically marketed to men.

Why?

Good question.

Here’s what I believe: There is NOTHING wrong with the natural colour anyone is born with, and it does not make an ounce of difference to someone’s attractiveness in my eyes. It does not affect what kind of personality that person has. It should not affect how we are treated.

But it does, because we are a product of the society we live in.

The media we consume tells us every day what our ideal appearance should be. We grow up thinking we should be attracted to a certain kind of person because that’s what we see.

Where’s the diversity? Where are the people with different skin tones? They might be occasionally given the limelight now, but it’s still too slow to make any significant impact in the world.

Something I haven’t seen discussed by anyone is how the lack of diversity in much of Hollywood’s entertainment impacts the rest of the world. I don’t expect many Americans to think about it, especially if they’ve never left their own country. It’s not something I really thought about until earlier this year, when I’d already been living in Malaysia for over four years.

But here’s the thing — in Malaysia, the majority of filmgoers really only go to see Hollywood-made films. It’s like there’s this perception that bigger budget/more action = better film. I’ve seen a few Malaysian-made films in cinemas, but they don’t get anywhere near the audiences that American films do. And when Hollywood mainly produces films with a majority of (or only) white actors, that can subconsciously affect how the audience perceives the world around them.

Is it any wonder, then, that I’ve heard some Asians — male and female — specifically look for white partners only because of the perception that they’re better than someone of their own race? This isn’t hearsay. I had a friend who once told me that he’d get looks of approval when he was with a white woman, because he was “moving up in the world.” I’m not saying I have a problem with mixed-race couples. What I have a problem with is choosing a partner based on the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character. The same could be said of people who choose their partners because they have the same colour skin that they do.

But let me reiterate: I am not better than anyone simply because I have white skin. No white person is. The colour of one’s skin does not make one’s character.

So how do we change this sometimes subconscious perception?

There really needs to be more equality in races reflected in the media we consume to show that anyone can make it to those top roles, not just white people.

What are the people with power afraid of? That white audiences don’t want to see an Asian/Black/Indigenous/Hispanic lead? Big whoop! They’ll get used to it. And if they don’t, they’re not the people we should be pandering to anyway.

When America’s film industry has lobbyists that have affected global intellectual property rights because they want the global market share of the media we consume, I think they have a social responsibility to then reflect that global audience in the films they produce.

I may not be able to write for Hollywood, or be a casting director there, but I do have the power to make small changes. One of the reasons I write now, and want to write more fiction, is because I want to portray more people of different races in a positive light — in a way that anyone can identify with — so people can read it and see we’re ALL human, and we all have the same basic needs and desires. I wish more people felt this way.

In light of these issues, I’m keen to put together anthologies that explore characters from different backgrounds. I currently have an open submission call for speculative fiction set in the Asia-Pacific region over at Solarwyrm Press. Please consider submitting something if it sounds like your kind of thing! Submissions closes November 30, 2013.

What do you think? Do you think Hollywood has such a social responsibility? Would you like to see more diversity in the media you consume? Do you actively seek out media with more racial diversity?

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

2 Responses to Why I Think (Lack of) Racial Diversity in Media is a Global Issue

  1. climbing bean

    I don’t really understand the logic that says that people don’t want to watch a non-white lead. I care about the film having good actors, and it matters not to me what race they are. Saying that, I know that race matters a lot less to me than it does to other people (apparently, considering some of the blatant racism around), and I would actually rather a more diverse cast. I think it makes the film more believable.

    What bothers me, though, is tokenism, and I’m sure it must bother others as well, especially those of non-white backgrounds. There was a moment in The Walking Dead (I won’t say exactly when, due to spoilers) but I just felt as if two characters were in their roles in such a token way, it was pointless and kind of offensive.

    • Dominica Malcolm

      I don’t really understand the logic, either. I remember reading an article a while back that claimed Will Smith was the only black actor that white people would see in anything (or something to that effect). I mean, really? And what about Jackie Chan’s popularity with white audiences? I don’t know if they’ve done any proper studies on it or where they’re getting their data from. Maybe they’re just making excuses for their decisions.

      Tokenism can bother me, too. Particularly when characters are stereotyped in those roles (this isn’t just a race thing – I’m sure there are plenty of films with the ‘token gay guy’ for instance).

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