Engaging with Diverse Media: My Week Without White People

Jane_The_Virgin_Finale

Media is white. The majority of people making decisions about media, from executives to directors, are white. The people who star in splashy summer movies, who play the lead roles on television cop dramas, who make music played on Top 40 radio, and who write books featured on The New York Times’ bestseller list are primarily white. One simply has to turn on the television to find white people: they are everywhere, and they are everything in media.

As a multicultural Latina, I constantly wonder what a white media landscape means for the way I interact with the world around me. Cultural Theorist Stuart Hall, whose work I read in college, posited that not only does media reflect the world around it, it also helps to create the world. And what world does a white media landscape create? One of the effects that I have experienced is invisibility in media, especially in television. Jane the Virgin is doing a valiant job of representing non-stereotypical Latin@s in all walks of life, but it is one of a handful of shows that feature protagonists of Hispanic and Latin@ descent on television. This is far from a fair and balanced representation, as 17 percent of the United States population (54 million) is Latin@, and yet less than one percent of lead roles on television were played by Latin@ actors. Media plays such a central role to the way that I engage with the world and with others, and yet it doesn’t represent my identity or the identities of my friends and family.

So, media is white. Maybe this is obvious. It creates invisibility, but how else has it shaped and formed my own identity? Out of curiosity and influenced by The Guardian’s Sunili Govinnage and Flavorwire’s Lilit Marcus, who did year-long projects reading books by non-white and women authors respectively, I decided to go a week engaging with media primarily created by and featuring people of color. I called it “My Week Without White People.” I set up specific rules for the ways I wanted to embark on the week, the biggest being that said media had to feature more people of color than white people. To test this rule out before I began the week, I made a preliminary list of eleven television shows I was watching this summer. None of them made the cut, already showing me how white the media I engaged with was, and that wasn’t the only thing I learned.

East WillyB A Web Series

The biggest lesson in the first couple of days was that it was frustrating and hard to find media that fit the rules I had set up, rules I thought were pretty simple in the beginning. I barely listened to the radio, I couldn’t watch any movie that was out in theaters, and all the television I had been enjoying didn’t qualify. It took intentional seeking to find media that featured more people of color; it wasn’t as easy as turning on my television or following suggestions of what to listen to from a carefully curated list of the best podcasts. Through intentional seeking, I found creators and projects featuring people of color that I had never heard of before, and got to revisit old favorites like The Wire and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Brandy in the title role.

Web series were the biggest way I found diverse media, the freedom of the format allowing for more self-expression, especially around people’s relationship and interaction with their own racial identity. I had already long loved Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but found two other web series that combined comedy and smart societal commentary like Rae’s during the week: Hye Yun Park’s Hey Yun and Julia Ahumada Grob and Yamin Segal’s East WillyB. East WillyB was especially a joyous revelation, featuring a sprawling cast of Latin@s living in Bushwick, before Girls had come in and gentrified the place.

By the middle of the week, I didn’t miss white people. I was enjoying engaging with media that more accurately represented the world around me. I read a lot of articles about the reasons creators of color made the projects they loved, and so many of their reasons were because they didn’t see themselves reflected in the white media landscape, and created something to change that. It was inspiring to engage with media that was created for that reason, and it made me wonder if any white creators had thoughts about diversity and inclusion beyond the fact that it is apparently trendy now.

Hye Yun Park's web series Hey Yun on So Popular

When “My Week Without White People” was almost over, I realized that one of the consequences of a white media landscape that I had internalized had been the fact that I was used to being invisible. I was used to having stories about white protagonists stand in for universal experiences, and I didn’t expect or search for stories that represented my reality. Seeking out so much media featuring and created by people of color reminded me that I don’t have to accept invisibility or stereotypes, that I can demand more from the media with which I engage.

In the end, “My Week Without White People” taught me to celebrate and support people of color in media in sharing honest and real stories about the world, and to deeply reflect on my own media consumption. Media might not change overnight, or at all in my lifetime, but awareness is a powerful first step to creating a more inclusive media landscape.

 

Read more about “My Week Without White People” through Storify, cataloging the first, second and third parts of the week.

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