Where are all the White Actors?: My own racism against a multicultural cast.

Race Matters: Candid Conversations on Race & Culture, Uncategorized0 comments

I was watching an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix recently and couldn’t pinpoint why I was internally upset. It had nothing to do with the storylines or acting as both were great but had everything to do with seemed like too many ethnic actors.

It sounds hypocritical coming from me as an Asian-American therapist who focuses on cultural issues where I am such an adamant proponent of having more ethnic diversity in entertainment. But the reality is even I have been conditioned to resist it in reality.

In other words, I have been indoctrinated into believing there’s something wrong with seeing too many minorities on-screen! Part of the issue has to do with executives of movie studios and/or movie directors who feel there’s a limit to an audience’s tolerance for the number of ethnic actors.

Keep in mind this is not the same discomfort I get when I watch a film or show that is specifically geared towards an ethnic audience (e.g. The Joy Luck Club or The Best Man Holiday). In those instances, I expect it to be a predominantly Asian or African-American cast.

What was disorienting for me in Black Mirror is due to the fact that the story-line had no racialized themes. In other words, the episodes had stories that presumably could occur in our not too distant future or could occur in everyday life. However, since the casting included predominantly ethnic actors in main character roles as opposed to ancillary roles, that was were the discomfort arose. In the majority of other shows I’ve seen, minorities remained the minority. Maybe part of the difference is Black Mirror is a show developed and produced in England where the racial make-up is very mixed and the show was cast to reflect this. Regardless, I was surprised by my own negative reaction to the “white norm”.

On a deeper level, this is how institutional racism shows up. On a very subtle and unconscious level, all of us in the U.S. have been conditioned through popular culture (news, entertainment, music, magazines, etc.) to only tolerate so much ethnic diversity in certain situations which sociologists described as the “group threat theory”. These findings are consistent with a concept known as Group Threat Theory, which is the idea that when minority groups grow in size or power, the majority group feels threatened,” wrote Washington University researcher Allison Skinner.

This theory can be seen directly with “white flight”, a description originally used to describe the mass exodus of white people from urban, Black neighborhoods. However, this is even occurring in middle to upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods. Cornell University sociologist Dan Lichter discovered that while homeowners of all races profess they want to live in relatively diverse, integrated neighborhoods the reality is white homeowners preferred to live elsewhere.

“There are new forms of segregation taking place here, where a lot of this is motivated by what whites do — the white reaction to minority growth, rather than what minorities themselves are doing,” Lichter said. “The exposure of whites to minorities is just at a standstill, even though these communities have become more diverse. Whites are leaving these areas that are diversifying.”

Researchers found white suburban homeowners had the most bias against African Americans and Arab Americans. But even when non-black minorities moved in, such as with an influx of Asian or Latino homeowners, white homeowners eventually moved out and rarely any decide to move in.

For example, in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, a large number of Chinese families began moving in and by 2005 white parents began complaining about the lack of education equity for their children in a school district with a burgeoning Asian population reflected in stories like this one in the local paper where a white mother lamented,I know [my daughter] can do it, get good enough grades, so it doesn’t bother me. But to hear her say she can’t win [a social chair] election because Asians vote for Asians, that bothers me”.

Sociologist Samuel Kye says white flight is sadly just repeating itself in suburbia across America. That’s the argument of his article, “The persistence of white flight in middle-class suburbia,” published in the journal Social Science Research in 2018. “Studies of neighborhood desirability show that whereas non-white people say their ideal neighborhood is integrated, white people, on average, say predominantly white neighborhoods are more desirable, Kye said.”

In the same vein, white flight is also being replicated in suburban school districts where the “group threat” theory exists. “They just want to keep with their own spaces, and not go beyond that…that’s a vehicle that allows them to continue to do that. Their preferences are being allowed to play out,” said Casey Cobb, a University of Connecticut education researcher who found that white parents are enrolling their children in predominantly white charter schools as a refuge from ethnic diversity. Cobb adds, “This is what is exceedingly clear: Many white families in America, many of whom have ancestors who fulfilled the journey of the American dream, want to live in a certain type of community and want their kids to be educated in a certain type of school. It’s often not malicious, not overt, and not articulated. It’s just the broad pattern of how white Americans move about this land, and perhaps that’s the definition of a privilege that is increasingly being called out”.

If this isn’t covert racism, I’m not sure what is. Ethnic folks like myself can handle being in diverse ethnic situations but it seems many white Americans lack that tolerance to live with minorities, especially in suburbia. And if white homeowners can’t even see their racial bias in their own housing and schooling decisions, how can whites ever own up to implicit bias in other areas of life such as the broader notion of white privilege?

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