Cultural Racism in Hollywood and the Media

Parthenia Grant, Ph.D.  (2012, 1999)

           Cultural racism comes into play “when whites use power to perpetuate their cultural heritage and impose it upon others, while at the same time destroying the culture of ethnic minorities” (Gay 33).  If one applies that definition against the most visible, powerful, and influential medium today – the media – one has no choice but to conclude that Native Americans, Chicanos, Asians and African Americans have been and continue to be victims of cultural racism. The media’s ability to shape public opinion, the police’s power to oppress, and the politician’s ability to create laws that divide, exploit and disenfranchise, make viable avenues for Native Americans, Chicanos, Asians and African Americans to overthrow the iron hand of cultural racism difficult, at best, yet not impossible. Any attempt to explore cultural racism, by necessity, must include an examination of how different ethnic groups have reacted to, or attempted to counter cultural racism in Hollywood and the media.

            It was only within the past decade that networks responded to collective pressure from a “Brown Out” that resulted in The George Lopez Show, CSI and Desperate Housewives with Hispanic surnames in the lead. Cable television channels were the first to respond, however, with Nickelodian’s Taina and Lifetime’s The Division, two shows starring Puerto Rican females who are real life sisters. The latter, however, are now both cancelled, although in syndication.  The point is, until recently, one was hard pressed to find a Chicano in a lead role in a prime time television show, even though African Americans fare a bit better on sitcoms. Then there was 24 Hours, a drama featuring an African American as President of the United States, no less. Oh, but wait, that’s on cable, and so is The Sopranos, a drama about an Italian mafia family. Oops, did I mention it’s a stereotype of Italians?  One might say, at least that’s better than having to look in vain to find an Asian or Native American starring in a family sitcom, drama or episodic on network television.

            In spite of some progress, the unsettling reality today remains that when Asian, Chicano, Native American or African American children turn on the television set and see their race depicted very little, if at all on mainstream television; or, alternatively, portrayed as a stereotype, or a criminal on network news, a subliminal message is sent and received. Subconsciously these children come to feel that their ethnic group does not matter much within mainstream society or they are quick to note the marginalization of their group through stereotypes. Ultimately, many face either assimilation into mainstream culture or invisibility. Arundhati Roy, best selling author from India, in her novel The God of Small Things, candidly discloses how her people came to “adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.” She labels them “anglophiles,” or people who are “pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away” (Roy 51-52).  Unfortunately, becoming an anglophile is a part of the colonization process for ethnic groups around the world, most of whom were colonized.  Once colonization got a bad rap, the operative term morphed into globalization, with the same end result.  Most marginalized groups try to get in where they fit in, or come to believe that if they quietly go along, they will get along. More often than not, such attitudes end up inadvertently perpetuating continued marginalization and/or lack of recognition of ethnic groups struggling for economic parity and visibility in Hollywood.

            During the Oscar’s and Emmy’s, Chicanos, Asians, African Americans, and/or Native Americans in Tinsel Town are most often slighted or overlooked as Tinsel Town overtly or covertly practices equal opportunity discrimination, with an occasional exception to the rule sprinkled in for good measure, to shut up the nay sayers.  Historically, different minority groups react differently.  For example, when the brilliantly performed, profound and powerfully moving Asian movie The Joy Luck Club did not receive a single Academy Award nomination, their cultural norms would have considered it in poor taste to utter even a loud sigh of disappointment, in spite of the fact that The Joy Luck Club was the first dramatic Asian movie at the box office during that decade – not to be lumped with action, horror or martial arts movies.   Granted, almost a decade later, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon did win a much deserved Academy Award, but not for best actor or actress.  With The Joy Luck Club, one might reasonably have hoped that a movie with such depth, insight and heart would usher in more Asian movies like itself. And one might also have hoped that The Joy Luck Club might have been defended by other ethnic communities against institutionalized racism in Hollywood.  Such was NOT the case.  Indeed, addressing the white elephant in the living room in America is not “politically correct” in a society deep in denial of defects that could use a face lift. Even writing about it runs the risk of attack by right wing conservatives who will vehemently deny racism in America even as they practice it with religious fervor.

            Realistically, however, one must take into consideration a form of discrimination that came into play with The Joy Luck Club that is even more ingrained than racism.  For instance, The Joy Luck Club was primarily a woman’s movie, written by an Asian female portraying mothers teaching daughters their worth as women by refusing to accept abuse or second class treatment. Thus, sexism may well have compelled a heavily patriarchal culture to keep quiet due to widespread acceptance of sexism. Thus, The Joy Luck Club suffered a double dose of discrimination. Still, Asians and Native Americans continue to be more under-represented than both African Americans and Chicanos, no doubt due to the fact that they are less likely to speak out in public as a collective. Other than Lucy Lui, Jet Lee or Jackie Chan, there are only a few Asian actors or actresses who are household names.

            The Chicano community did not protest the Academy’s slight of the beautifully done and incredibly acted movie A Walk in the Clouds.  Other than the lead male, Kenau Reeves, the other leads in the movie were Mexican, Chicano or Hispanic. The story had strong family values that offered a rare, historic glimpse into Mexican culture that one does not often see on the big screen: the rich or well-to-do Mexican family. Even though Frieda Cahlo explored the theme of upper middle class Mexican culture, in spite of having a known actress like Salma Hayek in the lead, the film was only shown at independent theaters.  If nothing else, one would have expected A Walk In The Clouds to win an Academy Award for best cinema-photography, but it did not.

            Historically, African American artists tend to be more outspoken and will band together in public protest. For example, in the early 80’s, Alice Walker and other prominent African Americans got together and purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times to honor Toni Morrison who was over-looked for a literary award they felt she deserved. This act of defiance was aimed at shaming the New York Times for failing to properly cover the slight. This publicity stunt worked in that both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature were subsequently awarded to Toni Morrison.  Later, when The Color Purple was nominated for eight Academy Awards, yet did not win a single one, not only did the African American community raise their voices in loud protest, they went so far as to publicly accuse the Academy of sending a message to Steven Spielberg not to do black films in the future, or they would refuse to recognize his brilliance once again. They proved prophetic in that a decade later, when Spielberg decided to direct Amistad, once again, the Academy snubbed another amazing African American Spielberg film, while rewarding him for directing Schindler’s List. No doubt about it, Schindler’s List deserved an Academy Award, but so did The Color Purple and Amistad.  It seems that writers, actors, or directors who break the rules or defy Hollywood stereotypes cannot expect the Academy to reward their courage, imagination, creativity, or vision.

            With the example set by African American artists on behalf of Toni Morrison, it would appear that Asian and Chicano communities might have followed suit with The Los Angeles Times in support of worthy Chicano and Asian American authors who are consistently overlooked for Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Moreover, the same applies for supporting worthy ethnic films deserving of recognition. The fact is, awards open doors for actors, actresses and directors to get future projects funded.  Thus, they carry weight in terms of determining what types of films get made in Hollywood and which ones won’t get made. So one cannot say that Oscars and Emmys don’t matter because they do.

            Even though African Americans continue to be discriminated against as much as Chicanos or Asians, one can safely say that one primary reason they tend to be more prominent in sports and entertainment is primarily because they are more willing to risk reprisal or denial by publicly speaking out and calling a spade a spade. For example, African Americans did not hesitate to speak out, ahead of time, the year that both Hallie Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards. Afterwards, many were equally willing to point out that Denzel was denied awards for playing non-stereotypical, positive and compelling roles such as Malcom X and Hurricane Carter, while rewarded for portraying a crooked cop.  The point is, the “squeaky wheel” is the one that usually gets oiled, and when groups do not collectively get together and speak out against discrimination, the dominant group who discriminates gets to do so with impunity.  On the other hand, since ethnic groups suffer similar forms of discrimination, it would behoove communities of color to band together to reveal the hidden cloak of cultural racism collectively, instead of alienating themselves and banning together against other oppressed groups.  Martin Luther King was right when he said that “an injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice anywhere in the world.”  Thus, the best way to break through this invisible barrier is through collective bargaining in large groups. The civil rights marches prevailed because people of all races came together to end segregation. Case in point: the “Brown Out” only worked when prominent blacks joined with browns in Hollywood came together to protest the lack of programming for Chicanos on mainstream television.

            For any disenfranchised group not to come together as a whole or with other disenfranchised groups to speak out when an injustice or inequity is involved, is the equivalent of standing quietly by with a painful smile on one’s face as someone steps on the toes of your brand new shoes that are already too tight.  While it was encouraging to see, after September 11th, Chicanos banning together with other groups to protest the treatment of illegal immigrants, it is equally imperative to band together with other disenfranchised groups to protest stereotypes in the media that serve to perpetuate discrimination and cultural racism.

            There is much to be learned from history.  In retrospect, Chicanos might have benefited more from the civil rights movement had they joined hands with African Americans by collectively identifying themselves as a minority, instead of buying into the white desegregation ploy in the 1940’s that labeled Chicanos as “white.”  This move became a double-edged sword designed to placate Chicanos while taking away their power to protest discrimination by whites after being labeled white themselves; after all, how can one who has become labeled white effectively or legitimately complain about discrimination by another white?  Unfortunately, once the Chicano community realized the double-cross and the double-bind, they were then forced to fight to reclassify themselves as a minority in order to be able to legitimize actual cultural racism and discrimination in their communities, which continues to this day. In fact, “Mexican Americans and other minorities had a difficult time convincing people that they belonged to the civil rights movement” (Acuna 308).  The result for Chicanos was that they were not able to benefit from or to ride off of the wave of reforms during the height of the civil rights movement in the 60’s. They had to “wait until the Cisneros case in 1970 for the courts to classify Mexican Americans as an ‘identifiable ethnic minority with a pattern of discrimination’” (Acuna 309).

            Part of the problem was that while Blacks were fighting for desegregation and integration in the 60’s, Chicano’s had already waged their own separate civil rights movement during the 1940’s. (McWilliams 245-256).  For example, in 1947 Mexico’s ambassador to the United States asked U.S. citizens to make “a sincere, determined effort to do away with racial prejudices” against Chicanos (McWilliams 244). Timing is everything, however.  It appears that the Chicano civil rights movement began before the American public was ready to embrace real change. Moreover, Chicanos “did not achieve political power” during the 60’s due to extremely low voter registration, which caused Chicanos to be ignored by the Democratic Party (Acuna 318).  Moreover, although the Chicano population has “increased from about two million in 1930 to … almost nine million in 1980, its members have obtained little decision making power” (McWilliams 285).  Low voter registration continues to be a problem that prevents Chicano’s from being courted by some politicians, even thought Bush wooed the Cuban population in Florida because that state was crucial to his campaign.

            More importantly, in the 1960’s the “barrios did not explode with the same fervor as Black ghettos” in that the “institutions of social control were stronger in the Mexican barrios than in Watts” (Acuna 310).  There was also a lack of “traditional involvement” by Chicano youth who “often acted outside the mainstream … often lacking a knowledge of history or any contact with Chicano associations, many Chicanos outside of Texas believed that they had begun the Chicano movement and that militancy had never existed before their generation” (Acuna 311).  In fact, “so many practices and ways of thinking are born out of past experience that unless these are known, present conduct becomes a riddle (Gustavson 80).

            History proves that the ruling class has always utilized a “divide and conquer” mindset with poor people or ethnic groups, thus, effectively keeping marginalized groups divided against each other as well as within their own groups. When the infrastructure is destroyed from within, there is little hope for such groups to join forces from without to gain economic and political power. Historically, the power structure has also managed to keep ethnic groups under foot by limiting access to quality secondary education and higher education.  “A recent study of high school students showed that the aspirations of Anglo, Chicano, and Black students were very similar, but that expectations of Chicano students, conditioned by American society, were much lower” (McWilliams 290).  As a result, Chicano students have a much higher drop out rate.

            In addition, minority enrollment for Chicanos and African Americans immediately dropped at UCLA once Affirmative Action was abolished. Protests by students at UCLA, after the fact, amounted to “too little – too late.”    Slowly and insidiously, Chicanos and other minorities are losing gains fought for during the civil rights movement.  Today, Asians, Chicanos, Native Americans and African Americans still lag behind the national average in terms of economic parity, political power, visibility on the big screen, and prime time television.  Moreover, these groups continue to be denied loans from mainstream banking institutions to support self-employment, home ownership, or higher education. Federal Government aid amounts to a drop in the bucket.  And now mothers are cut off from Aid for Dependent Children before they have adequate time to complete a college degree.  Further, these ethnic groups continue to be excluded from high paying, upper level management positions in Corporate America, and from influential political posts with real power. Many politicians of color tend to be too conservative to be effective, and those who dare to actually fight against the establishment end up hobbled by the system or killed (Acuna 307-356). Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth, starring Hallie Berry, was a courageous and powerful commentary on this sad fact.

            Cultural racism in Hollywood and the media is insidious, divisive and devastating.  Dissemination of information and education are keys to turning this disaster around. Yet it cannot be done while cultural racism continues to be propagated through public educational systems that employ far too many under-qualified, uncaring or racist teachers.  Of course, a start would be to pay teachers more than policemen with a high school diploma.  It is a fact that non-racist, competent, and caring teachers can and do make a difference in the lives and future of children of color.  Teachers have the power to break the cycle of ignorance and apathy by respecting all children, empowering them, inspiring them, and teaching them cultural pride, diversity and tolerance.

            Martin Luther King already proved the efficacy and effectiveness of boycotts and economic sanctions to bring down oppressive power structures. Major change in Hollywood and the media will not occur until communities of color come together collectively and use their enormous buying power to say “no” to sponsors of biased news shows, or “no” to networks that fail to carry prime time shows featuring family entertainment with non-stereotypical Asians, Chicanos, Native Americans, or African Americans in the lead. The question remains: are ethnic minorities willing to set aside cultural or racial differences long enough to see the similarities in their situations, and embrace the reality that the real power has always been in the people.  All the people have to do is wake up and own their power.

             WORKS CITED

Acuna, Rodolfo “Occupied America” Harper Collins (1988).

Gay, Geneva “Racism in America; Imperatives for Teaching Ethnic Studies,” Banks,

             James A. (editor) Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies.  Washington

            DC: Nation Council for Social Studies (NEA) 1973.

Gustavson, Carl “A Preface to History” (CAPCO Reprint)

McWilliams, Carey “North From Mexico” –The Spanish Speaking People of the United

            States, Praeger Publishing (1990).

Roy, Arundhati “The God of Small Things” Random House (1997).