The first time I was ever exposed to the Black Lives Matter movement and related activism was at the end of the fourth season of Orange is the New Black. The murder of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), an incarcerated Black woman, by a white male prison officer in a prison uprising, sparked riots and uproar in the prison leading into the events of Season Five, an extensive prison riot taking place over two days. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) screaming “he didn’t say her name!” following a press event after the murder is forever etched into my mind because it was so harrowing and impactful, and I am constantly reminded of this scene with the #SayTheirNames campaign within the larger movement.
Orange is the New Black was one of the first television shows I watched where there was a notably wide variety of races, sexual orientations and nationalities being represented on screen. Even more prominent was the discussion of related issues such as racism, culture, and dynamics between races within an institution to name a few. It can never really be said there is a fully “dominant” race in the show, but it has taken a while, and a lot of television, to reach this point.
In the history of television, Black people are notoriously underrepresented generally, especially in the context of scripted television. However, statistics are hard to pinpoint because of the lack of representation in some areas and increased representations in others. Over the years, American sitcoms have given a spotlight to the Black American family, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1996) and My Wife and Kids (2001) being staples of the genre, and Black-ish (2014) being a more recent sitcom falling under this category.
My Wife and Kids is a personal favourite of mine, providing side-splitting comedy that I have been unable to find a match with elsewhere. The topics discussed in the show, however, are not ones relating much to their skin colour which really serves to emphasise there is no difference in families as a result of race. Quintessential family issues such as teenage love, struggles with parenting and coming of age are the focal points, opposed to anything relating to the struggles of being a person of colour in America. This is probably a result of the genre rather than a stylistic choice, given the discussion of political and societal issues would create a more serious tone that comedy deviates from.
Beyond sitcoms with mostly Black characters and casts, the representation is unfortunately nowhere near as present and frequent in dramas and other sitcoms that do not have a BIPOC focus. The biggest shows of the last thirty years, for instance Friends (1994), Sex and the City (1998) and Lost (2004) had almost entirely white casts and characters, especially in leading roles. The Simpsons, for example, has very few BIPOC representatives within their huge cast of characters, and those that do represent a minority are often portrayed very stereotypically, causing numerous race debates and controversies over their run on television.
Specifically, the voicing of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon by Hank Azaria, a white man, has led to multiple accusations of racial stereotyping particularly surrounding inaccuracies with the accent. Azaria has been awarded three Primetime Emmy awards for his work on The Simpsons, including his role as Apu, which directly shows the shifting in attitudes towards racial profiling in the media. The controversy was indirectly addressed in a 2018 episode, in which Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith), in an unrelated context says “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”. Although in a defensive manner, the line opens up the debate further by bringing in ideas about continuity and the supposed harmlessness of comedic effect, but it also shows the progression of attitudes relating to television and the media, proving that such stereotyping and inaccurate representation is no longer tolerated as much as it once was.
It is very clear the history of race in television is quite selective, with only certain shows having a predominantly Black or a proportionately representative cast. This has obviously increased and been developed over the years, but the culture surrounding re-watching television and re-visiting old favourites only reminds us of the previous dire diversity issues. By no means is the diversity as good and as constant as it could be, but it cannot be denied that some progress has definitely been made. My only hope is that this continues.