What’s at stake in claims of “post-racial” media?

What’s at stake in claims of “post-racial” media?

Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin

Mary C. Beltrán, Associate Professor of Media Studies
University of Texas, Austin

Tracy Morgan, comedic actor best known for his role as comedic performer Tracy Jordan on the NBC series 30 Rock (2006+), trumpeted America’s supposed post-racial identity at the Golden Globe Awards in January 2009. When 30 Rock was awarded Best Musical or Comedy Television Series, he gleefully snatched the statuette from Tina Fey, creator and star of the series, quipping, “Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on.” He continued, “Welcome to post-racial America! I am the face of post-racial America. Deal with it, Cate Blanchett! We’d like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press … especially me, ’cause a black man can’t get no love at the Emmys. I love you, Europe! That’s what’s up!”…

…Unsurprisingly, when used in description of media trends, post-racial has taken on differing meanings both for scholars and media professionals. For one, it’s been used as shorthand to describe purported progress in ethnic/racial inclusion in employment and casting, as appears to be at least part of what Morgan had in mind in his claim that he is the face of post-racial America. In fact, a fair number of television series and films now integrate a few characters of color into their casts (notably, this was described recently by the Hollywood Reporter as perhaps due in part to an “Obama effect”), and we’ve witnessed a growing number of non-white and mixed race stars. Important to note and study, a major catalyst of these shifts is a turn away from niche productions targeting African American or Latina/o audiences to media texts that aim instead to appeal to a broad, multicultural audience. Arguably this does not make these texts post-racial (Dale Hudson’s concept of “multicultural whiteness” comes closer to describing this trend in relation to the continuing centrism of whiteness), but does raise the need for new methodological tools and theoretical frameworks for studying ethnic and racial representation in this supposed post-racial era. Also important to take into consideration is the continuing and sometimes growing underrepresentation of creative professionals of color behind the screen in tandem with “post-racial” shifts.

There is a need in such study to also take note of the casting and portrayal of mixed-race actors and individuals in Hollywood media productions. I’ve noted in my own work that the rhetoric of post-race has followed in the wake of the rising vogue for mixed-race and racially ambiguous actors and models since the 1990s. The “raceless” or “ethnically ambiguous” aesthetic (as I and journalist Ruth La Ferla described this trend, respectively), particularly noticeable in contemporary tween programming and stardom, is an important strand of contemporary media formations that at times falls into descriptions of post-racial trends. Given that mixed-race representation does offer the potential to highlight the constructed nature of race and fissures in racial boundaries, as Camilla Fojas and I discuss in the introduction to Mixed Race Hollywood, this will be an important site of study in relation to the implications of contemporary trends in ethnic and racial representation…

Read the entire article here.

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