How do we remove negative black stereotypes from movies and television? Dr. Mark Sullivan reveals two small victories that helped black people in the media.

This is the fourth of a five-part interview about the racist media portrayals of African Americans. Dr. Mark Sullivan, an adjunct professor at Towson University, teaches a class called Mass Media and Society.

The previous segment ended with Sullivan saying, “In successful shows that the producers, the networks, so far and so forth are never going to change [media depictions of African Americans] as long as they remain successful. And they’re going to continue to be perpetuated.”

I asked Sullivan what it would take to change that, and he tells two stories two small victories that assisted African Americans in media.

Some of the highlights of this segment of the interview:

“There is surprisingly little interaction between white and black culture. I mean, people naturally gravitate towards people like themselves, and when there are historically institutional barriers between, that makes what would, might naturally happen– hanging out with yourself– that makes the interaction far, far, far harder. And so we simply don’t know each other that well on a day-to-day basis. This leads to, well among other things, many misunderstandings. Things that one person thinks is joking around another person takes far too seriously. And it’s hard to change this because it is so entrenched.”

“How to change it in term of media is to stop watching what is offensive. But that requires being aware of what is offensive.”

“About five-ten years ago the NAACP threatened boycotts against the major networks. …As it turns out, the networks ran scared and made some changes. Most of those changes were largely cosmetic, in front of the screen. For instance, all of a sudden, in the ninth or tenth season, there was a black character on Friends. Aisha Tyler became the girlfriend of one of them. And so, all of a sudden, shows that had never had a black character had a black character. So that’s a bit of a change, but there wasn’t as much of a change behind the scenes, you know, as camera operators, as technical crews, as producers, and so on and so forth, which is what the NAACP was also fighting for.”

“So what this meant was when, yes, you had more black faces on tv, but no more black faces behind the screen, you were getting black actors being told how to act by white producers, directors, writers, and so on and so forth. And so even though there were black faces, they were acting out the white image of what blackness was, instead of true blackness.”

He also discusses the behind-the-scenes racism in Hollywood from David Mills‘s perspective.



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