All the Colors of the Test Pattern
All of which is by way of saying that I have no idea how to start this column without looking like a bigot or an idiot or both except to point at the demon Media and claim They gave me the idea.
The Media seem convinced of two things: That minorities are under-represented on television; and that different minorities watch different TV programs. This second idea might be true. But what about the first?
This question in hand, your intrepid TeeVee correspondent set out to compile a list of the casts of every prime-time fiction show in the new fall season. By fiction I mean that I left out all the newsmagazines, "World's Greatest Military Blunders on Video," "When Cops Attack Animals!" and all similar programming. By prime time, I mean anything on between 8 and 11 p.m. By show I mean brain-damaged crud beamed to television sets and reconstructed for the viewing pleasure of house plants. By casts I mean the people the show's credits will claim as being actors in just about every episode, or at least will show in a cast photo.
Compiling such a list is harder than it sounds. Several shows in the new fall lineup have apparently been disowned by their former networks so totally that I can no longer find traces of them using my research medium (namely the Web). A few other shows have such labyrinthine and obtuse Web sites that I can gain no cast information from them whatsoever.
The most difficult part of this whole pursuit is determining the race of each actor. If I could find a cast picture, that helped. But that could hardly solve it all. And what am I to make of a world in which Italians play Hispanics (Nick Turturro on NYPD Blue) and Hispanics play Italians (Jennifer Esposito on Spin City)? And what the hell is Benjamin Bratt, anyway? And does any race really want to claim Cheech Marin?
After the casts and races were tallied, excepting no-shows, newly cancelled shows whose remains the owners had buried (sorry, Costello), and so-called real world shows, I had the following figures: There are 497 denizens of prime time network television fiction, of whom 85 are black*, 9 Hispanic, and 5 Asian**.
These numbers are admittedly somewhat fudged. Hispanics are hard to classify. Benjamin Bratt, for example, is Native American*** (by way of Peru) and German and English. Mostly, he's just Californian. Jennifer Esposito could really be Italian, or half Italian, or Lithuanian for all I know. And I lumped Matthew Stephen Liu of Wind on Water in with the Asians even though he's actually Hawaiian. They needed their numbers goosed a bit anyway.
Comparing this to the latest census data (also available on the Web) which says that America is about 82% white, 13% black, 11% Hispanic, and 4% Asian****, we find that prime time TV does fall short. Our TV world is 81% white, 17% black, 2% Hispanic, and only 1% Asian.
The Hispanics might be the ones to complain most -- if we could really nail down who is who. I don't trust my numbers nearly enough. More research is necessary here, and until it's done, I demand Chico and the Man re-runs. Put them on instead of Veronica's Closet, please.
Three of the 5 Asians on TV are on Martial Law (and one of the others is really a Hawaiian in a show which, if there is a God, will be cancelled sooner than immediately). It would seem if anyone should be complaining, it's the Asians. They are sorely under-represented, even if we count Sammo Hung twice.
Worse still, there are no Middle Easterners, no Indians, no Pakistanis, no Native Americans (unless you count Benjy, or maybe Voyager's Native American from outer space, Chakotay), no Burmese, no Armenians, and no Ethiopians. And those are just a small selection from the ethnic restaurants that leave menus by the door of our office.
If prompted, I'd identify myself as being from Italian ancestry -- only three generations removed from Napoli. Italians are a big immigrant group who have had a profound impact on American culture, from "The Godfather" to Stanley Tucci. But are they well-represented on TV?
I'd say there are plenty of people claiming to be Italian. For example, there's Ray Barone of Everybody Loves Raymond. He certainly is Italian, but what the hell are his TV parents? They don't wave their hands when they talk, and don't say sfaccim and fongouhl like my Italian mother does. Dare we accuse Ray Barone's parents of being Uncle Tonys?
Now, if you pushed me a little more, I might allow as I have some Polish blood in me (one of my great-grandmothers came over from Bialystock). The only Pole I can recall ever seeing on network television was Meathead on All in the Family almost twenty years ago. Now that's cultural heritage!
If you pressed me even further, I might squeeze out that I am also a little bit German. At least, I think I am. Hard to say where it comes from in the family tree, but there you go. Now, Germans are the largest immigrant group in America. Their contributions to the American way of life cannot be overestimated. How many illustrious Germans can I remember from TV? Kraus from Benson and, of course, Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes.
Should I be offended that there aren't enough Germans on TV, or grateful? I'd rather there be no Germans at all than be represented by that wise-cracking Gretchen. Even if she did occasionally get the better of Robert Guillaume. And my other choice is, let's face it, a Nazi.
Perhaps it is better to be ignored by TV than embraced. Look what the networks have done for the Irish this season.
But if there truly is any ethnicity that deserves to be angry about their portrayal, or lack thereof, on television, it's the Indians, along with the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and people of other neighboring countries. They are the last minority of which Americans are allowed to make fun.
Try to imagine the uproar that would ensue if Apu from The Simpsons were a cartoon of a black man being voiced by a white man and saying things like, "Whoa, massah!" and "Holy mack'l dere!" Try, for just an instant, to picture the furor that would have been unleashed if David Letterman's taunting of Sirajul and Mujibur had instead been directed at the laziest Mexicans Dave's staff could find. And dressed in sombreros. Stretch yourself to envisage the tumult that would have raged across the land if, instead of going to India in "The Betrayal," Jerry Seinfeld and his pals had gone (backward, of course) to Japan and encountered a nation of short people with buck teeth and tiny thick glasses and George refused to use a bathroom there for fear of being bombed by a kamikaze pilot.
I asked an Indian friend of mine for a reason explaining why I never hear the South Asian community getting angry about these things. "We're all too busy working," he told me.
And, he might have added, they have a sense of humor. Which is something we all could use a little more of. Maybe it's not so bad to be made fun of. Maybe it's not so bad to be stereotyped and caricatured every so often.
After all, it's just TV.
* Perhaps at the cost of being labeled racist by some, I refuse to use the term "African-American." For one thing, "black" is a phenotype -- that is, it is based on appearance -- while "African-American" is based on possible ancestral origin. This leaves us with no useful term to describe, say, Nelson Mandela. He's clearly not African-American and if we can't use black, what is he? (This brings to mind the laugh-riot that ensued when Voyager's Tuvok was declared the first "African-American Vulcan" -- talk about your mixed marriages!)
Once again, perhaps this shows just how stupid it is to classify people by race.
** I went to a high school with a student body over half of which was made up of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese students. And I still don't know if I should call them Orientals or Asians. If Oriental, are Indians Oriental too? If Asian, are Arabs Asian too?
*** So am I, I suppose, since I was born in New York.
**** Why is this more than 100%? Hispanics overlap black and white categories. I keep saying it's stupid.
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