As I turn on the television, I am pleasantly surprised on a daily basis to see more and more folks who look like me being portrayed in a positive light. This is a sign of hope that despite the mass shootings, voter suppression and other signs of retrograde hatred, this country is taking steps forward in the arena of race. I’ve said in the past, that Black History should not be relegated to one month of the year, so I’m acknowledging the positive in the month of May.
Historically speaking, many hate crimes are the result of racial myths handed down through the generations. Blacks have traditionally been depicted as shiftless, dangerous, unintelligent, and unprincipled.
I’ve resided on this earth long enough for my life to be part of the historical landscape. Years ago, while Whites were portraying heroes and respectable family folk, the only roles available to Blacks on television shows were servants or character who played the fool. With no other available choices, we watched Amos and Andy, a stereotypical depiction of a Negro community featuring their lodge brother, Kingfish. There was a certain cultural warmth about those characters, so we tolerated Kingfish, who played the fool. At times, Whites also played the fool on TV, but they had many more positive roles depicted to override the emotive language of a negative White stereotype.
Blacks were disproportionately portrayed as crooks and thugs in the news. White lawbreakers were not labeled by race in the narrative, but, in the past, the racial description was always verbalized in describing the Black criminal.
There were very few media examples of Black folk portrayed in a positive manner. And if they were, it was always the exception, not the rule. A girl could look up to Althea Gibson, a boy could model himself after Jackie Robinson. But these were true exceptions, and did not offer much to the average Black kid.
Things have changed for the better in that regard. For me, the greatest positive impact is not in the sitcoms of today, nor is it related to special programs designed to portray Blacks in an admirable light. Instead, I’ve observed these positive portrayals in television commercials as well as local news.
It is the ads repeatedly flashing across the TV screen that first caught my attention. Black men and women are shown as salespeople, dentists, folks owning swimming pools, delivery boys, insurance agents, IT experts, EMTs, restaurant owners, and supermarket clerks. The list goes on and on—these are just regular folk, living typical American lives with no specific racial overtones. And they are shown with intact families.
What makes me so happy about this phenomenon? A subliminal message is going out to White people when they watch these images that dispel the old portrayal of Blacks as dangerous, intellectually inferior, and generally less than.
A local news station repeatedly selects Black people in their feature stories about successful locals. Just the other day a story highlighted a business woman about to launch her second restaurant, as she traced her accomplishments two generations back to her grandmother as a role model. Another story featured a Black student athlete, successful in his sport, but looking ahead to the healthcare profession, rather than relying on the limited-access sports arena to make a living.
A commercial depicted a Black male doctor with a White female patient. An ad like this does much to dispel the notion that Black doctors can only practice in the hood. It also dispels the myth that Black men are a danger to White women.
Correcting the myths is not just beneficial to Blacks, but to all Americans. I’ve recently been surprised at the number of White people who have no Black friends. They lack personal contact and experience that would dispel the myths. Perhaps the repeated positive television images will heighten their awareness.
My takeaway message for Black youth: you don’t have to aspire to either the extreme of criminal or rocket scientist. There are so many successful options depicted as truly achievable today for folks who look like you.