The media critic Eric Deggans says that when it comes to how they handle race, even the best television shows don’t get everything right.
“It’s difficult to find shows that are perfect at this,” he said. “You’ll find shows that are really good about some aspects, but then there are things you might criticize.”
Deggans, an NPR TV critic and the author of the book "Race-Baiter," spoke to University of Wisconsin-Madison students on Thursday evening about the ways that that TV and media represents race, for better or for worse. Deggans’ talk, like his book, focused on “decoding” the ways that racism can manifest in the media in ways that many Americans don’t necessarily think about.
"I wrote my book thinking that we were in this place where if you just show people these types of racism ... people would see that racism, and they'd react to it," said Deggans.
Many of the shows that feature representations of race that Deggans said are problematic, are also shows that are often celebrated for their politics.
"I would be careful about shows that seem progressive on the surface, but that have problematic elements to them,” he said.
Some shows simply lack diversity, said Deggans. “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu is a striking examination of women’s role in society, said Deggans, and one of his favorite shows – but its cast is nearly exclusively white.
Many critics and fans celebrated “Glee,” a now-cancelled FOX show about a high school show choir, for its portrayal of LGBT characters and disability. However, he also said it fell short when it comes to race. The principal of the school in that show, a man of Indian origin, is often the butt of jokes for his accent, and for “smelling like curry.”
For most of his talk, Deggans focused on laying out frameworks to help those at the lecture understand how to identify and parse racism they see on-screeen. For example, he presented a rubrick of questions for figuring out if a TV character is a stereotype. Those questions included: Is a character defined by their race, or is their race just a part of who they are? Does the character sacrifice their well-being or family to help out a white character? Is a character isolated, with no other friends or family who share their race?
Deggans also laid out a framework for understanding different forms of racism on TV that go deeper mainstream understandings of what racism is. One type of racism he identified, and something that has become a major focal point of conversations about race, is white privilege. Deggans said that often in media, whiteness is considered a norm. When a black person is described on the news, their race will typically be mentioned, while a white person’s race won’t be.
“When you think of an average person who’s affected by average things, you always think about white people. There’s a power to that. There’s a power to be considered the generic,” he said.
Deggans said that it’s possible to change racist dynamics in the media. He noted that increasingly, television producers seem to realize that as their audiences grow more diverse, the characters they portray on screen need to change as well. He cited FOX as an example.
“They adopted an internal requirement where they would not pick up a show, unless the core cast had at least one person of color in it,” he said.
Deggans’ spoke at the Educational Sciences Building as part of UW-Madison’s University Lectures series.