Television and Social Identity: Race Representation as "White" Accommodation

Article excerpt

In recent years, Americans have sought to redress racial inequity through changes in the ways that race is spoken about (e.g., Ward, 1985) or portrayed (e.g., Entman, 1990; Gray, 1995; van Dijk, 1990). In television especially, pressure from activist groups outside the media industry and professional groups inside the industry has led to an increase in the number of Blacks on television who are portrayed in a positive light (Montgomery, 1989). Situation comedies and dramas that feature Blacks as lead characters or continuing characters have become pervasive (Gray, 1995).(1)

Analyses of these changes have suggested inconsistent consequences with respect to how many White viewers in particular respond to these representations independently of program content. On the one hand, researchers have suggested that popular, positive portrayals of many Blacks in the media are marketable because they affirm White audience members' self-concepts as non-racist, as well as many Whites' negative attitudes toward Blacks (Campbell, 1995; Entman, 1990; Gray, 1989; Jhally & Lewis, 1992). These analyses characterize many White viewers' positive responses to programs like The Cosby Show as a form of "enlightened racism" whereby White viewers' fears of appearing racist are allayed but their negative assumptions or racist attitudes about Blacks in general go unchallenged (Gray, 1989; Jhally & Lewis, 1992). A consequence of enlightened racism is that Black characters are well-liked, not in spite of their race, but because of their race.

An alternative approach to research on many White viewers' responses to representations of Blacks in the media suggests that positive representations of Blacks may facilitate the gradual attenuation of racial bias on the part of many Whites against Blacks (Bodenhausen, Schwarz, Bless, & Wanke, 1995; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996). These formulations of White viewers' responses to portrayals of Blacks suggest that for many Whites the problem of racial prejudice is based on limited interpersonal contact and limited access to directly experienced information about Blacks. Consequently, repeated exposures to positive portrayals of Blacks on television should gradually chip away at the negative stereotypes of Blacks that most Whites adopt at an early age.

The present study addresses the contradiction manifested in these two approaches by adopting a theoretical framework that considers racial identity rather than racial prejudice as an underlying mechanism which guides White viewers' responses to race representation. In adopting this approach, this study explicitly addresses the assumed norm of White identity (Dyer, 1988). This approach is not intended as an "apology" for the unintentional or non-conscious aspects of many Whites' racial prejudices. Rather, it seeks to empirically demonstrate the dynamic role played by media representations of Blacks in sustaining many Whites' racial prejudice with a view toward informing media literacy and race awareness education. A similar focus on the role of the media on Black audience members' racial prejudices, while valuable, is beyond the scope of this study. The next section reviews research on White audience responses to race representation in the media.

Review of Audience Responses to Race Representation

Race is portrayed in the media in two ways: through the content of a message or program, and through the race representation of sources included in a program or story. Previous research has demonstrated that race representation on television tends to affirm, and possibly galvanize, White viewers' racial attitudes. In other words, racist and non-racist Whites interpret positive and negative representations of Blacks in ways that confirm their pre-existing pro- or anti-Black prejudices (e.g., Armstrong, Neuendorf, & Brentar, 1992; Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974). This process suggests that the media play a relatively minimal role with respect to influencing individuals' personal racial attitudes apart from reinforcing them. …