Racism on TV: the cultural generation gap

Racism on TV: the cultural generation gap

Have you ever watched an old TV series or a movie from years ago and found it particularly offensive?

You may find some of them which are really offensive towards the communities that today are fighting for an equality not yet fully achieved in some countries of the world; some others are not yet totally freed of racial stereotypes or, in other cases, they are full of carefree jokes and easy laughs.

The character of Jim Crow is the most striking example of caricature. It is Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white American actor, who between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, ridiculed the somatic features of the African American community, giving rise to what is now known as the black face phenomenon. This kind of “shows” was a common occurrence despite not being exempt from criticism, especially from the community represented. The media impact of Jim Crow was such that society called the subsequent racial laws, enacted between 1877 and 1964, as "Jim Crow Laws".

It was only with the onset of civil rights movements that this genre declined in interest and popularity. However, the matter is not over: even today, the phenomenon of the black face still provokes hilarity in some people.

But how can we recognize the discrimination represented today?

First of all, this kind of representation is based on preconceptions and stereotypes with a negative connotation and ends up depicting the community it refers to in an unrealistic way: each of those groups has its own cultural and historical identity; reducing the very essence of a community, or of a single individual, to a grotesque representation does not make any good at all.

The second aspect to consider is the cultural heritage: to use the black face today, forgetting its history, is "an unintentional" assertion that the wounds caused to the Afro-American community were nothing more than petty.

Everybody has his own personal emotional baggage: if an Afro-American boy hears the word "nigger" (which today has only a discriminatory and offensive connotation), despite the context or the intention it is used with, he will associate it with a history of wrongdoing and fear.

Therefore, the difference between past and current generations lies mainly in the sensitivity with which certain representations are put into practice . Today's society reached a sensitivity that has matured to the point of seeing individuals not as part of small social groups, but as part of a common shared environment that confronts us all. Therefore, we cannot "not see" certain individuals, since the same social debate leads us to face and relate to ethical issues.

Criticism and controversy generating debates

The media impact of a TV series or a TV program exposes it to a global judgment and, consequently, to different perceptions. There are many popular TV series accused of being stereotyped. The US TV series Homeland, for example, was heavily judged on the web to be anti-Islamic. Also, Emily in Paris has left a lot of French people offended as they found their representation in the series to be unrealistic and caricatured. The French are portrayed as unwilling to wake up early to go to work and there is a redundant use of the infidelity cliché. Another example that paradoxically generated more hilarity than annoyance can be found in South Korea: in Vincenzo, a Korean boy adopted by an Italian family finds himself involved in "typical" Mafia affairs.

At the time depicted in these movies, any criticism was nipped in the bud. In a period characterized by a profound ignorance, pretentious individuals exploited scientific research to endorse their racist ideologies. Moreover, the systematic division between different ethnic groups, based on alleged irreconcilable differences, prevented any form of contact, both communicative and, consequently, empathic. It was, therefore, a society in which there was no "need" to discuss civil rights since the subjects were not considered equal.

The current situation in the media and cultural panorama

Today, enormous progress has been made with respect to the past. Even though forms of discrimination and preconceptions are still present, the social debate pushes us to question the rights of others and thus allow a cultural evolution that was previously unattainable . Likewise, a higher level of education has allowed the growth of empathy in each individual. The mass media constantly propose images of societies and realities at risk. Visions that touch us for the amount of violence, and for the obvious inequality, make us compare them to the past ones, and therefore to process and internalize the wounds suffered.

The resulting awareness is consequently based on understanding different perspectives that drives us to putting ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer discriminatory conditions.

The generational gap lies therefore in the tools at our disposal to be able to compare ourselves to society and especially to those who are not different from us, as they wanted us to believe not too long ago.

The representation of communities has an enormous social and educational importance. Hence it is essential to understand that it is equally important and fundamental to do so by allowing the viewer to know a certain culture looking at it without forced preconceptions.

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