The Department of Psychology
TELEVISION'S RACIAL DIVIDE: Reality or Unreality?
Dr. Stuart Fischoff
A recent Los Angeles Times Calendar section article Black & White TV on the one hand decried the racial Balkanization (segregation) of television comedies and, on the other hand, approvingly noted how dramas were more racially integrated. Notwithstanding the sympathetic tenor of the article and observations that television situation comedies "do not mirror the society we live in," the curious truth is that comedies such as Seinfeld, Mad About You, Family Matters, and Living Single do quite accurately mirror the society in which most of us live, particularly in our lives away from the workplace.
Curiously, the alleged social reality-based one-hour dramas, which are generally set in the work arena, are indeed rather accurate in their portrayal of racial integration, but in a very restrictive sense. Shows such as Chicago Hope, High Incident., Law & Order, and E.R., make very clear that, except for occasional interracial romance, the lead characters on these shows live the racially Balkanized lifestyle off-the-job.
The Times article asks whether television writers of situation comedies are afraid to write about other racial or cultural groups? It asks, in effect, whether writers retreat into writing only what they know and write from the color of their experience and the experience of their color? I submit it is not just the writers' experiential truths that are at issue. At issue is our society's experiential truth.
I have lived and taught at universities all over the U.S. This racially Balkanized landscape of "televisiondom," rather than being confined to television topography was, in fact, pervasively apparent throughout the country. The thought crossed my mind, however, that perhaps Baby Boomers like myself are simply living in a time-place warp. I've been teaching at CSLA for 25 years, enough time for events to have passed me by. Perhaps my experience is unrepresentative of the real world. There is no more racially and culturally diverse university than CSLA. If off-the-job racial mixing is commonplace, the students at CSLA would illuminate me.
Illuminate me they did! In class after class the results of my informal survey were overwhelming. To a certain extent students racially intermix at CSLA. But, for most, the racial/cultural yellow brick road runs into a dead end at the juncture of Eastern Avenue and Circle Drive. Off campus and on the home front the ethnic ghetto is the order du jour. Faculty are no exception. Their social lives are as racially Balkanized as the students'. Obviously, then, opportunities for interracial socializing are not mandates for such socializing.
The only exception to this segregated trend were the graduate students. Graduate students' lives revolve around university life and each other. These children of the Rainbow Coalition work and play together. But, wouldn't you know, once they graduate, friendship, dating, and marriage patterns all generally revert back to norms found elsewhere in society.
From the point of view of psychological comfort, economics, values, such racial/cultural self-ghettoization is "understandable." Yet, given the need for us to "come together," isn't it also lazy, even socially irresponsible to persist on this path of comfortable least resistance?
I argued the same point and put my ideals to the test. Alas, noble goals didn't easily translate into successful action. Attempt after attempt repeatedly showed that few non-whites relished the idea of spending more than a few evenings with only white couples or at largely white parties. Feelings of being "the other," "token guests," etc., were quietly stated or went loudly unstated. Would I react the same way? Unfortunately, this converse has not been testable. Except for my graduate students, I have not had any non-whites court me and my wife socially.
I know my words and deeds are easily assaulted: "Sure, they didn't reciprocate, they sensed the tokenism," or "Maybe they didn't reach out because there was nothing about you they wanted to get to know," or other such ad hominem rebuttals. Possibly. But unlikely. Racial integration in one's personal, social life, is, simply, rather hard to achieve. Try it.
If we want television to try and lead us into a new millennium, to produce more shows with racially mixed casts living in racially mixed housing, socializing in racially mixed groups, that's wonderful. Presently unreal, but nonetheless wonderful. Perhaps such shows could serve as social engineering models for viewers to imitate and, in so doing, help make the unreal truly real. But let us be clear that we would be teaching for the future not holding a mirror up to the present.
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