Racial and Cultural Diversity in Entertainment Media

In much the same way that racialized groups are under- or misrepresented in news media, they are also not accurately portrayed in entertainment media, which tends to reinforce themes that are conveyed in the news. Although positive change is occurring, it is important that media content more accurately and fairly reflect the reality of Canadian multiculturalism.

There is no question that entertainment media can have a profound effect on how young people see themselves and others. In a 2021 study, children aged nine to 12 who were asked how they would cast various roles were more than twice as likely to cast a White actor as the hero (52 percent, compared to 19 percent who would cast a Black actor and 12 percent who would cast an Asian actor) and more than twice as likely to cast a Black actor as poor. This held true no matter the race of the child: for example, only 16 percent of Black children cast a Black actor as the hero.[1]

Racialized groups in television

Dr. Minelle Mahtani, of the Institute for Social Justice at the University of British Columbia, argues that Canadian entertainment media shares many problems with American programming, exhibiting a similar tendency to under-represent and misrepresent racialized groups. According to Mahtani, this under-representation is “suggestive of [these groups’] unimportance or their non-existence.”[2] More recent research suggests that this hasn’t changed much. A 2018 study which analyzed 780 films from 1970 to 2018 found that “white actors are just over three and a half times more likely to speak than their population size would predict, leading to the underrepresentation of all other groups.”[3]

The recent international success of Canadian TV programs such as Anne with an E and Schitt’s Creek echoes this trend. Despite improved diversity in other areas, these shows feature predominantly White actors.[4] While racialized people make up 16.3 percent of speaking roles in Canadian television shows overall,[5] it wasn’t until 2019 that a Black Canadian actor was cast in a lead role for a primetime Canadian television program (Vinessa Antoine, in Diggstown.)[6] Even now, the launch or cancellation of a single show, such as Kim’s Convenience[7] or The Porter,[8] has a significant impact on the number of non-White roles onscreen.

An advertisement for the CBC series The Porter

Until recently, it was still fairly common for White actors to play non-White characters in animated TV shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bojack Horseman. This has begun to change, however: most notably, Hank Azaria, who voiced Apu on The Simpsons – possibly the most widely-seen South Asian character in North American TV over the last three decades – decided in 2021 to stop playing the role, saying “if it’s an Indian character, or a Latinx character, or a Black character, please, let’s have that person voice the character. It’s more authentic, they’ll bring their experience to it. Let’s not take jobs away from people who don’t have enough.”[9]

How racialized characters are portrayed can be an issue, as well. Though negative stereotypes are still common[10] – for example, immigrants on American TV shows are often portrayed as being less educated and more likely to commit crimes than they are in reality[11] – an increasing trend is towards aggressively colour-blind casting. This can occur either in shows that simply pretend that race and ethnicity are no longer relevant to young people’s lives, like the CW’s Riverdale, or ones that imagine alternate worlds where the concepts are meaningless such as Prime’s Wheel of Time. While colour-blind casting provides more roles for non-White characters, treating colour-blindness as a positive value can, paradoxically, make viewers less sympathetic to the actual challenges faced by diverse communities: “Color-blindness is not just about showing and adding color to television; it is about assigning no meaning to color, positioning all ethnoracial groups in the same playing field.”[12]

Similarly, shows about law enforcement and crime typically offer a “colour-blind” vision of the justice system, rarely portraying things commonly experienced by racialized groups such as racial bias and racially-motivated police misconduct.[13]

While colour-blind casting may be a valuable starting point, a better standard would be shows that allow their characters to experience “mainstream” stories while recognizing and addressing their characters’ specific identities and the challenges associated with them, such as Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and CBC’s Sort Of. Chris Van Dusen, creator and show-runner of the Netflix show Bridgerton, took an approach he describes as “not color-blind [but] color-conscious”[14] in which the producers had “freedom to give people from diverse backgrounds a role but where a character's race can still play a part in their story.”[15]

The cast of the first season of Netflix's Bridgerton

The cast of the second season of Netflix’s Bridgerton

Representation behind the screen is an issue, as well. A 2017 survey found that 91 percent of writers’ rooms in American TV were led by White showrunners,[16] and 64 percent of diverse writers in television had experienced bias, discrimination and harassment while working.[17]

The advent of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney Plus has resulted in more diversity both onscreen and off,[18] possibly because these services are better able to “narrowcast” to smaller audiences than traditional television.[19] While streaming platforms do make it easier to access international content, such as the South Korean hit Squid Game, because they feature little Canadian content they may provide a portrait of diversity just as inaccurate to Canadian audiences as American broadcast television.

Racialized groups in film

Film has a long history of racism and stereotyping. The first “blockbuster,” Birth of a Nation, not only valorized the Ku Klux Klan but led to its revival (and inspired a number of activities, such as cross-burning, which the original incarnation of the group had not practiced.)[20] It is true that there has been significant progress in the representation of racialized groups in film: compare, for instance, the original West Side Story, in which all but one of the Puerto Rican characters were played by White actors, to the 2021 remake, in which all are played by Latinx actors, and their Spanish dialogue is neither translated nor subtitled.[21] Nevertheless, significant issues and challenges remain.

Thanks to a number of factors, including the small size of Canada’s film industry and the prominence of the National Film Board (NFB), Canadian film has a fairly good history of racially and culturally diverse participation, both in front of and behind the camera. Canadian feature films such as White Elephant and Night of the Kings feature realistic and responsible fictional portrayals of racially and culturally diverse experience while the NFB has produced dozens of films on everything from hot-button multiculturalism issues to filmmakers’ family histories.

Still, these films make up a tiny portion of the movies watched by Canadian audiences, and too few to prevent actors from being lured away to the United States. As Fabienne Colas, founder of the Toronto Black Film Festival, put it, “in the U.S.A., you do have those roles for black people… we don’t have those roles; they don’t really exist.”[22] As well, the smaller size of the Canadian film industry increases the power of a small number of gatekeepers who have been, for most of its history, primarily White.[23]

There continues to be a fairly narrow range of roles available to racialized actors in both the Canadian and American film industries. A study of the 1,300 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2019, for instance, found just 44 – or 3.4 percent – featured an Asian actor in a leading role.[24] (7.1 percent of the U.S. population identifies as “Asian or Pacific Islander”;[25] 14 percent of the Canadian population identifies as South Asian, Chinese, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Korean or Japanese.)[26] Of those 44 roles, just 13 percent were considered three-dimensional – not being defined as a foreigner, sidekick or villain – by the study’s authors.[27]

This may be because while a small number of racially and culturally diverse actors, such as Viola Davis and Dwayne Johnson, are among Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws, nearly all of the faces behind the camera are White. The Writers Guild of America’s Inclusion Report 2020 detailed that racialized people make up 20 percent of screenwriters in the United States even though they make up 40 percent of the population.[28] Racially and culturally diverse actors are also often only considered for parts specifically written as racialized, while parts of unspecified ethnicity are White by default. Kelly Edwards, vice-president of talent development and corporate diversity at NBC Universal, has said that casting directors and producers also tend to turn to actors with whom they’re already familiar, which often results in less diversity onscreen.[29]

Racialized groups in music

Canadian music has traditionally been a way through which minorities have been able to gain visibility, and this continues to the present day, with Ethiopian-Canadian artist The Weeknd and Drake, a biracial artist with a Black American father and Jewish Canadian mother, finding success both in Canada and internationally.

Popular music frequently displays certain racial themes. Toby Jenkins, professor of Integrative Studies and Higher Education, notes that rap and hip hop music express the realities of institutional racism and find their roots in the 1960s civil rights movement and integration of Black students into White society, giving these marginalized communities a way to express their thoughts and struggles at a time when they were often silenced and ignored in classrooms or social life. As Jenkins argues, “hip hop music tells the story of what it is like to be Black in America… hip hop music is one of the few cultural spaces where African Americans can voice their discontent with American power structures that make it difficult for Blacks to be successful.”[30]

Like American hip hop, much of Canadian hip hop is concerned with matters of race, culture and identity – but those of Black Canadians, whose origins, experiences and history are quite different from those of Black Americans. While it originated in close imitation of American hip hop, Canadian artists such as Kardinal Offishall and Boogat produce music which is much more influenced by the traditions of the Caribbean (two-thirds of African Canadians are of Caribbean origin) while first-generation immigrants such as K’naan express their personal and cultural experiences in producing their music and francophone hip hop performers such as Alaclair Ensemble draw on traditional Québécois folk music.

Other racially and culturally diverse groups have begun to make their presence known on the music scene, as well. The increasing prominence of South Asian culture, most visibly represented by “Bollywood” movies, has resulted in a greater visibility for groups like Delhi 2 Dublin which plays songs with lyrics in Punjabi and music played on instruments such as the sitar, dhol and tabla to mostly White audiences, with their 2019 album having more English lyrics. As with Canadian hip hop, this new wave of South Asian music isn’t just a transplant of traditional forms but a blend of influences – in this case South Asian banghra, Celtic folk and reggae. Raghav Mathur, whose music mashes Bollywood beats with hip hop and whose lyrics are equal parts English and Hindi, compares South Asian music in Canada to Latin artists such as Shakira and Camila Cabello, who’ve found success with both diverse and mainstream audiences.

Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity the move to streaming platforms has not had the same positive effects for diverse music as it has for film and television. This may be because users are more likely to allow the recommendation algorithm to make choices for them on music streaming platforms. This can result in a “rich get richer” cycle, which gives preference to mainstream acts even more than traditional media did.[31] TikTok, which for many young people is the main means of discovering new music,[32] has a history of preferentially boosting White creators who are performing Black performers’ music.[33] At the same time, unlike in traditional media, diverse acts can be found on Spotify and similar platforms – though the need to find and curate them is a significant barrier. In some cases, those same algorithms have also promoted music that would never have been widely heard on traditional radio, such as gay and Black artist Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road (which went on to win a Country Music Association Award.)

Racialized groups in advertising

Advertising has historically been a medium particularly prone to stereotyping.[34] Ads, which are by definition unwanted by their audience, have to make a strong impression in a brief exposure,[35] and stereotypes provoke the emotional reactions that drive brand loyalty and purchase intention.[36] While Aunt Jemima – the syrup mascot whose roots are in Nineteenth Century minstrel shows – has been retired,[37] research from 2021 found that half of people from historically under-represented communities have seen ads that stereotype them.[38]

Advertisers were slow to directly appeal to racialized groups. For instance, in 1963 Pepsi became one of the first large companies to advertise directly to Black audiences.[39] More recently, however, a growing number of advertisers have realized the value of appealing to racialized groups[40] as well as to young audiences who expect the brands they support to reflect their values.[41] As Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing strategy firm Metaforce, explained, “it’s a cost-benefit thing. Most marketers have come to realize that no matter what they do, a certain segment is going to be offended. But the upside — seeming inclusive — outweighs the risk of ruffling feathers.”[42]

Ads do still draw on racial stereotypes, even from brands that have a long history with those communities. For example, in 2017, a Dove ad featured a Black woman transforming into a White woman and a Pepsi ad appeared to make light of Black Lives Matter protests.[43] Online, Black influencers routinely earn less per post than their White counterparts,[44] while the social networks that rely on their content also allow advertisers to target them with ads in ways that can be discriminatory[45] and even illegal.[46]

An ad for Dove body wash in which a Black model removes her shirt and becomes White.

Dove’s body wash ad, which was withdrawn in response to protests.

Racialized groups in video games

Unlike other media, there is no domestic Canadian video game industry. While a number of extremely successful video game publishers, such as BioWare and Ubisoft, are based in Canada, their work is created for the American market. As a result, racially and culturally diverse representation in video games can only be considered in an American context.

Video games have perhaps the worst record of racially and culturally diverse representation. While 87 percent of Black teenagers play video games – more than any other teen demographic[47] – just two percent of game developers are Black.[48] Most Black video game characters are given background roles or “roles that enforce racist stereotypes,”[49] and when games do offer diverse characters they’re often reserved for downloadable add-ons sold separately.[50]

Violence, of course, is a frequent occurrence in video games, but while White characters are more likely to be shown engaging in fantasy violence – using swords or laser guns against monsters or aliens – racially and culturally diverse characters are much more likely to be part of realistic violent acts such as drive-by shootings, violent muggings and gang fights.[51] Asian characters are stereotyped even further, as they are almost exclusively shown engaging in martial arts. Many racialized groups – such as South Asians or Hispanics – are nearly or entirely absent.[52] Similarly, video games are, like animation, one of the few media where it is still common for White actors to voice non-White characters.[53]

Perhaps because the video game industry is overwhelmingly White,[54] it’s often proven to be insensitive on racial topics. For instance, it took Nintendo two decades to make it possible to change a character’s skin tone in the popular game Animal Crossing; the character Alloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn sports “appropriative and gross”[55] dreadlocks; World of Warcraft features characters called “Pandarens” with stereotypically Chinese clothing and mannerisms;[56] and Fortnite has reproduced dance moves created by Black artists without crediting or compensating them “despite being gaming’s biggest phenomenon.”[57] Ian Sundstrom, an independent video game developer, comments on these instances saying, “when it comes to the bigger AAA games with huge budgets, there's really not an excuse to not be hiring black artists and designers to work on your game…[the] bare minimum [is] spending the extra time with the people you do have to add those different options and let people embody a character that looks like them."[58]

Unlike other media such as television and film, adding onscreen diversity to video games can be a technical challenge – though this can sometimes be overused as an excuse. Ion Hazzikostas, director of the World of Warcraft expansion Shadowlands, explained why the game hadn’t previously offered a diverse range of facial features and hairstyles: “Some of it was technical constraints, going back to the way things were built, and the number of different textures that could be mapped onto a single model from the engine 15 years ago. But those are lines of code that can be changed. And yes, the real question is why didn’t we do it sooner? It’s a good question. We should’ve done this sooner, honestly.”[59]

Character creation options in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, including a wider range of ethic and racial options.

New character creation options in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands

Racialized groups in social media

Because of their networked nature, social media have had a mixed impact on racialized groups. On the one hand, the ability to publish content more or less directly to audiences has allowed racialized communities to bypass the gatekeepers associated with traditional media. Black communities use Twitter as a news source and[60] a resource for finding congenial businesses[61] and both Black and Asian communities use social media to demonstrate to skeptical White audiences the reality of racism in Canada[62] and elsewhere.[63]

But social networks are by no means free of racism themselves. There are many examples of White users making racist posts[64] or participating in “digital Blackface,” either by appropriating other cultures or using filters to literally make themselves look Black or Asian.[65] Other apps promote colourism by encouraging users to virtually lighten their skin.[66] Some platforms’ recommendation algorithms downrank posts about racial justice issues such as Black Lives Matter,[67] while many of those that allow users to earn revenue from advertising prevent them from monetizing those posts as a “brand safety” measure designed to keep ads from appearing alongside “controversial content.[68]

As with other media industries, this occurs in part because racialized communities are under-represented: just six percent of Twitter’s workforce, and four percent of Facebook’s, is Black.[69] Among decision-makers, the numbers are even lower. A 2016 study of 177 large US technology companies found that just 1.4 percent of executives and senior managers were Black.[70] Other forms of racial and ethnic prejudice can also limit participation and representation in the tech industry. While South Asians are well-represented in Silicon Valley, for example, workers from lower castes often experience caste-based discrimination and harassment and feel pressure to conceal their caste origins where possible.[71]

For more information on how to deal with hate directed towards racialized groups and other diverse communities, see our section on online hate.


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