Grey's Anatomy and Color-Consciousness

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Devon Carbado at blackprof.com raises some interesting questions about race on the Grey's Anatomy show. [hat tip: Racialicious] I've never watched the show, but these issues come up with quite a number of shows that I have seen. Some people have called the show colorblind because it has non-white characters playing a prominent role without ever making an issue of their race. Many who say this are thinking of colorblindness as a good thing. Racial ways of thinking involve thinking of the less privileged races as lesser or as not part of the mainstream. This kind of colorblindness is often thought of as good. It mainstreams the marginalized. On the other hand, it does mask genuine racial issues when they might be lurking beneath the surface, unnoticed by those who aren't tuned into them, ignored due to no one's willingness to talk about them for fear of being seen as cooperating with the unfortunate implications of a good deal of the negative racialized thinking that colorblindness wants to avoid.

Carbado steps into this with a claim that I think shows some great insight.

I don't think the show is colorblind at all. It is color conscious in a particular way -- namely, it presents non-white actors in roles that do not explicitly invoke race. That is neither colorblind nor race neutral.

It didn't occur to me to call this approach color-conscious at all, but I think this is right. The producers of this show are surely aware of what they are doing. The writers may not be addressing race issues, but what is color-conscious is the placing of non-white actors into these parts, and I suspect they are consciously not referencing the characters' races very much.

It's clear that it's color-conscious in at least that way, then. The question is whether this is a good or bad thing to do. Carbado worries about one aspect of it:

Is this kind of representation a good thing? I really like the show -- I think it is funny and clever and does not take itself too seriously. Still, I wonder whether one could say that this show is successful because it is racially palatable.... Assuming that Grey's Anatomy is racially palatable, that criticism, without more, would not suggest, at least to me, that the show is therefore problematic. But if the criticism has bite, it might mean that the success of television shows with meaningful non-white racial representation turns on whether they are racially comfortable (for whites?) to watch.

I think there's probably something to that. I'm not sure what "racially comfortable" is supposed to mean here, though. The Cosby spinoff A Different World did raise uncomfortable questions about race, and that show was fairly successful. Most black-targeted sitcoms don't do well, but in most cases it's just because they're awful shows. I do worry that the most successful primarily black shows have been sanitized in some sense, since that reflects a tendency among mainstream, middle class whites to tune in to something they identify more with. There's something unfortunate about that, since it means mainstream, middle class whites won't as likely identify with those less like them. It also doesn't help raise awareness of issues that many white people aren't as easily going to see clearly. Bringing in race issues with characters they've already identified with generally helps those who wouldn't be as moved when it's just people they've never heard of struggling because of racial inequality.

Of course, it would also require doing it well, and I don't know very many cases where I've seen it done well. It has to be true to life, or it doesn't achieve the right purpose. It can't exaggerate the degree that racial issues still occur, or those less sensitive to racial realities due to white privilege will find it completely implausible. But it also can't ignore racial issues. It has to overcome the sense that there are no racial problems simply because there is no ill will, but it also has to get beyond the sense that such problems are due to classic, attitudinal racism (which is the immediate and primary meaning of the term in mainstream dialects of English outside academia and communities of color). There are a lot of complicated racial issues that I think could be done well, but I wouldn't trust very many people to do them well.

At the same time, I think there is something of value in the minimalist racial consciousness that we find in shows like this. It reflects a kind of idealistic treatment of how things ought to be, at least on one level. It's not that we ought to ignore race when it's a real issue, but don't we want a world where race doesn't have to be an issue just because the people involved are not all the same race? Isn't it worth striving for the kind of situation that in some ways is not reality yet? It's not worth doing so at the cost of ignoring realities, but shouldn't we shoot for a reality that moves away from the current realities, and wouldn't that mean not as much of a focus on racial issues that really would be improving?

In particular, the show seems to me to be doing something very much worth doing (judging by the description; as I said, I've never seen it). It's taking non-white characters and putting them in positions that break stereotypes without making a big deal out of the fact that it's doing so. We can disagree on the causes of why black students tend to do worse on standardized tests and in school and thus give the impression of being not as smart. We can't disagree on the result and how it affects the attitudes of blacks and non-blacks. It allows black people to come to think of certain professions or levels of society as not for them. It allows white people to think the same thing, which is bad for completely different reasons. If a TV show can treat the presence of black doctors as perfectly normal, then it chips away at the sense that black doctors should be abnormal. Eureka has a black physicist without once having referred to the fact that he's black. That does away with the sense that black physicists are abnormal, and it thus weakens the sense anyone might have that being a physicist isn't really for black people. That seems to me to be a really good thing.

It does have the negative side-effect of masking the fact that many people do not see this as perfectly normal. If you just count physicists who are black, there's a sense in which it's not normal. But the idealism here serves a purpose. It changes people's attitudes about what should be normal. It's largely through exactly that kind of thing that MTV and other media outlets have moved us to a place where interracial relationships are considered pretty much normal by a very large percentage of the American populace under 40.

I don't think this is just idealism, either. There's a kind of realism to it, as one of the commenters on the blackprofs.com post (jcm, md) points out:

And,in a hospital similar to the one where I work-- 0ver 800 docs, 15 Afro Americans, 50% Afro American patient population-- there is not this overwhelming racial drama on a daily basis-- I will not deny there are racial issues-- however I feel there is not the sturm and drang that Cornel West feels he must fight on a daily basis and therefore puts on his three piece suit of armor to fend off. The bigger story in the hospital is life and death that we face with every patient. And as corny as it sounds, there is a bond with the fellow docs (if they are serious) in order to accomplish this.

I think that's right. If you make something racial when it's not, it seems just as fake as if you make race a non-issue when it is an issue. But that doesn't mean race is never an issue, and it's very likely that it would sometimes be an issue (even when most of the people involved don't notice it) when people of different races work in such close quarters over a long period of time. If the show never deals with it, that's probably not good. You can achieve the good purposes of the idealism I'm talking about while dealing with the reality of race issues now and then. If that's all Carbado wants, then I agree wholeheartedly.

2 Comments

I had not thought on the racial issues present in Grey's Anatomy untill seeing this forum. I must say that although I see many of the points made about "colorblindness" and the fact that the show doesn't make issues out of race, I feel the need to point out that I have not seen any of the "white" actors date a "non-white" actor. The Asian doctor dates the African American Doctor and another African American Doctor is married to an African American doctor, but I have not seen a white actor date anyone other than a white actor. I find this troublesome. While the show does place "colored" people in professional positions, it also builds a barrier on relationships. Due to this I think that the show is in fact racist; even though it holds racist implications it does not mean that it is malicious. I cannot agree that there is a minimal or non-existant racial consciousness in the show, because doing that would be ignoring the fact that people are recognizing the presence of race in the show. The fact that race is an aspect of the show, despite that it is not obviously or directly associated with any negative stereotypes or spoken thoughts, suggests that it is a move in the direction our society gears to called "coloreblindness." Not recognizing color does not mean that racism doesn't exist, and I think it is important to further look to the dynamics of the inter-relationships the actors hold with one another beyond their professions in order to assess the commentary on race Grey's Anatomy provides.

Or is this one area where it's just trying to reflect most people's regular practice? It's hard to tell there, and I think the issues are just as difficult to sort through as the issues I've raised in this post.

See my Interracial Couples in Popular Media and some of the discussion there (particularly the more recent comments) for more on this.

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