Steele presented his Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar research project titled “The Digital Mirror: How Minority Focused Casts are Revolutionizing Representation in Television” last Friday, February 7. The speech focused on Steele’s research into media portrayals of people of color and and the positive impact of minority-led and focused casts in television.
Using several clips from popular shows, such as “Riverdale,” “Titans,” and even “Jessie,” Steele demonstrated how popular shows limit the expression of characters of color, reducing them down to harmful stereotypes. Steele discussed the negative implications of this, as many children turn to television to better understand who they are and how their identity functions within society. Steele explained that if children associate their identity with negative ideas, they begin to internalize those thoughts. This topic was very important to Steele, as media and television had played a large role in his childhood and had affected how he saw himself and his community.
“I was often bullied as a kid and so many of the interactions that I had with other black males were negative. When I looked on television, I [thought], ‘the black boys are mean there too’ so I came to this general assumption [that], black boys are mean, but I’m not like that, so then I guess I’m doing something wrong, there’s something wrong with me. Then, because I didn’t want there to be something wrong with me, I said there’s something wrong with them, which only caused rifts in my relationships. I remember only becoming lonelier as a child,” said Steele in his presentation.
Steele specifically discussed the lack of non-stereotypical representation of black men and boys in popular media. He noted how this had a major effect on him as a child, and how not enough has been done since then.
“I was constantly looking for a show that would let me know that there was a place for me. The truth is, as many shows as I used to watch and would get excited about, I don’t ever remember seeing a person, or more in particular, a black boy that I felt like I related to. Black boys in television were often sentenced to the sidelines and used as the comic relief,” said Steele.
Steele continued, “Because of this, I often felt even lonelier, believing that there was no one in the world who understood how I felt, and that I wouldn’t find a place in the world. By pursuing this project, I wanted to better understand how the perspectives of people of color have been continuously removed from the small screen, and what can be done to correct the reflections we see of ourselves on television.”
Kiran Ramratnam ’22 emphasized how Steele’s presentation underscored the importance of not just representation, but diversity within portrayals of people of color.
“The main thing I took away from this event is that in representations of people of color, we need representations in all fields. We can’t just feed off a single narrative because that’s a direct cause of harmful stereotypes of people of color. Within representation, we need to be able to like and dislike characters and have the same experience with media as white people do,” said Ramratnam.
Anntonia Taylor ’20 reiterated Ramratnam’s sentiments and added that while progress has been made, there is still much room for improvement.
“It’s not just that we have to wait for something, we need to take charge. There has to be several different stories portrayed, there can’t just be one of the same character every time. You should be allowed to not like another character, and you shouldn’t feel forced to like this character because they’re the only black character, the only Latino character on the show. There should be several stories of different minority casts, and not this one character being portrayed,” said Taylor.
In his research, Steele found that the most effective way to combat the use of long-held stereotyping in television was the introduction of minority-led casts capable of portraying complex personal identities and accurate cultural backgrounds. Steele explained how many characters of color lose their individuality since their sole purpose is to reinforce a stereotype while other aspects of their identity are overlooked, leading to these characters having no development or real story line later on in the show. [a]
To show positive representations of communities of color, Steele then showed the audience clips from “Blackish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” and “Jane the Virgin.” He used these examples in order to emphasize how these characters were able to portray their cultures respectfully. Steele urged the importance of staying informed and the necessity of increased minority-led casts.
“There needs to be more. I hope that everyone in this community will walk away understanding, “I should not be content just with what I’m watching. I should also support other shows that highlight people of color, so that way there can be more of it on screen. [Also], I’d say be informed. I’m still not the most informed person, and I’m a single person, and I am very specifically a black male. I want to talk about the experience of all of us: Latinx, Asian and black people, but [this presentation] is from the perspective of a black male,so it’s important to remember where am I coming from, and who am I trying to represent, do I have the knowledge to do so, and if I don’t, making an active goal to go out and get the knowledge so you can effectively represent that group of people,” said Steele.
For Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art and Steele’s advisor for the project, Steele’s personal stories and charisma were what brought the presentation to life. By connecting the topic of media to Steele’s own experiences, he was able to demonstrate his passion for the topic and how media affects one’s life directly.
“I think aside from all of the facts and figures and scholarly arguments, hearing Jeffrey’s personal story both his experience as a young black kid growing up, seeing himself on the screen, and taking that into the present and future brings his argument and brings these critiques to life,” said Kelman.