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What Kind of Power Does Reality TV Have Over Representations of Race?

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire March 7, 2013 at 10:15AM

Unscripted programming is particularly fraught for African American men, who can't count on a wide counterbalancing array of more positive portrayals on a small screen whose relationship with race is still very problematic.
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Star Jones, Isiah Thomas, Tricia Rose, Rashad Robinson,  Erika Munro Kennerly and Matthew J. Middleton
Star Jones, Isiah Thomas, Tricia Rose, Rashad Robinson, Erika Munro Kennerly and Matthew J. Middleton

It's arguable that no one ever comes off looking good in the realm of reality television, where shows seem tailored to bring out and showcase the worst and most outrageous in human behavior in weekly installments. But unscripted programming is particularly fraught for African American men, who can't count on a wide counterbalancing array of more positive portrayals on a small screen whose relationship with race is still very problematic.

Yesterday, Star Jones led a panel on this topic made up of entertainment lawyer Matthew J. Middleton, TruTV VP Erik Munro Kennerly, ColorOfChange.org executive director Rashad Robinson, Brown University professor Tricia Rose and former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas, who gathered to discuss how reality fare treats African Americans, particularly men, and what can be done to change that.

"The problem is not with stereotypes, the problem is when all we get are stereotypes"

It was an intense discussion that clearly could have run longer than the allotted hour, as it ranged from sports reporters' use of the word "beast" when discussing certain athletes to how images on TV reinforce stereotypes of "criminality, hypersexuality and violence." But one of the major talking points and, it seemed, a potential inspiration for the panel was Shawty Lo's "All My Babies' Mamas," the planned Oxygen Network series about Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo and the 11 children he's had with 10 different women. ColorOfChange.org was part of the opposition raised to the show and its portrayal of African American families, and the response was such that Oxygen ended up canceling the series in January before it ever premiered.

"The problem is not with stereotypes, the problem is when all we get are stereotypes," said Robinson, as the group debated how that show ended up on air and where the line should be drawn between network and audience responsibility and that of the people who pursue appearances on shows like the ones being called out. "If it doesn't come out your mouth, they can't use it, if you don't jump on the table, they can't film it," observed Jones," while Rose noted that the medium doesn't seek out positive imagery: "acting properly, talking about racism, talking about the prison industrial complex doesn't get you a reality TV show." Reality TV, which already skews broad, tends to pull participants into behaving in pre-established ways -- as Rose put it, "you don't wake up that day and say 'I'm going to be the angry black woman!'"

Ultimately, Kennerly said, "We need to take responsibility for ourselves. We can't offer to exploit ourselves and complain about it." When a network gets pushback, she added, they listen -- as was the case with "All My Babies' Mamas."

The panel, "Reality TV Shows: Battling the Stereotypes of Black Men," was part of a two-day conference given by Open Society Foundations and American Values Institute entitled "Black Male: Re-Imagined II." You can watch the first 10 minutes below, and the full panel on Fora.tv.


This article is related to: Television, TV Features, All My Babies' Mamas