A 2006 poll conducted by CNN revealed that racism is still a contemporary issue in the American society, but it seems to have interestingly taken a different form.  Instead of the overt hate that was associated with the post-war civil rights era, today’s racial discrimination is expressed in ”subtle, indirect ways” to the point that “some people may not even recognize it in themselves.”  How then can racism defined in the 21st century, if it is not accompanied with hateful discrimination and malevolent bias? Can it actually even be called racism? And what has the media done to curb or perpetuate racism in America?

I was fortunate to have had a very international upbringing, thanks to my parents’ jobs of travelling the world as diplomats.  I went to international schools, and met people my age from all over the world.  There was never any concept of “the other”, because every single one of us was so different from the next person.  In first grade, my three closest friends were Korean, Indian and English… adding myself as an African, we must have looked like a real-life UNICEF commercial running through the playground!  It was interesting though; none of us looked at each other as different, and the difference in our ethnicities barely ever came up in discussion, talk less of it serving as a source of conflict in our friendships.

What I find in the media, however, is quite the opposite.  Below is a very short outtake from one of the most popular comedy shows on American television right now, Family Guy.

Family Guy – White Track Stars **

 In addition to jokes like these, some television shows even have “token minority characters”, making a play on policies such as Affirmative Action.  In South Park, the only African American student’s name is Token, and on 30 Rock one of the characters goes by the nickname “Toofer” – explained: “with him you get a two-for-one; he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy.” 

These kinds of jokes are seen very often on just about every comedy show on television these days. The gags target people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds too – not just black vs. white. They are not written with hateful intent, nor are they to be taken seriously. In fact, some argue that the use of comedy in such serious issues like ethnic diversity makes it less of a taboo, thus opening the door for people to comfortably discuss on a neutral ground. But are these jokes really a good thing?  Are age-old cultures and languages “funny” just because they do not parallel the kinds of things we are used to seeing every day?  Should we be okay with the fact that ethnic diversity is severely under-represented in American media, even though the USA is commonly referred to as a “melting pot”?

I personally don’t take serious offense to these jokes. 30 Rock is one of my favorite shows on television, and I haven’t met one person who hasn’t spent an evening watching Family Guy – even if out of boredom.  The problem arises when one really realizes that jokes like these continue to highlight differences, perpetuate negative stereotypes and under-represent a very large proportion of the American population.  Even though television watchers find comedic relief in the jokes, the fact that we are okay with them means that we feel there is an element of truth behind what we are watching.  Although seemingly harmless, television is one of the most influential means by which prejudice and discrimination is perpetuated in society.

Keep this in mind the next time you tune in to your favorite comedy show.


** – for some reason, I was unable to embed the YouTube video directly into the blog post, sorry about the link!