A report by the NAACP found that lack of Black representation behind the scenes in film and TV may be “harmful” to the Black community.

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Illustration by Bailey Mariner

When discussing the lack of representation in the media, we often talk about how the characters could be better showcased or even how casting could have been more intentional.

But a missing link in the conversation is how the lack of on-screen portrayals is directly connected to a lack of behind-the-scenes representation.

A 2022 report conducted by the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, alongside Dr. Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, and Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE) Production, discussed how the lack of Black executives on media teams can be harmful to audiences.

According to the report, there weren’t any Black chief executive officers (CEOs) or members of the senior management team at the major studios in 2020 and only 3.9% of major studio unit heads were Black.

Continued and positive representation — both behind the scenes and on-screen — can have an effect on the Black community, particularly its youth.

Representation within media has importance for several reasons, ranging from positive changes in physical health to a decline in racial profiling.

According to research from 2017, media can influence health behaviors. If that’s true, then the lack of representation — both overall and positive — can impact the overall health of Black people.

Certain demographics — such as white, heterosexual, cisgender, male, and Christian — are considered the dominant culture. So, people who fall outside those groups can often be left behind when it comes to representation.

The NAACP study states, “The most damaging consequence of the industry’s faulty approximation of genuine Black experiences is the absorption and adoption of those characterizations as misshapen forms of self-identity, worthy of emulation.”

Alton Bozeman, a psychologist with Menninger Clinic, says, “…these representations are automatic and plentiful and therefore the importance of this need for relatability and representation is often overlooked.”

Behind the scenes informs on-screen

A majority of media executives are white, but that doesn’t change the necessity to tell Black stories.

Attempting to tell a story that isn’t yours without at least having someone from that community with equivalent creative control can lead to negative outcomes.

According to the report, in 2020:

  • 91% of film studio CEOs were white and 82% were male
  • 93% of studio senior management teams were white and 80% were male
  • 86% of studio unit heads were white and 59% male

The numbers for TV stations were very similar:

  • 92% of network CEOs were white and 68% male
  • 84% of network senior management teams were white and 60% male
  • 86% of network unit heads were white and 46% male

This lack of reasonable numbers can put pressure on the Black people who are within the field.

Deidre White, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Georgia, talks about the burden Black executives are forced to hold due to the low numbers in Hollywood.

“Black executives often serve as the voice for black culture and are tasked with acting as gatekeepers for disseminating media that’s culturally responsible and provides accurate depictions of Black people,” White says.

When it comes to the lack of accuracy of media portrayals, White says “Directly, it affects black people due to the consumption of negative messages that influence attitudes and behaviors, which may be lessened if there was more on-screen and behind-the-scenes representation.”

Black characters in movies and TV often end up as side characters or vehicles to further white character arcs.

“It’s not enough for characters, news anchors, or nonfictional subjects to be present and visible.” Bozeman says. “It’s also important that these portrayals are relatable.”

Bozeman adds, “What makes them relatable is the authenticity of character to one’s culture in the case of fictional characters. In the case of news personalities and nonfictional personalities, it’s the positivity of the portrayals that matters most.”

Keischa Pruden, LCMHC and founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts, discusses how Black people have endured stereotypes for hundreds of years, including their portrayal as harmful stereotypes — such as being violent, lazy, or negligent parents.

Pruden says, “…young people are the most influenced by what they see, read, and listen to [and] find examples of how to walk, talk, music to listen to, ideas to live by… it would seem imperative that our young Black people be afforded the opportunity to see representations of themselves in a positive, affirming light.”

When it comes to executive decisions, the NAACP survey included questions and answers from several Black Hollywood executives.

Many shared their frustration with “gatekeeping,” saying that except for a couple of exceptions, Black executives don’t have the final say on whether a project is ultimately greenlit, or given the permission to proceed.

One person says, “The closer a project gets to being programmed, the higher up the ladder it needs to get approved. And the higher up the ladder you go, the less diverse the industry is overall.”

Negative on-screen representations

Angela Robinson, LPC, a clinical director of NorthNode Counseling says, “We’re constantly told negative things within our family systems, society, and throughout history that can oftentimes keep us caged in, in regards to thinking.”

A 2003 article discussed this negative and stereotypical media representation of Black people and spoke about the prevalence of the portrayals of Black men in TV and movies as dangerous criminals and the potential connection to societal perception mirroring these stereotypes.

The NAACP report’s findings were similar. It states, “Media content informs and misinforms opinions about Black people, ultimately influencing perceptions and behaviors, followed by laws and policies that govern and define social circumstances with steep psycho-emotional consequences.”

No on-screen representation

Pruden spoke about the messages that can be conveyed to young Black kids when they don’t see themselves represented, whether or not the message is overt.

“‘You’re not important to share with the world.’ ‘You’re not skilled enough to be in front or behind the camera.’ ‘Your story doesn’t have relevance.’ Imagine being a young child and receiving those types of messages,” Pruden says.

“Whether implied or stated outright, negative messages keep children from chasing dreams, seeing their potential, and feeling good about themselves.”

This isn’t just an issue when it comes to Black representation, as we recurrently see negative representations of other marginalized communities.

For example, research from 2012 suggests that the general population’s increased acceptance of people in the LGBTQIA+ community is connected to the increase in media representation.

Other communities that have experiences connected to media perception include the Asian Pacific Islander community, people with mental health conditions, and people of Middle Eastern descent.

We’re slowly seeing more showings of different backgrounds and intersectional identities with shows such as “Pose” and “Euphoria,” but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Our need for representation extends past the screen. There’s an importance to seeing educators, first responders, musicians, and scientists that look like you.

This includes clinicians and health care providers of all types, as positive patient-doctor relationships have been shown to lead to better health outcomes, according to research from 2018.

Due to the longstanding history of medical racism and bias, many from marginalized communities may be hesitant to put their trust in the medical system at all, let alone people who aren’t from their communities.

The needle is moving ever-so-slightly in terms of representation, but there’s still much to be done.

White, Robinson, Pruden, and Bozeman all shared how media is a powerful vehicle for conveying messages and shaping ideologies.

“When young Black people are able to see themselves portrayed in the media, in the same ways as those in the majority culture, it can create a sense of belonging and a renewed sense of hope for positive outcomes,” White says.

Robinson adds, “[Positive] representation definitely opens the door to an ‘I can do that, too’ mentality and effort.”