Representations of Race in U.S. Popular Culture

Popular culture is all about representation, and despite scientific studies and academic research, it seems that in the U.S. we more often turn to popular culture icons and trends to help us form definitions and solutions for who we are as people. Author Richard Dyer (as cited in Cserno, 2006) explains that “the study of representations is more limited than the study of reality and yet it is also the study of one of the prime means by which we have any knowledge of reality” (p. 68). In that respect, it seems that, in the study of race and racism in popular culture, the concept of representation is a critical element that must be understood. It can be easily recognized that, as with any artistic rendition, there is value lost in the replica; it is a plagiarized knock-off. Because representations in popular culture “contribute to the dissemination and creation of belief systems, identity formats, and social structures” (Cserno, 2006. p. 68), we must take the time to fully critique these representations, or else we may very well continue to accept them as genuine.

With the legacy of colonialism still highly influential in the continuing representations of race in popular culture, and considering the fact that the vast majority of Black characters are created in such a way that it highlights the historical perceived superiority of whiteness in our culture, those who wish to develop more authentic and positive Black characters in movies and television shows may struggle with the task. Often these characters end up as merely token characters, even when they are depicted as the main character, as was the case with Tiana, Disney’s first Black “princess” from the movie The Princess and the Frog (2010). Despite consulting the NAACP, and even having Oprah on board to voice one of the characters, not everyone was happy with the way Tiana was portrayed. The simple reason for that is because there is, of course, no “one” idea about what a realistic, positive Black character should be, and it is the lack of positive Black characters in popular culture that “puts this kind of pressure on one movie or character” (Barker, 2010. p. 492).

While it is important for everyone to have representation in popular culture, token minority characters can cause issues when it comes to representation. The imposition on positive characters like Tiana to be the exemplary for their entire race, as well as the influence of the more common negative stereotypes of Black characters, often creates polarizing ideas about Black people in our society. Viewers see these characters as either good or evil. People, however, are much more diverse and complicated than that. Most people are not “good” or “evil,” but rather just human beings trying to make sense of life, and making the best choices they can at the time with whatever coping mechanisms they have been able to acquire along the way — some more, some less. Many movies and television shows have experimented with the idea of character role reversal, by placing white characters in the stereotypical or token position, or by featuring Black characters in power and white characters as subordinate, and even portraying white characters as Black and vise versa. However, I feel that the inclusion of more Black characters who simply possess a variety of character strengths and flaws and sometimes make both bad and good decisions, and who have a variation of aesthetics, genders, careers, talents, sexual orientations, ideas, opinions, interests, skills, and aspirations, would more precisely address the polarization of Black characters in popular culture, because it is in the commonplace where humanity is most accurately represented.

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Barker JL. Hollywood, Black Animation, and the Problem of Representation in “Little Ol’ Bosko” and “The Princess and the Frog” Journal of African American studies (New Brunswick, NJ). 2010;14(4):482–498. doi:10.1007/s12111–010–9136-z

Cserno, I. (2006). Whiteness studies and the colonial aesthetic: Western popular culture and the representations of race. Ethnic Studies Review, 29(2), 66-II. Retrieved from

Del, V. P., Clements, R., Erb, G., Musker, J., Oremland, J., Edwards, R., Rose, A. N., Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Firm). (2010). The princess and the Frog. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

art historian. writer.

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