Where are the role models?

Two years ago Cierra came home from school in a high state of frustration. Always an astute observer of culture and people, she voiced her frustration with expectations for black students; not from teachers and other adults, mind you, but from other black students. Her ire was motivated by conversations she had with a couple of sixth grade male African American students who ridiculed the idea that education had any benefit for them. In their words, education was worthless, a waste of time, and no way for them to go anywhere. “Where do they get these ideas? I don’t get it; they think being stupid is a good thing. That they are going to make it affecting some gangsta attitude.” I was reminded of that conversation this morning when I read an article in the local newspaper by Neal Justin, “TV’s minority report not making the grade.” Justin bemoans the dearth of leading actors and actresses of color in television shows. He acknowledges that there has been improvement in the last couple of decades. “Diverse faces are getting juicier parts on TV,” he writes, “but they still play follow-the-leader when it comes to starring roles.” Justin goes on to note that no male of color has won an Emmy for leading actor since Andre Braugher won for his role in “Homicide: Life on the Street,” in 1998. In the fourteen years since, Braugher is the only minority actor to even receive a nomination in that category. In 1994, Cicely Tyson was nominated for her portrayal of attorney, Carrie Grace Battle in the drama, “Sweet Justice.” She didn’t win, nor has any female of color; ever, nor has any minority woman received a nomination since. But of course, it’s difficult to be nominated if you aren’t in the roles.

There are many issues at play here; who runs the production businesses, who has the money to fund new shows, subtle and not-so-subtle societal racism, perceived notions about ‘what will sell and what won’t. Justin highlights a number of these, but one, in particular, brought me back to the memory of my conversation with Cierra. What does the lack of strong, leading characters – men and women – mean for our children? To that question, Justin states: “The lack of diversity in leading parts is not only hurting minority actors; it may also affect the next generation of Americans. According to a recent study, black children in the Midwest come away with less self-esteem after being exposed to television; the opposite is true for white boys. ‘Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,’ Indiana University Prof. Nicole Martins said. ‘You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife. … Young black boys are getting the opposite message: There are not a lot of good things you can aspire to.’”

As the parent of a mid-western black teenager, I want her to see, hear, and experience – to know with every fiber of her being, that she can dream big, she can accomplish anything she sets her heart and mind to.

As I write this, another memory of a conversation with Cierra comes to mind. It was 2008, the day before the presidential election. We were riding in the car and the reporter on the radio was talking about the death of Obama’s grandmother the previous day. As we talked about the pain of losing someone close to you, Cierra noted, “Obama and I have a lot in common. He has a black father and a white mother and he was raised by his grandmother. If he can grow up to run for President of the United States, then maybe I could too.” Possibility and promise comes when we see people like us achieving big and worthy goals.


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About Pamela Erwin

Pamela Erwin (DMin, Fuller Seminary) has a long-time interest in how culture and theology intersect. She studies the global church and issues of reconciliation and diversity. She is also interested in how young people form an understanding of identity and purpose.