Race, ethnicity and colour, like sex, comprise sets of genetically defined, biological characteristics. However, as with gender, there are also cultural elements in those defining characteristics.
Representation of race in the media can consist of the same sort of rigid stereotypes that constitute gender portrayal. However, stereotyping of race is seen as more harmful than stereotyping of gender, as media representation may constitute the only experience of contact with a particular ethnic group that an audience (particularly an audience of children) may have. Racial stereotypes are often based on social myth, perpetuated down the ages. Thus, the media depiction of, say, Native American Indians, might provide a child with their only experience of Native American Indian culture and characters, and may provide that child with a set of narrow prejudices which will not be challenged elsewhere within their experience.
The need for a more accurate portrayal of the diversity of different races is a priority for political agendas, but, as ever, it seems as though it will take a while for political thinking to filter through to TV programme and film-making. Hollywood movies seem to be particular offenders when it comes to lazy racial stereotypes.
A lot of work on Race & Media has focused on the representation of black men and women. This has partly been because there is a strong African-American counter-culture which provides viable alternative role models and demands that they are represented, and partly because some of the early racial stereotypes were so obvious and offensive.
In recent years, the success of actors as diverse as Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Taraji P. Henson, Naomie Harris, Laurence Fishburne, Keke Palmer and Morgan Freeman in roles across the board has meant that black characters in movies and on TV are no longer 'stock' types. Some of the time. However, there are many negative representations of black people, portrayals which seem deliberately designed to inflame the fear and hatred of other cultures - how positive a representation is the archetypal African-American gangsta? Yet these are representations coming from within black culture itself...
Attention is now being paid to the representation of other ethnic groups, notably Asian Americans and Latinos, who represent a much larger proportion of the US population than their TV coverage would suggest. Things are changing, but not fast enough.
Racism on TV in the UK exploded as a global issue in 2007, as Shilpa Shetty was subjected to vicious racial slurs by her (white) housemates. As Shetty is a well-loved Bollywood star, there was an outcry in India, and there were widespread objections to both her treatment and Channel 4's decision to broadcast it. A record 40,000+ complaints were logged by the broadcasters' watchdog, OFCOM. The row reached the House of Commons, and became part of a national debate on the undercurrents in the UK's supposedly multi-cultural society. Subsequently, Channel 4 became very sensitive when it came to allegations of racism, and housemate Emily Parr was speedily removed from the non-celebrity house later that year for using a racial epithet.
However, race remains a hot button issue on UK TV, both in fiction and non-fiction programming, largely because it's always going to attract headlines — and sell copies of the Daily Mail. Race is inextricably tangled with the immigration issue and questions of national identity. What does it mean to be British in the 2010s? Given that modern Britain is populated by a diverse range of people, do national media outlets represent different colours and ethnicities proportionally? Fairly? Whether it's an "all black" episode of Eastenders or a hard-hitting edition of Panorama about teenage racists on a London housing estate, there will continue to be heated discussions about how different races are represented, and how that representation affects the way people treat each other in reality.
For example, the characters of MTV's Jersey Shore are ethnically Caucasian, but they identify themselves culturally as Italian-American (although none of the main characters were born in Italy), and, as part of an even more specific subset, the 'guidos' and 'guidettes' who populate the bars and tanning centers of a small geographical area in New Jersey.
The TV show has created a lot of controversy, as other Italian-Americans object to this negative portrayal of their cultural and ethnic group. Do you think Jersey Shore makes viewers believe that all Italian-Americans behave this way or share these values? Or is Jersey Shore just another reality show that gives its viewers pleasure by inviting them to make a downward comparison with trashy individuals who just all happen to be part of the same cultural group?
One thing is for sure, within one season, Jersey Shore managed to create a whole set of cultural stereotypes that became part of popular discourse. The Fox TV cop show Bones, dedicated one episode to the phenomenon. The show-runners thought that the Jersey Shore stereotypes would be sufficiently familiar to their audience to provide a vehicle for a whole episode of satire. They made the Bones regulars interact with guido and guidette stereotypes; it's downward comparison all the way, as Brennan treats the Italian-Americans as though they are part of a primitive tribe. This is done with comic intent; would it be so funny if Brennan was describing African or Asian Americans in the same way? If you are Italian-American, are you comfortable with the assumption that you are "like" the young people represented on the show?