We’ve all seen them—in everything from Old Navy commercials to college brochures to superhero movies. When the diversity quota just isn’t being reached, you can always count on The Ethnic Friend.
What does it mean to be The Ethnic Friend? Usually, this person of color is inserted into a TV show or movie to balance the fact that every other character is white. They also serve as excellent tools so writers can make race-based jokes without being called racist. A good Ethnic Friend is expected to represent an entire race and all its related culture, while its white counterparts develop their own interesting storylines separate from racial backgrounds.
There are so many examples of this in popular media, from the heavily-accented, hyper-sexualized Gloria on “Modern Family” to the single black contestant on every season of the “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette.” In fact, most of us have consumed––and loved––media that relies on this system of token minorities. So much of the industry is dominated by white actors that any diversity at all––even in these one-dimensional characters––was a step in the right direction. But now, in 2016, it’s getting a little tiring to see more black sidekicks, Asian math geniuses, and Hispanic comic relief as props for white characters to lean up against.
However, the addition of minority characters is also important from a representation standpoint. Isn’t one character of color better than none? If a black character dies in the first 20 minutes of a movie, the actor still got a job out of it, right? The line is sometimes hard to find in the confusing intersections of media all struggling to be politically correct. But real representation depends on if a minority character is being used as a mouthpiece for an entire race or if they are developed beyond their racial background. For example, John Boyega’s Finn in the new Star Wars movie portrays a black character with his own flaws, fears, and hopes. His story is not solely about being black, as too many minority characters’ plots often are. The worst thing the media can do is put a person of color in the spotlight and reduce them down to stereotypes.
It’s the same reason “Fresh Off the Boat” is referred to as a sitcom about an Asian family while “The Middle” is a show just about a family. It’s why “all-American” is synonymous with white and middle class. Caucasian is seen as the default, and everything else is an add-on. Maybe we can find a more stable diversity when minorities start being human beings in the media, rather than collectible objects that networks parade around to avoid accusations of racism.