Race: an arbitrary subject which some have the privilege to ignore while most do not. The popular narrative of a group of white people struggling to “make it” is often the way life in North America has been depicted on television. This narrative fails to capture reality, as it does not acknowledge the challenges and obstacles of people who are not white and middle class. To explore how the conversations about race have changed on television, I am going to analyze the way race is discussed in three popular shows: Friends which takes place in the 90’s, The Office which takes place in the 2000’s, and Master of None which takes place now.
Let’s begin with Friends, a classic sitcom set in New York City. This show is about six men and women who are both middle class and white. For ten seasons, we watch Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Ross, and Rachel try to succeed in the big city. We are side by side with them through all of their breakups and career struggles. While this show may evoke laughter and give you that warm fuzzing feeling, it is problematic due to its inaccurate depiction of diversity. The Friends cast is not an accurate portrayal of what people from NYC would look like, as 37% of the population are immigrants and more foreign born people “live in NYC than any other city in the world” (Mathias). In Friends, there are no major or minor characters of colour and when race is portrayed, it is usually done so in a disrespectful way. When we see race on this show, it is through a white lens, meaning it is not authentically constructed.
An example of racism is in an episode which takes place in Barbados. Monica is mocked by her friends for putting her hair in cornrows because her hair is frizzy from the humidity. This is a case of cultural appropriation because Monica, a white woman, has the privilege to appropriate a hairstyle that is associated with the history of African American people. Just before the turn of century, it used to be the expectation that professionals, regardless of their natural hair texture, would have straight ‘American’ hair. The fact that Monica, out of a petty inconvenience, is able to put her hair into cornrows and make a joke out of it is mocking a culture and completely whitewashing all of the history that is associated with it. Another example of racism is when Rachel, who had been teasing Ross for teaching his college class in a British accent, joins in mocking Monia and says that “the weather in Bombay is very very (sic) nice this time of year”. This plays off of racist stereotypes of Indians.
When racist jokes are not being made, Friends entirely ignores race in order to be the goofy and light-hearted show it is. The characters do not deal with racism; rather they are dealing with easier problems: Rachel stops accepting money from her rich family, and Joey and Chandler can’t find girls to take out. Of course, Friends is a show intended to distract people from thinking about difficult subjects like race. In today’s society, however, we must view it as a means to question white hegemony and the prevalence of it.
Next, let’s explore The Office, a sitcom which explores the daily lives of people who work in a paper company in suburban Pennsylvania. In this show, we are exposed to issues of racism, sexism, and sexuality. While the audience is exposed and meant to be unsettled by these issues, they are not provided with solutions. In one of the first episodes, the character of Michael, the white and male boss, holds a workshop in the office and calls it “Celebrating Diversity”. Michael, in his efforts to appear “not racist”, instructs everyone to pull the name of a race out of a hat and to act and speak like the selected race. Everyone in the office is clearly uncomfortable, and this discomfort spreads to the audience. The point of this scene in The Office is to acknowledge that racism exists in the workplace and to point out how blatantly problematic it is.
Another example of race being explored in The Office occurs when Kelly, an Indian woman, is interviewed for an executive position for minorities. This episode mocks the absurdity of a “minority executive position”. Kelly, a character normally dressed in ruffle tops and skirts, attends her interview in a Sari and Bindi; here, Kelly is testing the absurdity of the position by engaging with the stereotypes of her race as she knows it will better her chances of receiving the job. Gabe, the white man who hires her, expresses how excited corporate will be that he “snagged an Indian woman” as “the program is mostly black, almost too black”. He suddenly looks at the camera with regret and admits “that didn’t sound right”. This scene reveals how minorities can be fetishized in the workplace.
The Office ultimately works to make its audience cringe at characters like Michael and Gabe, very racist characters that consider themselves the opposite. The show reflects the way race in the 2000s received more awareness than before, but also how people still don’t quite know what to do about it.
Gabe, the white man who hires her, expresses how excited corporate will be that he “snagged an Indian woman” as “the program is mostly black, almost too black”.
The next show I will be discussing is Master of None, a show about the life of a thirty year old man named Dev living in New York City. Dev’s parents are immigrants from India, and he has lived in America his whole life. Similar to the characters in Friends and The Office, Dev deals with average relationship and career problems; however, he also grapples with much deeper issues of race. Master of None is wonderful because it is a show that is both funny and progressive. By progressive, I mean that Master of None deals with racism and provides solutions while still managing to be just as funny and heart-warming as Friends and The Office.
There is an episode in which Dev and an Indian friend are both auditioning for a role on a TV show. At the audition, Dev is asked to speak with an Indian accent. Dev does not have an Indian accent and finds it offensive that he would be asked to exploit his race by doing so. The audience through Dev’s reaction is able to understand the racism underlying this situation and become angered by it too. Later, Dev and his friend are offered the part but only one of them is allowed to accept it because there can’t be two Indian characters or else it “would be an Indian show”. Dev points out how a show with two white people is not considered a “white show”, and why should it be different for Indians. By doing so, Master of None works to expose how race is constructed by white people in America and urges people to question these systems.
In the Emmy-awarded episode “Thanksgiving” based on the true story of Lena Waithe, the audience watches Denise through her process of coming out as a lesbian to her family. This episode directly deals with issues of intersectionality and what it means to be a lesbian person of colour. Denise as a thirteen year old comes out to Dev and they make up the code word “Lebanese” because Denise doesn’t feel comfortable saying “lesbian”. She explains to Dev that she can’t come out to her mother because “you can’t be gay and black”. Denise continues about how her mother views her as a trophy and being gay would “tarnish this trophy”. Dev reacts by saying, “I think it’s cool you’re a Lebanese trophy.” This powerful scene addresses the obstacles of sexuality and race, revealing that it is not a simple matter easily captured by one episode but rather a lifelong struggle. Besides shedding a few tears and feeling warm on the inside, the audience sees an authentic narrative that is not constructed by white people, but rather by the actress herself. In her speech after receiving an Emmy for her contributions to the episode, Waithe addresses “her LBTQIA family”, explaining “the things that make us different are our superpowers [and] the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it”. This is an example of how a single episode of a TV show can contribute to change and be acknowledged and cherished on a global scale.
Friends, The Office, and Master of None demonstrate how the way race is viewed and discussed over the past thirty years in North America has changed. It has evolved from being a subject ignored, to acknowledged, to scrutinized. The TV shows we watch have an immense influence on the way we perceive race, and by supporting and watching shows which challenge and find solutions to racism, we can internalize these ideals and begin to move forward.
Mathias, Christopher. “More Foreign-Born Immigrants Live In NYC Than There Are People In Chicago.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Dec. 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/19/new-york-city-immigrants_n_4475197.html.