The Invisible Visibles:
Minorities in the Media

By: Henry Gomez

From: Currents Spring 1983 pp. 12-13
© 1983 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

As recently as ten years ago, Toronto was a city in which its inhabitants were proud to say, when speaking of racial unrest: "This is not the United States. This is Canada." They felt very smug indeed as they compared the bad old U.S. of A. with its history of racism and riots, to Canada the good.

Of course, Canada was lily-white then (that is if you excluded the native Indians, the blacks in Nova Scotia and the Orientals who remained quietly in their China towns or Japanese settlements). There were no large numbers of articulate blacks or other ethnic types (apart from the Jews who could either change their names or eradicate their accents) to challenge the dominant Waspish attitude, so things remained Kosher. A province like Ontario, and indeed the rest of Canada, could afford to be smug.

Ten years, one and a half million immigrants and many studies and surveys later show that the picture has changed. Dramatically! Canada opened its doors to many immigrants from Caribbean, Asian and other Third World countries, and most of them flocked to the large metropolitan areas. Toronto and its environs received about 58 percent of those who came to the province of Ontario.

The man in the street knows this. So do the federal and provincial governments, because they compile the statistics. But, do the people who control the media know this? If they do, (and they should, because there's money to be made on these immigrants), then why the insistence on portraying Toronto and other parts of Ontario as places where life continues to be "peaches and cream," with the occasional appearance of an "ethnic type." Have they put on blinders or do they live in their proverbial ivory towers? Furthermore, is their attitude the same as that of the white artist who proudly displays a white painting on white canvas, with white highlights and shadows and calls it "Canada - an abstraction?''

In September 1981, the Honourable Jim Fleming, Minister of Multiculturalism addressed an Organization for Canadian Caribbean Initiatives seminar, at York University. He said: "The media mirrors the way minorities are perceived, plagued by stereotypes." He also said in part: "...there's a need to reinforce in the minds of all Canadians, a sense of unity, to promote better understanding and tolerance among all sectors of society."

In 1983, a person of African ancestry, or of another minority group may be heard to say: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me do I exist at all?" The mirror, of course, is the media, polished and held up by the image makers, be they advertisers, radio station owners, private and public television executives, producers, editors, writers or artistic directors. As a collective body they help to reinforce the artist's concept of Canada - it's white on white. No flies in the buttermilk.

An evening at home watching TV, a visit to our national theatres, or a casual leafing through of some of our magazines is all it takes to bring one face to face with the Canadian unreality - a country in which visible minorities don't drive cars, drink beer, travel, eat food, shop, or own houses. According to this mirror, they don't even interact with the rest of Canadian society.

Many meetings and discussions have taken place recently. They involved the AdHoc Media Committee, the National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC), the Advertising Advisory Board, the Black Performers Committee, ACTRA, the Federal and Provincial Governments, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and others. Both levels of government have set guidelines and set up task forces to monitor the use of visible minorities in their own advertising. Commendable. But that's just what they are - guidelines.

Since visible minorities have increased their knowledge of how the media operates (especially the advertising industry), it's become increasingly difficult for the buck to be passed. But the word still comes down on the grapevine, "Don't send any ethnics, especially the blacks." The few in the industry who try to question such a directive are easily held in line by the threat of lost business and the use of the epithet "Nigger lover." The same holds true for stage, television, film and radio casting.

The image-makers still cannot see actors or models of visible minority groups as doctors, lawyers, police officers, businessmen, civil servants or even trades people participating fully in a Canadian society. They still believe that only the super-stars have salability - hence Oscar Peterson, Geoffrey Holder, Bill Cosby and Reggie Jackson.

That's why they often go through the motions. They invite visible minority actors or models to auditions, knowing that they have no intention of casting any of them in the available roles.

They know it, and the actors and models know it. But the game goes on. What's to be done?

Legislation. Maybe. Maybe not. It worked in the United States, and it worked for Canadian content in radio programming. And contrary to predictions, people have not lost money.

Economics and embarrassment remain the only effective catalysts for change. The Chinese community proved this in dealing with CTV's W5. The image-maker's will not respond positively to the inclusion of visable minorities unless they pool their resources and begin to boycott certain department stores and products. They should also use their resources to picket certain television stations for lack of affirmative action in the decision-making and creative areas of their operations. They may prod Eatons, The Bay, CTV, City TV and CBC to go beyond mere tokenism. It may convince them too that even in the great white north, any other colour ink is better than red.

Henry Gomez is a Toronto actor whose work has been seen from Montreal to Calgary. He is a graduate of the Graduate Theatre Programme at York University.

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