Friends: Televized White Privilege

I’ve never seen a single episode of Friends, well not in its entirety anyways. That’s blasphemy, I know. I hear about that show quite often even now, and never mind it’s popularity in its hey day. That’s all anyone seemed to talk about back then. I’ve heard it all before. Friends is so funny or It’s my favorite show. I know people with the dvd box set or that binge watch it on Netflix. Yet, I’ve never been interested in watching it at all. Why?

Simply put, Friends was white privilege in sitcom form. 

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I was almost ten when Friends debuted in 1994. I didn’t yet possess the language to describe the show in terms of it’s white privilege, but immediately things stuck out to the nine year old and already cranky version of me. Where were all the black people? This was a show about living in NYC, and they barely even run into people of color on the street? They couldn’t even get a light skinned extra to stand in the back of the scene somewhere? Even nine year old me knew something wasn’t right here. Hell, I knew from the first few seconds of the theme song something wasn’t right.

So no one told you life was gonna be this way/ Your job’s a joke you’re broke…

Um, I’m black. That’s exactly what we expect life to be like. Our expectations are often low. Right now there’s been a spike in the mortality rates of middle aged, poorly educated, white folks.  According to some analysis it isn’t a spike so much as other ethnic group’s mortality rates are declining while the mortality rate for middle aged whites is holding firm. The 2008 crash ruined their privileged dreams of upward mobility. Now many middle aged white folks are drinking, drugging, and pitying themselves to death. Other ethnic groups are used to living in tough economic times. This is nothing new to us.

What I have seen of Friends just reenforced my preconceived notions. It’s a show about a group of white people doing white people things.

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You know… Culturally appropriating, hanging out in coffee shops, living in a segregated world oblivious to anything outside of it. Cultural appropriation combined with zero actual minorities on screen = millions of white funny bones tickled. Ratings success for sure.

It has always bugged me to see so many people crazy about a show with so little concern for diversity. I remember being floored when Aisha Taylor got a brief role on the show. The reality is she was one of 23 minorities ever seen on the show in its 10 seasons and 236 episodes.

Prepare yourselves for a truth bomb… I didn’t really watch Seinfeld for the same reasons. In its 180 episode run, Seinfeld only managed to feature 19 black characters. From what I have seen of Seinfeld, which I’ll admit I’ve watched more than Friends, it was pretty funny, but again a show set in NYC with no minorities to be seen or heard from just ruined, for me, whatever laughs it elicited.

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Perhaps the best description of “Seinfeld” that exists.

 

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We know how Kramer feels about the importance of diversity.

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We’ve come a long way. Kind of. One of my favorite shows, Modern Family, had Kevin Hart in like two episodes, but to be fair there are gay and Latino main characters, so it’s more diverse than most of NBC’s hit sitcoms from the 90s combined.

All I hope is that more white people speak up about the lack of diversity on TV. We should all want to see representations of different people and cultures in popular shows. Gene Roddenberry has always been a hero of mine. His insistence that Star Trek have a diverse cast way back in the 60s was a trailblazing move. I don’t see a lot of black folks on TV, but I see even fewer Asians. Star Trek had both represented in the original cast. Roddenberry was a white guy making space for minority representation on his show. That’s how things change. It’s white people taking responsibility for their privilege and insisting on inclusion that has the biggest impact in the advancement of racial equality. The results of diversity are beautiful, and we really need more of it.

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