TV Network’s history of racism and colorism may not bode well for website formerly owned by The Washington Post Company
By Jillian Báez
Two weeks ago Spanish-language television giant Univision announced its acquisition of TheRoot.com, one of the top African American news websites. Coverage of the merger was quite celebratory and echoed co-founder Henry Louis Gates’ statement that “This bold new partnership between Univision and TheRoot underscores the ties that have long bound people of color together throughout the Western Hemisphere and is a sign of even greater levels of communication, collaboration and exchange between these culturally vital groups of people.”
But while Gates is obviously optimistic about the venture, I’m a little skeptical. Univision has some issues that no one has talked about that might impact things. For one thing, it’s digital presence, Fusion, is struggling to get traffic to its own website. Secondly, the parent company’s history as a serial consolidator and nasty habit of broadcasting racist content makes me cautious about this venture.
Univision is the largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S. and the fifth largest network overall. A look into Univision’s history helps to make sense of the network’s acquisition of The Root. Univision emerged from a consolidation of Mexican tycoon Emilio Azcárraga’s Spanish International Network (SIN) and the Spanish International Broadcasting Corporation in 1987. Hallmark purchased Univision in 1988 and sold the network to entrepreneur Jerrold Perenchio, owner of Mexico’s Televisa, and Venezuela’s Venevisión. In 2006, Broadcasting Media Partners acquired Univision. Currently, Univision owns the television networks UniMás and Galavision as well as Univision Radio. In 2012, Univision acquired Bounce TV, the second-most watched network among African Americans with 90 million homes, as its first foray into African American content. While the channel, which was co-founded by Martin Luther King III, son of the Civil Rights icon, has historically offered reruns of sitcoms from the 80s and 90s sitcoms that can also be found on cable networks like BET and TVOne, BounceTV has introduced two new original sitcoms and will debut its first hour long drama series in 2016.
In 2013, in partnership with Disney and ABC News, Univision launched Fusion, a cable network geared toward millenials. But success among this demographic has proved elusive for the network.
“The reality, since Fusion began in October 2013, has been more complex,” Ravi Somaiya and Brooks Barnes for The New York Times. “Many inside and outside the company are hard pressed to define what exactly Fusion does. Traffic to its website has been anemic at times, and it has yet to deliver the kind of attention-getting stories that digital media rivals like Buzzfeed and Vice have produced.”
Perhaps that has more to do with Univision’s history of consolidation and conglomeration rather than innovation.
For example, in response to critiques that the network had a lack of content for bilingual Latinos born in the U.S., Univision created The Flama, a bilingual website for second and third generation Latinos in 2013. On television, however, Univision still heavily relies on imported programming from Mexican network Televisa. It is also still struggling to attract non-immigrant Latino audiences, even with the advent of Fusion.
TheRoot has a very different mandate as a news website than Univision has as a transnational media conglomerate. It’s not only that The Root and Univision target different audiences, they also operate within different scopes. Whereas large media companies are primarily driven by profits, smaller outlets like TheRoot are usually more concerned with covering issues not visible in the mainstream media. At least that was the case for TheRoot when The Washington Post owned it.
While the management of The Root maintains that it will still have editorial control, it is possible that Univision will exert some influence over the tone and tenor of the site. It is also doubtful that The Root and Univision will create content that will foster conversations between the African American and Latino communities. As of now, for example, Univision’s acquisition of Bounce TV has not influenced programming on either network. Instead of creating coalitions between African American and Latino communities, the acquisition has proven to be more of a move towards aggregating growing and lucrative niche markets for increased profits. More of the same is probably what we can expect with the purchase of TheRoot.
The merger between Univision and TheRoot should not be divorced from recent criticism the network received in response to a host commenting that Michelle Obama looked like “something from the cast of the Planet of the Apes.” While Univision fired the host shortly after the incident, it received mainstream media attention and spotlighted the network’s long track record of racist content. At best, indigenous-looking and black Latinos are relegated to buffoon or servant roles in telenovelas and at worst they are invisible on Univision’s other programming. In 2010, Univision issued an apology after airing a Despierta America segment about South Africa winning the 2014 World Cup that featured the cast of the morning show dancing in Afro wigs while holding spears. During the network’s World Cup 2014 coverage, Univision commentators were criticized for making racist remarks about black players during the games. While the network didn’t make a formal apology, it did agree to look further into the issue and its on-air practices. It is also problematic that many of the network’s on-air talent are white-skinned Latinos and that dark-skinned Hispanics are rarely seen on-camera.
It is also worth noting that Univision’s CEO, Randy Falco, is a white Anglo man who does not speak Spanish. Univision’s purchase of TheRoot might be part of the network’s efforts to be more racially inclusive, but we shouldn’t forget that ownership is key. In a media system where only a very few own access to producing and distributing media content, I am hesitant to celebrate yet another merger.
By SANDRA D. RODRÌGUEZ COTTO
What Univision anchor Rodner Figueroa said about First Lady Michelle Obama was not a surprise — it is, in fact, the norm on Hispanic television. His comments comparing Mrs. Obama to an ape are a reflection of the reality, the dark side that, even in this day and age, still dominates Hispanic television, which is deeply racist and discriminatory.
By simply turning on Univision or Telemundo networks, it is evident that Blacks are scarce. For the networks, it seems that being Black is a sin, simply because Hispanic television reflects the typical racial prejudices of those who have power in the Latin American countries they represent. The networks reproduce racial hierarchies that exist in Latin America.
That is why in order to be on Hispanic television, people must be blonde, white-skinned, preferably with blue or green eyes, thin and tall and with straight hair. A little of black hair color is allowed, but all the better if it is dyed to blonde. They might allow some people with brown complexion, but the rest are outcasts.
Those with indigenous features, or with darker or black skin, are relegated to become “tokens,” as the few reporters, and fewer anchors in news, have to become sensationalist objects in the news or even play the stereotypical roles of servants, thieves, prostitutes, witches, handicapped or impoverished people in telenovelas. The new Fusion Network – the Miami-based venture launched to target millennials – is the just latest example of how racism is alive and kicking on Hispanic TV.
This week’s controversy erupted because Figueroa, 42, said the First Lady of the United States looks like someone from the cast of “Planet of the Apes.” Figueroa, who’s known for his biting fashion commentary, made his remarks during a live segment of the entertainment new show “El Gordo y la Flaca,” in which the hosts were commenting on a viral video that shows a makeup artist transforming himself into different celebrities, including Michelle Obama.
“Well, watch out, you know that Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of ‘Planet of the Apes,’ the movie,” Figueroa said with a giggle. When hostess Lili Estefan countered with “what are you saying?” and host Raul de Molina said Obama was very attractive, Figueroa defended his remark, saying “but it is true.”
In a statement, Univision called Figueroa’s comments “completely reprehensible” and said they “in no way reflect the values or opinions of Univision.” Figueroa, who in 2014 won a Daytime Emmy Award, had worked for Univision for 17 years and had been on “El Gordo y la Flaca” since 2000. Yet it wasn’t his first bit of controversy. Previously he faced criticism from Puerto Rican and Dominican audiences in the past for similar comments.
Univision acted quickly because the network is working closely with Obama and the White House on several projects, but also because the last thing it wants to face are the implications of extended negative media coverage on its already battered finances. The network has been consolidating its operations and laid off hundreds of employees last year prior to going to the market in an IPO. Still, Univision is the largest Spanish language broadcaster in the U.S., and the fifth-largest television network, reaching an estimated audience of more than 94 million households in the United States.
Yet, the underrepresentation of blacks and Afro-Latinos throughout the network’s history is evident.
In 2014 a formal petition was made to Univision and Telemundo networks for the inclusion of Latino actors that are brown, dark and black skinned to face the deficiency. The petition was part of the “Proyecto Mas Color” (More Color Project), a campaign launched by Honduran sisters and actors, Victoria and Sophia Arzu, who were tired of the lack of black actors in telenovelas. None of the networks responded to their petitions.
The only way to demand better representation of dark and brown Afro-Latino actors and stakeholders is through the audience that has, so far, been very passive. Therefore, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), the public is to blame for this practice.
The lack of representation dates even to the early days of the movie industry, when Black Hispanic actors were given roles and they were usually cast as African-Americans. That practice remains to this day. For example, Juano Hernandez, who was the first Afro-Latino to become a major star in the U.S. and one of the first Black screen actors, was hardly recognized as a Hispanic or Puerto Rican. Today, actresses like Zoe Saldaña or Rosario Dawson have not become famous for being cast in Latina roles, but they have brought awareness and pride in their African racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Still there is a need for more representation. Black Hispanics account for 2.5 percent of the entire 54 million Hispanics in the United States, according to the 2010 census. Most Black Hispanics come from the Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican populations and other large numbers can be found in people originating from the Caribbean coast of Central and South America. Yet scholars and political organizations are saying those numbers are not accurate and have already complained and signed petitions to push for a new racial category of Afro-Latinos to be added to the 2020 Census.
The lack of accuracy in the numbers is proved simply by looking at the history and the migration patterns of Hispanics. The wide racial diversity of the populations of Latin America is the same as that of its immigrants. In “Black in Latin America,” Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates said: “There were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. That’s amazing. All the rest went south of Miami as it were.”
Despite the large numbers in the population, Afro-Latinos — Blacks in general — are still ignored and misrepresented by Hispanic media.
This time the comments turned into a controversy only because it was aimed at Obama. But in the past, derogatory comments and blatant racism has prevailed, much to the complicit silence of advertisers. Much of the ads broadcast in the networks showcase unrealistic images of Hispanics that tend to look more like Europeans than those of the ample Latin American cultural diversity descent. Perhaps that is why each day the younger Latino audiences keep moving away from Univision and Telemundo to mainstream media.
As for Rodner Figueroa’s future, it remains to be seen. There will continue be more people like him unless a profound change is made. He is only an example of a cultural environment that promotes racism. The masquerade remains.
Sandra D. Rodríguez Cotto is a communications strategist and journalist. She is President and Founder of Joy PR, Inc., and Researcher/Investigative Unit Manager for Wapa-TV’s “Ahí está la verdad” in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Sheblogs regularly about media in Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Hispanic US.
This past September, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley wrote a passive-aggressive feature on actress Viola Davis and her role in the titillating new series favorite, How to Get Away With Murder. Stanley not only ascribed the ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope to Davis’s character Annalise Keating (and acclaimed TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes) in the opening paragraph, but she also suggested that the actress inhabited an unlikely position as a leading a woman on Primetime TV, because she isn’t as “classically beautiful” as actresses like Halle Berry (who is biracial) and Kerry Washington (whose aesthetic, style and stature are considered ‘safe’ enough to placate, and even inspire, mainstream TV and film viewers).
“Thank you Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, and Peter Nowalk for thinking of a leading lady who looks like my classic beauty. … I’m just so proud to be an actor and so happy to do what I do. And I’m so happy people have accepted me in this role at this stage in my career.”
While this isn’t Viola’s first time addressing the infamous NY Times article, the marginalizationof Black actresses in Hollywood or colorism in general, it bears repeating—to those who don’t, and refuse to, grasp what it’s like for Black women trying to navigate racial micro-aggressions and misogynoir, in our everyday interactions and while trying to be successful at our jobs—particularly when reinforcement of the message comes in the form of subtle, wonderfully snarky shade during a moment of triumph.
Lupita Nyong’o has become a glamorous media favorite, but her ‘international’ allure won’t insulate her from having to navigate the politics of an industry and media prone to typecasting and pigeonholing actresses and women who share her complexion.
By Tiff Jones
A recent story about “regular black” people versus ethnic black people on US college campuses in theRoot.com made me think about the current media embrace of the multi-talented Lupita Nyong’o.
First published in April, the piece resurfaced again over the weekend. In it theRoot.com staff writer Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele reports that many black American students find that being “just black” in America is boring; Eromosele goes on to highlight the achievements of ethnic blacks from Africa or Europe, apparently at the expense of black American progress.
Comparatively, part of the reason US media has welcomed Lupita is because, like those ethnic college students, her blackness is ‘international,’ and in mainstream media-speak, ‘international’ is coded language for ‘exotic other.’
Not that Lupita’s talents don’t make her deserving of media attention. In fact, after her Oscar win for ‘12 Years A Slave‘ there was much media speculation about what was next for the 31-year-old actress, whether she would fall prey to the Oscar curse that seems to befall black actresses after they’ve received award recognition by the Academy. Quite the opposite, Lupita’s star is rising.
Not only has she snagged a role in Star Wars VII (J.J. Abrams was, reportedly, initially looking to cast a mixed-raced actress) she is also slated to adapt Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel, Americanah, into a film, in which she’ll serve as star and producer (in collaboration with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B). Lupita also landed the cover of People magazine’s annual ’50 Most Beautiful People’ 2014 issue, the cover of the July 2014 issue of Vogue, and an exclusive contract as the new face of Lancôme (making her the second black woman to serve as the cosmetic company’s brand “ambassadress”).
Her thriving in a mercurial business that has, so far, embraced Lupita has no doubt been refreshing. It’s also been impressive seeing Lupita use her platform to challenge conventional media standards of what’s deemed beautiful. However, Lupita’s popularity doesn’t mean that there’s been some huge and sudden shift in the dominant view of dark-skinned black and brown women in the industry. Lupita’s growing fame still isn’t the criterion for mono-racial black actresses; particularly those who are American-born. Lupita Nyong’o presents the type of interesting background, visual, and personality that has easily endeared her to the cult of personality. And the entertainment industry certainly loves to eat up stories about ‘other’ anything or anyone non-normative that will feed their affinity for pointing out others’ differences.
The media’s giddy fascination with othering non-American born black women in the entertainment industry, is what provoked handlers for figure-skater Surya Bonaly to fabricate a story about her origins, and what caused fashion photographer Peter Beard to sell some convoluted story about his discovery of Somali supermodel Iman, to the fashion world– a story that she admittedly helped perpetuate. For most black American women in the public eye (and in general), being ‘just black’ or not deemed a special enough snowflake apparently isn’t sufficient enough to garner visibility, opportunities, or respect. But American women who are visibly black are definitely interesting enough to vulturize before being totally erased from the equation.
In the 20+ years People magazine editors have been cranking out its ‘Most Beautiful…’ issue, only three black women have graced its cover: Halle Berry (who is biracial) appeared in 2003; it took the magazine nine years to put another black woman, a light-skin Beyonce, on the cover of Most Beautiful’s 2013 issue. While it’s been made clear that neither Halle or Beyonce is People’s (white) norm when it comes to the cover of the magazine’s annual list of superlatives, both are still the accepted standard when it comes to the preferred black female aesthetic in mass media, castings, and personal predilections.
Lupita has said herself that she didn’t always feel beautiful in her skin, during a poignant acceptance speech at an Essence awards luncheon earlier this year; and she’s emphatic about wanting to serve as an inspiration to other young black girls who don’t often see representations of themselves on TV or in magazines.
Some may (understandably) scoff at any suggestion that black beauty needs to be filtered through the white gaze and validated by white authority. Breaking News: It doesn’t. But it’s important to keep in mind that media images and characters that are inclusive matter to young black girls who are coming-of-age, being fed a steady diet of respectability politics, shadeism, racio-misogyny, and shady product endorsements that dissuade them from being proud of who they are, to such an extent that they feel the need to physically alter themselves to fit in. Also, distorted views on black beauty are often perpetuated intra-racially, driven by cultural imperialism; it’s important not to lose perspective of what breeds self-hate.
I’m still loath to call Lupita a ‘fetish,’ because she is immensely talented, deserving of all the wonderful things, and beautiful… period. And her image is needed in the fray. But when it comes to who is chosen to grace magazine covers and who become black leading ladies, the dominant media requires more dismantling, especially since there are a number of equally talented black seasoned actresses who have been in the business for years, but still come up against a dearth of plum roles because casting directors and producers often offer them to bankable (read: palatable) biracial or multiracial actresses– even in biopics where the subject is fully black; and industry folks will shamelessly costume a multiracial actress in blackface and prosthetic makeup to force it to work.
Lupita has become a glamorous media favorite, trendsetter, and is helping influence the way the world looks at dark-skinned black women. But her ‘international’ allure notwithstanding, this still doesn’t insulate her from having to navigate the politics of an industry and media prone to typecasting and pigeonholing actresses and women who share her complexion. She’s definitely carved out a niche for herself, but Lupita’s success doesn’t mark the end to the way mass media view black women who don’t often get the red carpet rolled out for them with such fanfare, or “regular black” students matriculating at Ivey League college campuses who may not get how special they actually are.
Tiff Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A contributor to both print and digital platforms, she has offered commentary on HuffPost Live and WNPR’s Where We Live.
A different version of this piece first appeared on the blog, CoffeeRhetoric.com.