Posted on December 22, 2005

Love is No Longer Color-Coded on TV

Ann Oldenburg, USA Today, Dec. 21, 2005

One of the sweetest scenes to unfold on recent television was the long-awaited reunion of Bernard, the scruffy old survivor from the tail section of the downed Lost plane, with his calm and loving wife, Rose.

Rose is black. Bernard is white.

And one of the spiciest relationships on TV right now is blossoming between feisty, attractive Grey’s Anatomy doctors Cristina Yang, who is Asian, and Preston Burke, who is black.

Interracial pairings suddenly are integral to several of today’s top-rated TV shows, including Grey’s, Lost, My Name Is Earl and ER.

But these on-screen pairings no longer draw the kind of attention and reaction they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Romances between people of different colors are being handled more offhandedly, with race being neither an issue nor much of a plot point.

“Honestly, we really don’t even talk about it or consider that it’s an interracial couple,” ER executive producer David Zabel says of characters Neela Rasgotra, who is of Indian descent, when she married Michael Gallant, who is black.

Younger people today don’t see the couple as different races, he says. “They don’t draw those lines. Watch MTV, and you’ll see videos with all kind of people interacting.”

On Grey’s Anatomy, the race difference between the lovers has not been addressed. Instead, other differences have been highlighted. Sandra Oh’s character is messy; Isaiah Washington’s character is tidy. She’s Jewish; he’s not; he’s spiritual; she’s not.

The pairing stems from “casting whoever we thought was best for the part,” says creator/executive producer Shonda Rimes.

Washington, who plays Dr. Burke, didn’t want to talk about his character’s romance, saying through his publicist that drawing attention to the races takes away from the fact that it’s quietly and happily existing without being an issue.

His sentiment echoes that of Morgan Freeman, who said on Sunday’s 60 Minutes that the whole idea of a month for black history is “ridiculous” because it separates black history from American history and is part of a labeling process that abets racism.

But does this reflect a real maturing of public opinion, or is it the view through Hollywood’s rose-colored glasses?

“The reality is that interracial couples still deal with discrimination and hate,” says Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-director of New Demographic, a diversity training company. “It’s a positive thing that we’re seeing less of a tragic element. Television models for us what we should think about people, really determines our taboos and what’s acceptable. The more people see positive and normal representations, that will lessen the fear and taboo.”

Although the television industry long has been accused of not casting and portraying enough actors and actresses of different races and ethnicities, Zabel says that has slowly been shifting, and ER has been a front-runner.

Mixed couples have been on at least since black Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) and white Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) were hot and heavy in the late 1990s. “This show has always tried to have a broad range of backgrounds — ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds,” Zabel says.

Parminder Nagra, who plays Neela, says it would be more of an issue if ER suddenly cast an Indian man for her to love. Her story line with Gallant works, she says.

“Why wouldn’t these two people get together? They’re very passionate about life and each other. On a bigger level, it gives people hope.” And the romance, she says, sweeps viewers away, making them forget about race.

What will come later might be a story line that addresses race through family, Zabel says. That’s where a clash may come as tradition is broken, and race will play a role.

“I knew certain people would look at it and go, ‘An Indian girl is going out with this black guy.’ “

But what they should notice is the passion, Nagra says. “It’s important to have this on screen. There are so many mixed relationships. I don’t think it’s portrayed enough on television.”

Racism is often reflected on television through hate crimes and other violent stories, Nagra says. “We know racism exists. Let’s show people getting on. Let’s be positive about it.”

Mixed-race romances on television have never been plentiful, as the mass medium has been fearful of alienating viewers and advertisers.

In 1957, on Alan Freed’s weekly rock ‘n’ roll show, black singer Frankie Lymon was seen dancing with a white woman. ABC promptly canceled the show.

On Star Trek, when Lt. Uhura and Capt. Kirk kissed (against their will) in 1968, it was heralded as the first interracial smooch on television.

And when Norman Lear featured a black woman and a white man as married neighbors to 1975’s The Jeffersons, it was considered groundbreaking.

In real life, the gap slowly is narrowing. According to the most recent Census, interracial marriages grew from less than 1% in 1970 to nearly 6% in 2000. And as more of the world becomes a melting pot, interracial relationships have popped up more frequently on TV as well, though often tangentially.