Racism remains a hot button topic — even in Canada, even in Toronto.
This month, furor erupted after the debut of promos for Lake Shore, a new reality series based in our fair city and modelled after the MTV hit Jersey Shore.
While the show itself has not even been filmed yet, the trailer introduced eight housemates labelled by their ethnic backgrounds. Critics accuse Lake Shore’s creators of blatantly pitting difference races against each other for cheap entertainment.
Cheap entertainment in a reality television show? Say it ain’t so.
But, seriously, following the initial hubbub, finalists for the series came forward and alleged they had been pushed by producers to make racist comments and to fake racial conflict amongst the cast members.
Judging by our collective reactions to the trailer, the ploy has already worked. Buzz about Lake Shore has reached south of the border, where U.S. media outlets are gleefully chattering about the prospect of less-than-tolerant views flourishing north of the border.
It’s been more than 10 years since so-called reality television hit the scene. If you haven’t yet caught on that the phrase “reality” is subjective, get with it.
That said, no one can deny that racism and discrimination are alive and well in our city and beyond. They are sad facts of reality — the real thing, not the televised version.
Why then, the objection to Lake Shore? Is it the blatant attempt to stoke outrage that we find offensive, rather than the racist sentiments themselves? Or is it the fear some folks still think this type of television is the real deal?
“Sometimes it’s a very thin line between entertainment and promotion of hatred,” says Ayman Al-Yassini.
Al-Yassini is the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, an organization created in 1997 to work toward the elimination of racism in Canada. He recognizes a depiction of racist behaviour does not necessarily promote racism.
“We are not out to oppose any reality TV show or any entertainment just because it talks about race, ethnicity or addresses challenging social issues,” Al-Yassini says. “But there is a need to be aware that stereotyping communities in a negative way is a throwback for a society that seeks to strengthen the sense of belonging and identity that develop harmonious relationships.” Al-Yassini says it will be up to viewers and sponsors to let Lake Shore’s creators know if the content is unacceptable.
So, is it only the “reality” moniker, the idea these young men and women may actually feel this way, that has us so riled?
When it comes down to it, these reality stars are just characters. And television viewers are no strangers to racist television characters.
In the hot new AMC series, The Walking Dead, we meet a hateful racist named Merle Dixon who beats a fellow survivor just because he is black. While the scene is disturbing, it also offers a glimpse into a real human behaviour.
Racism abounds in television and film. Tony Soprano hated African Americans as part of the drama of The Sopranos. Archie Bunker hated everybody, but that was satire in All in the Family. Their characters reflect people who do exist in our society, for better or for worse.
But good entertainment puts that in context. It is highly doubtful Lake Shore will be equal in quality to a show like The Walking Dead, or legendary shows like The Sopranos or All in the Family.
Eliminating depictions of racism in television or on film will not make racism disappear from our society.
Canadians need to have real discussions on racism, but shouldn’t launch into it based on the stupidity of something like trailers for Lake Shore.