Racial representation in the media and the psychological effects of misrepresentation

In my household we play a special kind of drinking game. You need two things to play this game, a glass of your favourite alcoholic beverage, (in my case rosé) and a TV. The game takes place during the advertisements and there’s one and only one rule: When a Black person appears on the screen you have a sip. Suffice to say, 3 hours into the game everyone is stone cold sober, disgruntled and just plain old fed up. If you change the rules slightly so that you only drink when you see a Black Woman, well let’s just say your wine would have matured…considerably.  

Now before you start screaming the names of Chiwetel, Viola and Kerry here are some figures to prove my point.

Across all media domains the amount of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) models has not grown in proportion to the BAME population which, as of 2011 makes up 14.1% of the total UK population – a 5.3% increase from 2001. Only around 5.3% of UK adverts feature a BAME individual, this figure decreases to 3.3% when only considering BAME persons with leading roles (Clearcast-Sweney, 2011). In the US just under 3% of all spending on advertising goes towards media directed at Black audiences (Nielsen, 2013). During 2014’s spring and fall periods, out of 730 fashion and beauty advertising campaigns featuring 1105 models, just under a mere 5 % of those were Black (Forbes, 2014)

​Researchers have argued that failing to see a representation of individuals belonging to your ethic group may cause group members to feel devalued. More recently, Dabiri’s (2013) article entitled “Who stole all the Black women from Britain?” appears to illuminate the aforementioned sentiment. Whilst there is the opportunity to turn to media channels that cater specifically to minorities, more research needs to be conducted to further asses how this pigeon-holing is being internalised by ethnic minority media consumers.

Moreover, some researchers have demonstrated that when BAME models are featured it is often in stereotypical, derogatory and in some cases dehumanising manners. Milkie (1999) suggests that minority individuals simply resist media images that exclude or negatively portray ethnic group members. However, as Knobloch-Westerwick and Coates (2006) have outlined, it appears that this resistance often evolves and manifests into negative feelings, intentions and behaviours. 

In the Qualitative Research study “If I’m not in it then I must not be what’s hot” one Black woman reveals the psychological impact of racial representation within the media. 


Shakaila Forbes-Bell is a Fashion Psychologist and writer who has been featured in Marie Claire UK, i-D, Who What Wear, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, Fashion Bomb Daily, The Voice Newspaper, Gal-Dem, Black Matters US and more.

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