This awards season, we’ve cycled through another set of conversations about issues of representation. These conversations have focused on who is or is not seen on screen and how they are portrayed. For example, James Cameron’s “Avatar” films have been criticized for White saviorism and perpetuating stereotypes about Indigenous people. Meanwhile, Asian representation was celebrated with a historic Oscars sweep for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor wins for Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan.
While conversations about representation are essential, we also need to discuss the way racism itself is portrayed. The stories we tell about racism can help solve the problem — or can perpetuate it. In other words, not every story told about racism is antiracist.
To tell the difference, I developed the Copeland test. Inspired by the Bechdel test, the Copeland test is a tool to encourage more antiracist portrayals of racism in pop culture. If a story meets all three criteria, it fully passes the Copeland test. If it only meets one or two, it partially passes it. If it doesn’t meet any of the criteria, it fails the test.
In my view, stories about racism are antiracist if:
- Racism is portrayed as a systemic issue and not just as blatant acts of discrimination, bigotry or hatred by White people.
- People of color are portrayed as fully human, not reduced to stereotypes or victims.
- White people are portrayed as working in solidarity with people of color, not just as villains or saviors.
One obstacle to confronting racism is that people are misunderstanding it. A common misunderstanding is that racism only involves blatant acts of discrimination, bigotry or hatred by White people. Many believe that if it isn’t happening in an overt way, then it isn’t racist. For example, some have questioned how the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by Black police officers could be racist.
Make no mistake: Racism is a shape-shifter, and we have to recognize it in all its forms.
Sometimes racism looks like White people discriminating against particular racial groups. Other times, it looks like policies that don’t explicitly discriminate by race but still make life harder for members of certain racial groups, like redlining. In other words, racism is systemic. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+ demonstrates this first criteria of the Copeland test by showing that even Black superheroes can’t escape racial inequities in the banking system when Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) and his sister, Sarah, try and fail to get a bank loan to support their family business — despite the White bank employee’s excitement toward his superhero status.
Another aspect of how racism is portrayed is the ways those it targets experience it. Too often, stories about racism reduce people of color to stereotypes or victims. Their full humanity — including moments of resistance, resilience and joy — gets lost. This is its own form of dehumanization, and further perpetuates racism. The FX show “Reservation Dogs” avoids this pitfall, exemplifying the second criteria of the Copeland test. We see the impact of colonialism and genocide on its Indigeous characters, but also the ways they strive to live fully and love deeply with their families and community. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) also addresses similar themes through its portrayal of the powerful and thriving underwater nation Talokan.
The portrayal of White characters is also important. Many stories about racism limit the roles for White people to be a villain or savior. However, these have never been the only options — on screen or in real life. An alternative is solidarity. White characters collaborate as equals with people of color against racism because of shared interests, values and goals. Zoey Howser, on the “Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” reboot provides a good example of the third criteria of the Copeland test. Zoey stands with her Black and Brown friends to challenge racism, joining them to protest a statue that celebrates the founder of their town, who is revealed to have been a slave owner.
A film that fully passes the Copeland test is “Just Mercy” (2019). This film focuses on real-life hero Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. While blatant racism is portrayed, we also see how racism is systemic through the application of colorblind legal procedures. “Just Mercy” shows people enduring racism in all its ugliness, but we also see moments of humor, kindness and love. Eva Ansley, Bryan Stevenson’s White colleague, is a collaborator rather than a savior, who insists on continuing to work with Stevenson, even after her family is targeted, emphasizing the values they share and the significance of the advocacy they provide.
The film and TV industries have an opportunity and responsibility to use their power to help address racism. A better world requires better stories. It requires antiracist stories.
Dr. Phillipe Copeland is a public scholar and clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Social Work. He is the faculty lead for education and training at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and a faculty affiliate at the Boston University Center for Innovation in Social Science.