A new study finds that when viewing black-oriented entertainment television, especially when the show depicts black stereotypes, black audiences are more comfortable watching the show with their black peers, but viewing conditions made no difference among whites.
"The study examined the interaction between content and context, with an emphasis on viewership of a television comedy that pokes fun at and occasionally disparages black in-group members," according to a press release from the University of Cincinnati.
"Ethnic-oriented programming featuring multi-cultural casts has increased in recent years (Johnson, 2010). Many of these programs are primarily within the comedy genre, and thus feature a significant amount of disparagement humor that targets racial and ethnic groups. A number of studies have problematized the use of disparaging humor as having implications for stereotyping and discrimination (Ford, 1997; Ford, Fitzgerald, Armstrong & Edel, 2008)," study authors wrote.
The authors also write that "mainstream" audiences are white and shows, like "South Park" or "Family Guy," that use disparaging humor, are met with ambivalence. Another show that uses stereotypes in its humor is "The Boondocks," a black-oriented comedy program based on a syndicated comic strip by Aaron McGruder. The show is featured on Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim time period.
"The show holds controversial content that has implications for racism or racist ideas," said Omotayo Banjo, study leader and assistant professor of communication. "So, how do audiences of different races perceive that? If we've moved past race as an issue in the U.S., can we watch this kind of content that is meant to challenge our thinking or make us laugh about our racism? And can different races do that together and feel comfortable?"
A total of 112 people took part in the study - 53 African Americans and 59 white participants. The average age of participants was 21. Sixty-eight percent of the participants were female and 32 percent were male.
The participants were interviewed about their feelings after watching the show with two other black audience members and after watching the show with two white audience members. The two co-viewing audience members were paid actors prepared by the researchers to take part with the viewer as the program got underway.
The episode of "The Boondocks" used in the study was titled "Return of the King" and is considered one of the series' most controversial episodes, centered on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. awakening from a coma and discovering current black culture.
The study found that black participants reported more positive excitement, attitudes and absorption than whites when viewing the program. However, blacks reported more identification and perceived similarity when viewing with all-black audiences than viewing with white audience members.
Ultimately, the study found that black viewers had a more rewarding experience viewing the show than their white counterparts, and that black viewers reported greater similarity and identification with characters in black-oriented media when they were viewing with black audience members than when viewing with white audience members.
"African Americans, because of their position in society, are much more sensitive to difference, and so we weren't surprised that we saw these outcomes," Banjo said.
"It is possible that both black and white participants' responses were influenced by sanctions or other social expectations," study authors wrote.
"If messages about real racial problems can only be enjoyed among our racial silos, then we may have a problem," the authors concluded. "Coviewing studies may shed some light into the utility of certain types of racial comedies."