This essay looks at the racial mix in California and notes the extent to which the characters on the show do not represent that mix. It also speculates on some reasons why this is the case.
According to the 2000 Census (taken roughly when the end of the third season of Buffy took place), California was one of the most racially diverse states in the United States. The racial mix was as follows:
White (non-Hispanic): 46.7% Hispanic/Latino: 32.4% Asian/Pacific Islander: 11.2% African-American: 6.7% Mixed race: 4.7% American IndianNative American: 1.0%
These figures add up to more than 100% because the Census Bureau treats race and Hispanic origin as separate categories. That is, a respondent selects one or more races and then indicates whether she or he is of Hispanic origin. Most people who answer, "Yes," to the latter question mark "White" as their race. The first line is made up of people who indicated that they were White and indicated that they were not of Hispanic origin. However, some people mark a different race and indicated Hispanic origin, causing them to be counted twice on the table above.
The 50 characters who had the most lines on Buffy (that is, those with at least 69 lines) fall into the following racial categories:
This works out to the following percentages:
White (non-Hispanic): 90% African-American/Black: 6% No determinable race: 2% Native American: 2% Hispanic/Latino: 0% Asian/Pacific Islander: 0% Mixed race: 0%
Several of the characters were assigned a race even though they are not human. Vampire characters are categorized based on their race when they were human. The Buffybot and Ted are categorized as White because they were based on White humans. The First Evil is categorized as being of no determinable race because it theoretically could take the form of a person of any race, even if it chose to take the form almost entirely of White people. Glory is categorized as White simply based on appearance and lack of an accent identifiable with a particular race.
Some of the humans were a little hard to categorize. Cordelia and Kennedy are categorized as White because the characters were portrayed as White even though mixed-race actresses played them. Kendra is categorized as Black because not enough of her background was given to indicate that she might be of mixed race even though she has light skin.
The racial mix of Buffy characters clearly does not resemble that of Californians. Ironically, the proportion of African-American characters is close to the proportion in California as a whole even though many African-Americans in California live in hypersegregated neighborhoods. This would be the one racial group for which it would make sense to be underrepresented on the show when compared to California as a whole.
One problem with the above analysis is that it counts each of the characters equally. It does not take the relative prominence of the characters into account. The analysis below indicates the percentage of lines spoken by these 50 characters by the race of the character speaking the line.
White (non-Hispanic): 98.04% African-American/Black: 1.20% No determinable race: 0.58% Native American: 0.17% Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.00% Mixed race: 0.00% Hispanic/Latino: 0.00%
This analysis shows an even greater disparity between Sunnydale and California. The few non-White characters are much less important than the White characters are.
It should be clear that there is a large racial disparity between the population of California and the characters on the show. There is no plausible reason for this other than racism, provided that one carefully distinguishes "racism" from "prejudice" even though most people treat the two as synonyms. "Prejudice" refers to negative attitudes, especially negative feelings toward members of a particular group. I have no reason to suspect that overt prejudice is involved. Instead, I mean "racism." That is, there are impediments, from the personal to the societal, that ensure that the characters are predominantly White.
I would guess that many actors in Hollywood are not native Californians. Instead, they are people from across the United States who moved to California in order to pursue a dream of acting. Therefore, the racial makeup of actors may resemble that of the United States as a whole more than it does that of California. The United States as a whole has a larger percentage of African Americans than California does, but it has a much smaller percentage of Hispanics and Asian Americans than California does. Of the actors who played the 50 characters with the most lines, only nine were born in California. This might explain some of the disparity.
The existence of prejudice in Hollywood may mean that actors of color would not get as many good roles than White actors get. This could lead to actors of color becoming discouraged and leaving Hollywood, thus not being available to appear on Buffy. Furthermore, those that remain may have less impressive CVs than many White actors have, which would make it harder for them to get good roles on the show.
This does not excuse Joss Whedon and the other people in charge. I believe that they are colorblind when they make casting decisions. In other words, they do not see people of color. When Joss Whedon creates a role, he has a picture of the character in his mind and casts based on that picture. Unfortunately, I fear that the picture is nearly always of a White person. It is unclear whether the most notable exceptions during the first six seasons (Kendra and Forrest) are exceptions because they were rare instances of Joss Whedon picturing a character as a person of color or if they were rare instances of casting an actor who did not physically resemble the picture in Joss Whedon's mind.2
The situation did change somewhat during the seventh season. Ironically, reaction to the death of a White character might have triggered the change. Tara's murder sparked a lot of criticism. Most of the criticism regarded the alleged cliché in which gays and lesbians are more likely to be killed than heterosexual characters are. However, the discussion did broaden to a discussion of the general lack of diversity among the cast and to the fact that, with the exception of Olivia, nearly every non-White character had also been killed. Perhaps as a response, the most important character introduced in the seventh season was African-American, and there were a few minor characters of color among the potential slayers.
It sometimes seems weird to complain about lack of realism in a show with vampires, witches, and werewolves. However, the addition of fantasy elements makes it even more important to ensure that the non-fantasy elements are at least plausible. Unfortunately (or, actually, fortunately), a nearly all-White California is not plausible. The racial mix of the cast might work if the show took place in a small town in the Northeastern or Midwestern part of the United States, but it does not work for California.
On a more personal note, I went to high school in California a bit over a decade before the main characters attended high school. My high school did not look like Sunnydale High. Admittedly, my high school did not have many African-American students. However, there were more Hispanic students and far more Asian students than at Sunnydale even though California was somewhat less diverse when I went to high school than it was a decade later. The nearly all White Sunnydale High just does not feel like California.
1 For those who care, since I did bother to collect the data, here are the birthplaces of the actors who played the 50 characters with the most lines:
2 There is at least one notable instance in which an actor was cast even though she did not meet the image in Joss Whedon's head, albeit one that did nothing to alter the racial diversity of the characters. Joss Whedon originally pictured Tara as a petite woman, like Willow is. Marti Noxon had to convince him that Amber Benson was the right actress for the part even though Benson is at a healthy weight. The big deal made about this one instance suggests that this is the exception that proves the rule. In other words, if the show frequently casts actors who did not match Whedon’s initial image of the character, then nobody would make a big deal about this one exception.