By: R. M. Nyamwihura
“Nothing but a sea of them.” That was my husband’s first sentiment after tuning in to this year’s Emmy awards. I didn’t pay much attention to what he said at the time; I think my eyes were more so fixated on my computer screen. Just recently becoming addicted to Pinterest, I was searching for new, inexpensive ways to decorate my apartment.
When I managed to finally peel my eyes away from my laptop and onto the tv, I knew right then exactly what my husband had meant. With the exception of a select few peppered here and there, the audience attending the 2015 Emmy awards was saturated with white faces. I was a bit shocked that my husband would even notice something like that; usually I would be the one to point it out. What I wasn’t shocked about was the lack of diversity in the first place – nor did I care.
Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, and Regina King – three amazing actresses, who just so happen to be black, won awards in the categories of outstanding lead actress and outstanding supporting actresses. Their extraordinary accomplishments are ones which should be celebrated. Black women everywhere expressed words of elation and bliss. Many of us, if only for a moment, were in a state of absolute euphoria.
Black people rejoiced over the fact that women of color were finally being recognized for their talents. But why was it so important to begin with? Did we really need a white awards show (based on the nominations chosen by what was most likely a white male panel) in order to gain validation?
It seems that we as African Americans are so overjoyed when white America gives us the recognition that we deserve; they pat us on the back and throw us an award here and there, but only to pacify us – and it works. But white people should not be thanked for acknowledging our talents when they were the ones who made us feel as if we lacked any in the first place. White people should not be given gratitude when acknowledging our worth if they were the very ones to make us feel worthless. As Malcolm X said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
Are we advancing in our fight for equal representation when we have to pull teeth to get it? Diversity merely for diversity’s sake is feigned and insensitive. It’s one thing to combat the systemic racism that ensures we as African Americans are not treated as human beings (and the disenfranchisement of black voters is just one perfect example of this). However, it’s another matter entirely when we hold all the power to tell our own stories in our own way but still look to white people to do it for us.
Remember the surge of Idris Elba fans who so adamantly pushed for him to be the next James Bond? Well, are we not capable of creating our own badass action heroes? Or is it only significant to fill roles that have been dominated only by white actors? We have such a warped idea of how to gain success and what it is. We measure our success, not by our own standards, but by the standards set forth by those who continually cast us aside.
You need not look too far to see that white America’s attempts at diversity are simply an act. Just look at the way they resent us when we express pride in our culture and who we are as a people. They don’t want us to talk about the lack of diversity, nor do they want to bring attention to it. How many radio stations catering to white listeners even mentioned Viola Davis’ heartwarming speech?
Stop looking to white America for your sense of legitimacy and self-worth. Why do we jump for joy when white people finally let us sit at their table and eat from the crumbs left behind. We are forever comparing ourselves to them as if they and their accomplishments are somehow unparalleled.
Viola Davis is the first African American to win an Emmy for the role of a leading actress, but on whose award show was she the first? It is only on their terms that she is the first, but we as black people could have done Ms. Davis justice and given her such an accolade much sooner. Or would it have not meant anything because it wasn’t an Emmy? If it had been an award show dedicated to us and our representation, would we have felt just as triumphant?
I will not jump for joy when white people pat me on the back and smile, telling me that I am now good enough to stand beside them – but only for this moment. Cease this act of being appreciative when they finally allow us to portray characters that are more dynamic and complex – we were always capable of doing so, but were more bankable to them only as tropes stemming from their own prejudices.
The accomplishments of Ms. Davis, Ms. Aduba, and Ms. King have given black women hope – hope that they too can go out and accomplish great things. And while we have so much further to go in our fight for equal representation, whether it be the role of a leading actress or the next president of the United States, we need not ask for it when we can simply look to ourselves and say, “Yes.”