By: Charlene Buchanan
As progressive, modern and inclusive as we’d like to think today’s world is, we still have a far way to go. For one, television and mainstream media haven’t yet seemed to tire of playing heavily on the ‘white knight’ or ‘white savior’ shtick nor have they tired of robbing black people of the positive on screen representation we so greatly need and deserve.
There appears to be no shortage of black visibility in movies and books when we are being cast in a negative light, but we are hard pressed to see faces like our own when it comes on to more positive matters. And this is not only alarming but also proves problematic.
Something is grossly wrong with continuing to enforce the rhetoric of the dirty, helpless, needy black child and the sweet saving white woman or man who rescues him or her. And unfortunately most philanthropic efforts play on this one rather heavily whether deliberately or incidentally as they may like to argue. Though movies and ads seem to favor this dynamic, the poor representation of black men and women doesn’t end there.
When our suffering isn’t being documented for grief porn like purposes, we are being made into the greatest recognizable symbol for poverty and saddening conditions or we’re being over-represented as jailbirds, thieves, druggies, drug dealers, dropouts or all around thugs and baddies.
All this further feeds into the denigrated view of black people everywhere – that we’re too uneducated, poor, or otherwise helpless as a whole, to attain success without the assistance of the descendants of our colonial slave masters, or that we are all somehow innately bad or predisposed to criminality and other reprehensible behaviors.
And ultimately when black people are consistently portrayed in such a light, with white men and women always playing the hero and us alternating between playing the villain and the needy citizen, it’s no wonder we are not often viewed as equals, and are sometimes simply suffered as pity projects (if we are even believed to be worthy of pity).
For every black girl that’s relegated to the part of sidekick or a two dimensional character on a little black girl’s favorite tv show she gets the feeling that that’s where she belongs – on the sidelines. And for every movie where black boys only play the gun-wielding bad guys, our young men become further challenged to see themselves as more than rough and tough.
If one were to truly buy into what mainstream media is selling one would be lead to believe being black is a sentence of being uneducated, poor and a criminal. There’s also something icky about some creatives in mainstream media’s commitment to portraying black struggles – past and present – but unwillingness to boost positive visibility of black men and women in general. Think of this: if quality black actresses and actors can be found for every big slavery or post-slavery movie, or any jail scene, how come these actors can’t be sourced for other projects?
It doesn’t take much for any reasonable person to realize that not only are black people still being excluded from some narratives and being over-represented in others, but that picking and choosing who or what we can be in mainstream media is harmful to us as a community.
Representation is key – pivotal – even, and we know this. Representation remains a valuable tool in the hands of influencers where they may either choose to provide validation and to be honest in telling people’s stories or they may choose to do the opposite, even if it isn’t said in as many words.
Writing this piece meant reading and re-reading this a few times, and at some point or the other my older brother questioned if this was even a serious issue. The fact of the matter is I still remember being crazy excited seeing the first trailer on tv for The Princess and the Frog – I couldn’t believe that after years of practically idolizing the Disney princesses there would be one that kind of looked like me. Knowing that everyday a little black girl can either feel the way I did in that moment or not feel that way at all, for me is clear evidence that this matters.
While mainstream media should never be anyone’s only source of validation we can’t deny that in this day and age trends on Instagram, Twitter and prime time television are some of the world’s biggest influencers. Representation of black people has been poor and skewed for far too long, and clearly we can’t leave it to mainstream media to raise our next generation of black girls with a positive self-image, so it is up to us to be the representational change that we want to see.
We have to first recognize the realness and depth of anti-black sentiments, then we need to push ourselves to attain greater visibility, particularly with positive things. After all if you and I know we can be college graduates, lawyers, nurses, teachers, preachers, writers or whatever else it’s up to us to go out and be that, making sure that other sisters (and even brothers too) can see us.