Why black women are left out in the cold
Apparently it’s a great time to be a female writer in Hollywood. The success of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Jane Goldman’s Kickass and Lena Dunham’s Girls are testimony to this. These women are proving that girls can be funny and that we’re not all obsessed with men, mojitos and Manolos.
That Hollywood is finally celebrating women writers is a feat in itself, but although women are beginning to get a look in, women of colour are still being left in the shade. Melanin count aside, this would not be a problem if our media portrayed a range of perspectives that deviated from white heteronormative standards. There is universality in other people’s stories, but why is the universal always lily white?
Web comedy Awkward Black Girl is written, produced and directed by a black woman, it has a diverse cast and is funny and relatable. But in 2012, shows like this fail to make it onto our TV screens. The show’s creator and star Issa Rae wrote candidly about meeting with a white television executive who wanted to commission the show, with one major caveat; replacing the lead with a ‘light skinned black girl with long straight hair.’
Self described ‘video vixen’ Lauren London was floated.
Now there is nothing wrong with light skinned black girls with long straight hair, but why is that the only ‘black’ that a mainstream (read white) audience can tolerate?
Awkward black girl is compelling precisely because of its diversity. The show is partly centered on the fact that J (the main character) shows an unapologetic love for her dark black skin and afro-hair and other people’s unease with this. The show is subversive, avoiding stereotypes and lazy tropes; sassy home girls, drug dealers, mammies and crime-ridden estates are all conspicuously absent. J is not relegated to the feisty black friend always on hand to give an ebonic inflected word of advice; nor is she the token black, co-worker/police chief/judge (delete as appropriate) she is, in her deadpan narrative the centre and creator of her own awkward universe.
The television executive’s demands shed light on something seldom spoken about outside black circles; the ‘complexion complex’ and ‘hairarchy’ that plagues black women everywhere. It works through the types of black women we see on television and in magazines, and the black women that the world (read white people) idolise. These mediums tell and then show, through the romantic leads, the adverts, the pin ups and the girl that always gets her man, that we have to become light to be alright, that we should tame our woolen locks into submission; that we need to straighten and submit our minds and our bodies to a westernised ideal. And yet despite our efforts, that which looks back at us is never enough. And it’s never us. No wide nosed, dark skinned, kinky haired black girl smiles sweetly in the toothpaste adverts, her picture doesn’t adorn teenage walls the world over, she doesn’t lounge luxuriantly with her perfect golden corkscrews in the DFS adverts and she doesn’t ever get her man. No, it is not her who is reflected back at us but a nearly white black person. This is why Awkward Black girl is so important, because little black girls everywhere and big ones too, can see themselves and know that they are enough.
When your image is always absent, always last, distorted and dehumanised into the lascivious and hypersexual, or desexualized into an impotent, non-threatening false womanhood, then you yearn for something that is authentic and human. Awkward Black Girl reflects my image back to me, and back to countless black women. That is incredibly powerful.
Replacing J with an ‘acceptable black’ completely undermines this.
As a black woman I am frustrated that mainstream feminism is not actively engaged in tackling the discrimination and underrepresentation of BME (black minority ethnic) women. Third wave feminism although quick to address male privilege, fails to fully acknowledge white female privilege and the different options that highly educated, white middle-class womenhave.
The wage gap, childcare provision, raunch culture and female objection are important issues for feminists to focus on, but what about the fact that BME women’s outcomes in employment, health, life expectancy, income and housing are vastly lower than any other group? Black, Asian Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) victims of domestic abuse are often more isolated because they may have to overcome religious and cultural pressures and are often fearful of rejection from their communities. These experiences mean that many BAMER women are often unwilling to seek help from statutory agencies and charities. Women whose immigration status is insecure are also likely to have no recourse to public funds often they are trapped and unable to seek help in case they are deported.
These concerns matter, the fact that they are not more widely discussed outside of black feminist/womanist frameworks only serves to demonstrate that serious issues concerning BME women do not figure highly within the mainstream, our problems and challenges, like our stories, do not get the space or airtime they deserve.
by Frances Abebresh (@Fran_Abebreseh)