A video has been circulating my Facebook news feed this week. It stages a scene in which a Black man brings his white girlfriend into a barber shop. A hairdresser who is a hired actress says a number of inappropriate things about the couple and the presence of this woman. The camera crew eventually interrupt the scene to question members of the public on their intervention, or lack thereof, in this so described incidence of racism. Normally I would not give too much mental energy to WorldStarHipHop posts, but the popular opinion that the scene is a visual representation of “everything Nelson Mandela stood for” was enough to provoke my response. This coupled with yet another disparaging characterisation of the Black female personality has given me cause to go on record about a few things.
Firstly, let’s stop applying the Black radical tradition as a context for absolute nonsense. Nelson Mandela’s activism, imprisonment and willingness to face death on account of the white ‘tyranny, exploitation and oppression’ of apartheid and its resulting ‘poverty and lack of human dignity’[i] is not comparable to the privileging of a white woman’s experience in a Black private space. If we are looking for ways to make meaning of Mandela’s legacy we might turn our eyes to the apartheid that exists now in Palestine, or we might focus ourselves on the prison industrial complex as a manifestation of an abrasively segregated society, and a contemporary reincarnation of enslavement for profit. These are contexts deserving of that cross reference. Not this video.
Secondly, and of great importance to me, we all need to be less accepting of the media bias against Black women. When we are apparent at all, (and as writer Emma Dabiri describes in her article “Who Stole all the Black Women from Britain?” that is hardly ever), it is too frequently a disparagement. A rehearsal of an injurious stereotype and not even First Lady Michelle Obama is exempt from this. She has been called everything from bitter to insecure and jealous over her husband’s inappropriate ‘selfie’ at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Otherwise we show up in disingenuous parodies as seen in this barber shop video.
The barber shop performance of mock racism is beguiling in that no actual racism takes place outside of what is scripted by the producers. (Now in my opinion no racism takes place at all; no, not even the comments of the acting hairdresser. But I’m going to avoid semantics and continue my argument). Instead, numerous Black patrons of the barber shop were quick to defend the white actress doing a familiar performance of timidity, or they mind their business. These Black people exhibited a familiar level of hospitableness. One Black woman levels with the actress with respect and kindness and negotiates a truce between the women she does not know are hired actors. This makes me question the utility of this skit altogether. The only disreputable Black woman was the fictitious one the producers thought up. What is the precedent for the scenario they designed? Why depict a phony case of racial bias, except to perform a reinforcement of the ideology of post-race and remind us of how we should be “moving on”.
At the centre of the drama is an actress who plays a thoughtless, tactless Black woman who is unable to make sense of her objections toward the meek white protagonist who plays the willing victim. Why do the producers choose to make a caricature of what are complex feelings for some Black women? Why didn’t the producers create a script that more closely reflects that many of us, as Black women, are unconcerned by individual Black men dating individual white women. That we sometimes divulge our sensitivities for what feels like a growing estrangement between ourselves and Black men, and interracial couples can be an apparent signifier of that.
The actress could have articulated, for example, that as a result of this estrangement Black men express their resentment, and sometimes hatred, of Black women as pillow talk with their white partners. That when this comes full circle back to us (as anecdotes from white women we acquaint ourselves with, or as a threat from the women who pine for Black men exclusively and want to knock a sister out of the running) it hurts and hinders interracial friendships between us as women.
Let’s have a public conversation about the ways white women can be complicit in the media attack on Black women and the complexities of our relationships with one another. This is our reality. Whether it is the likes of Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. Or more subtly the ways many white women resort to victimhood – crying when challenged which is a response that re-stabilises privilege – and are therefore not participating in the work that can cultivate strong relationships between us.
How many examples of balanced, complex and reciprocal friendships between Black and white women (not that sidekick dynamic) can you account for in our TV Shows, films, etc? Right now I can think of none. Why is that? Is that something this culture wants?
Lena Dunham, creator and lead actress in HBO’s critically acclaimed show “Girls”, was criticised for setting her show in New York and featuring next to no Black, Hispanic or Asian characters or extras. The decision to address this did not include casting a woman of colour. Instead, Donald Glover aka rapper Childish Gambino was casted as Lena’s Black Republican boyfriend, and the significance of race was represented in the frictions of that courtship. Why is that? Why did that (arguably) feminist show not have the imaginative space for any women of colour? Not even after public criticism could the writers and creators imagine that brown girls could matter.
This, for me, is not “the problem with white women,” but it is my explicit way of saying we do not understand whiteness, neither is it a part of our public imagination and this is troublesome. In the barber shop video why did the white girlfriend run out of the room? Why was she not first to speak up on her right to be in that space, treated with respect, and date her man? Why was she cast as “helpless”, a Black President her only defence? In all seriousness why did no one ask her to lean in to that difficult conversation? What does this skit tell us about how we see femininity when it is cloaked in whiteness?
I am weary that we are still rolling out the ‘angry black woman’ figurine whenever the occasion calls for the vision of a sister. I am not saying that there are not angry Black women, or even that anger is not a legitimate feeling. I am not saying at all that Black women are morally superior. I have watched enough episodes of Love and Hip Hop to know that some Black women are a (hurt) ratchet mess and they cling to badness and dysfunction. What I am saying is that we are also kind. We are so very kind and I don’t see reflections of that anywhere. We are kind, loving and gentle, (You’re wet and you’re warm just like our bathwater/ Can we make love before you go/The way you say my name makes me feel like/I’m that nigga but I’m still unemployed)[ii].We are resilient and tenacious. And some of us are funny too. I am saying that continuous exposure to contorted versions of Black womanhood is wearisome and harmful and I have had enough.
Perhaps this is why Black women are throwing their support behind Shonda Rhimes, Scandal, and Olivia Pope. I am not at all here for that show. I would take Taraji P Henson’s “Detective Carter” in Person of Interest – kind, loyal, courageous and smart – over Kerry Washington’s “Olivia Pope”; saviour by day, paramour by night. So this is not just an argument of representation. I am not asking simply to see more (Black) women on our screens. I am contesting the way we are drip fed negativity about Black women. Why does this matter? It matters because what you see of Black women directly informs how you think about and act toward us. It matters because Renisha McBride sought help after being in a car accident and instead she was shot in the face and left to die. I did not see the international community mobilise. I did not see “I am McBride” T-Shirts or hashtags. I, as an actively feminist woman, did not respond with the same duty to engage as I did with Trayvon Martin or Troy Davis. I had to check myself on what I really think about the value of Black women’s lives. How much more you then?
We cannot continue to make whatever point we want (especially not the “post-racial” one) at the expense of Black women and girls. We cannot. We have a collective responsibility to moderate the messages circulated about us and we have to be well versed. We cannot wait for it to be glaring. We can’t wait for white girls to slap twerking Black bums. We can’t wait until university professors publish work that categorically calls Black women ugly. We cannot wait until they tell us the Black First Lady of the United States is angry when she has not told us so. We cannot wait until Disney says they’ll cast us as a Princess but make us a frog. We certainly cannot wait until they are shooting us on their front lawns. We have to deal with the incidences in the microcosm. We cannot circulate and praise a video completely oblivious of the ways it is harmful to Black women. We, for the sake of Black women and girls facing a barrage of disparagement, cannot afford to do that.
[i] Nelson Mandela, Rivonia Trial Speech.
[ii] Frank Ocean, Pyramids.