We Who? A Breakdown of Media Representation of Black Women

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Audre Lorde

Never have Audre Lorde’s words rung truer to me than today. We live in exciting times; the internet has propelled many brilliant thinkers to the forefront of long needed discourse on the negative (at best) or nonexistent portrayal of black women in the media. Of course, the media sets the tone for the values and perceptions of our culture. For a long time, the message has basically been that whiteness is what we should aspire to. It isn’t surprising to see in a remote village in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, multiple posters of lily white models with long straight hair and blue eyes advertising everything from a bar of soap to a stick of gum. Across the world, even in places where you’re as likely to come across a white person as you are the loch ness monster, whiteness is still the default.

Websites owned by and catering to black people, as well as social platforms like Tumblr and Twitter have given them the chance to control their own representation in media and challenge biased reporting or characterisation in mainstream news and/or the entertainment industry. Not only that, hashtags such as #BlackOutDay on Tumblr allowed black people to affirm their self-love and pride at a time of heightened racial tensions in the USA. The movement spread like wildfire across the world and through several other social networking platforms. It primarily involved posting celebratory images of black people- from Caribbean carnivals to historical images to most notably, selfies from ordinary black people. A specific retweet ended up on my Twitter timeline celebrating the beauty of Kenyan women- four pictures of four stunning women. It was here that something that had been stirring in me reached its crux. All four of these women were statuesque, with narrow noses, long straight hair (or big curly hair) and light complexions. In reality, however, many Kenyan women don’t look anything like that. Their representation was completely excluded from FOUR pictures that showed women with a very similar phenotype. I have noticed many Twitter accounts or Tumblr blogs that have aimed to celebrate blackness in its entirety have often given preference to a certain kind of blackness too; one that ironically seems to pander to white supremacist beauty standards.

I remember being very excited to see the film Dear White People a year ago. The film had a fantastic run in several film festivals and was met with rave reviews. It felt like a dream to see a film with a mostly black cast, written and directed by a black man focus on race relations through the eyes of college students. When I did finally get to see the film, I was slightly disappointed by the fact that the film’s central character was actually a mixed race woman, through whom we got to see a complex relationship with her white father and white (secret) lover. There isn’t a simple white/non-white binary. There are an unfathomable number of delineations of race created by white supremacy for which a proximity to whiteness gives one more privilege than their next, blacker counterpart. A film that aimed to untangle and critique relations of race, and then choosing to focus on, more than any other story, that of a half white woman made me wonder whether again this was an attempt to present a more “palpable” type of blackness, or merely a coincidence.

My chasm with the representation of black women has often been met with a single counter-argument: what about Lupita Nyong’o? She is the IT girl of the moment, first black ambassador for Lancôme, currently signed on to be a part of the highly popular Star Wars series, voted People Magazine’s Most Beautiful person of 2014. Yet, I’ve been told, she is exactly the type of woman whose lack of fair representation I’m arguing over. I would, however like to point out that a significant part of praise for Lupita seemed to “other” her. Many people could hardly believe that an African woman with prominent African features could be so dazzling, so universally fawned over. This revelatory admiration in and of itself is condescending, if not completely dehumanising. It was as if black women who looked like that had never existed before, or could never possibly be attractive, talented and composite enough to command the attention of Hollywood. So long had a limited perception, and by default depiction of black woman beauty existed that Lupita nearly tilted the world off its axis.

Ultimately, a critical examination of any biases we are playing into when we choose to celebrate the beauty and talent of black women in the media is necessary. If, in fact we are going to dismantle exclusionary representations, shouldn’t we dismantle them completely?