Issa Rae in a clip from her book trailer.
I was mesmerized the first time I watched an episode of web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. There on the screen was a flawed and introverted protagonist who rejoiced in her ineptness—like me. Of course, I’d seen parts of myself reflected in other characters, like Synclaire on Living Single and Vanessa on The Cosby Show, but Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl star J was different. She rapped random hip-hop lyrics with her best friend and stumbled through her first sexual encounter with her boyfriend. J struggled with switching careers and found comfort in food. She was, in essence, a direct reflection of me—though a little less chic.
Yet, the connection to J ran deeper. I feel invested in the rising career of J’s creator, Issa Rae, who is parlaying her successful web series into hosting a television show, prepping a pilot for HBO, and writing book that came out this month. In Rae, I saw a possibility model. I, too, am a creator and want to achieve some semblance of success in multiple realms of media. But, unlike Rae, I am unwilling compromise my identity to achieve those goals.
Issa Rae’s new book debuted this month.
I’ve never stopped watching Awkward Black Girl since it began in 2012, even as it’s now on hiatus. Along with some of my fellow Black women, I often rewatch the show’s two seasons, finding gems in each episode. But now, with her new show Insecure on HBO’s horizon, it appears that Rae is attempting to distance herself from the audience of Black women who offered her a boost when she needed it most.
In a reflective essay at Cosmopolitan that’s adapted from her new book, Rae laments feeling as if she’s obligated to discuss race. Some of this hesitance stems from the intraracial questioning of her Blackness. She writes, in part:
“Even now, I feel obligated to write about race. It’s as though it’s expected of me to acknowledge what we all already know. The truth is, I slip in and out of my black consciousness, as if I’m in a racial coma. Sometimes, I’m so deep in my anger, my need to stir change, that I can’t see anything outside the lens of race. At other times, I feel guilty about my apathy. But then, isn’t this what those who came before me fought for? The right not to have to deal with race? If faced with a choice between fighting until death for freedom and civil rights, and living life without any acknowledgment of race, they’d choose the latter.”
I understand Rae’s premise. Experiencing racism and sexism is difficult enough and writing about racism and sexism can be draining and depressing. It often feels like an immovable burden. There are times when I wish I wasn’t so invested in the plights of oppressed folks, especially as families continue to lower their children into the ground due to police violence. Sometimes, I wish I could write about travel or culture or fashion without considering identities, but that is impossible. I, like Rae, am a Black American woman, and I see the entire world through that lens. It is never a question of if race or gender or sex or socioeconomic class matters; it is rather conceptualizing how these oppressions appear. Attempting to disavow that seems like a betrayal, especially since Black women were some of Rae’s earliest supporters.
Issa Rae also appealed to this particular audience, as blogger Yvette Carnell highlights in a blog for Breaking Brown. “Rae didn’t name her show The Misadventures of a California Girl, she named it The Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl, which implied that there would be amateurish observations on the perils of being both black and female,” Carnell writes. Carnell believes that Rae never supported racial collectivism and has instead built a career on an audience that she has no interest in sustaining. Rae isn’t a traitor by any means, but promoting colorblindness as a means of navigating media is harmful to the very audience who catapulted her to mainstream prominence.
Colorblindness has been deployed time and time again to prevent Black women from having multiple representations in media, according to University of Michigan Professor Robin R. Means Coleman. In her research, Coleman found that between 1968 and 1971, and in subsequent decades, television entered an “assimilationist era” where people of color were starring in shows that rejected Blackness to appeal to mainstream audiences. The idea was these shows would be less threatening to white audiences if they made no references to Black American culture. This was prevalent in series like Julia, which was the second primetime network series to star a Black American woman. Not only did this media philosophy dehumanize Black women by not offering space to tell our complex stories, but it also prevented whites from understanding how systemic injustices harm Blacks. A March 1988 Newsweek poll found that after seeing The Cosby Show, 80 percent of whites viewers found no further need for affirmative action policies. Removing Blackness from media narratives also removes the appreciation for Blacks, which is the reason shows like Blackish and Being Mary Jane are so critical.
Washington Post pop culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg sums this up well when she writes:
“Colorblindness is a form of privilege, of refusing to connect with people by hearing about their experiences, and of refusing to benefit by understanding the role race plays in your own. And in terms of enriching the stories you tell, it’s also a tactic that may keep you safe from causing offense, but at the cost of embracing a drab and narrow spectrum for your characters to live in.”
Issa Rae’s audience cannot afford to lose her distinctively Black and female perspective. No, she is not obligated to discuss race, but she must continue to champion the importance of seeing multiple representations in media—especially on a platform as significant as HBO.
Related Reading: Six Annoying Female Character Tropes in Black Romantic Comedies.
Evette Dionne is a race and culture writer whose work has been published at the New York Times, Clutch Magazine, The Root and a multitude of other digital and print publications.