Removing Blackness from Media Narratives Removes an Appreciation for Black People

issa rae in a clip from her book trailer

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.

misadventures of an awkward black girl book

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. 

 
by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

AGREE

I think there's going to be a collective sigh of relief when people read this article because there are so many of us who have noticed this but were too afraid to say anything.

I was shocked to see her piece in Cosmo. Sure, her words made sense to me as a black woman myself [because we all get fatigued with talking about racism and sexism], but her words didn't bother me as much as the venue she chose to publish that excerpt in. Cosmo is predominantly a white magazine, and her comments could be construed as "post-racial"within a white context. White folks will now celebrate her because she's not like those "other" blacks who complain about racism and representation. It seems like she will come to us to help share her material, but she will pander to white people to get respect.

Honestly though, this is what people get for assuming that because Rae made "awkward black girl" that she was now this giant political activist. She's a business woman, and most of us put her on a pedestal.

On the other hand, I do see a problem with the idea that black women have to be hijacked by racialized narratives. White people are racist but we don't expect them to pander to black people, or to disprove that they are racists in their films. They are allowed to just make stories.

I think to a certain extent it can be progressive when black women show all types of lifestyles without having to talk about the giant history of white supremacy and racism.

However, again, Rae is a different case. She has created her empire off of the "awkward BLACK girl" trope...and now she's like "i'm tired of talking about race...." [in a white venue] Now that's #awkward

I read that piece by Carnell and I thought it was bold.

Thank you for writing this piece.

Is she compromising herself,

Is she compromising herself, or is her point of view just changing over time? You know, like other, non-black artists are allowed to do?

I understand your point, but it just gets frustrating. As a black woman, it's never enough to just 'be' a black woman while writing. I have to talk about being a black woman every single time I open my mouth or else I'm some sort of race traitor. Sometimes I want to write about race relations, sometimes I want to write about cake. But if I write about cake, I'm basically not being black enough. I want to write about race, but why are we not allowed to write about anything else? Why do I have to be restricted to race topics <i>because</i> of my race?

I'm just sick of black women being constantly scrutinized from both extremes; either we're too Black for mainstream media, or not black enough for the indie media. Fuck this, I just want to exist.

The venue was the problem

I don't think the issue here is that Rae is tired of talking about race. I do agree with her to a certain extent because I think it's annoying that we have to talk about race is such static ways all the time.

I just hate the excerpt chosen for the COSMO publication. I thought that was ironic. If she had that conversation in a predominantly black magazine, it would have been received differently. I think it would have been bold actually. But the reality is, she was talking predominantly TO white people saying "i'm tired of talking about race." So are they Rae!

The venue was the only real contention I had. It felt weird to read those words there.

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