Empire, Stereotypes, and the Search for Perfect Black People

IMG_1417

The Great Debaters

Oh no, last night, my husband and I were at it again. We had one of our heated debates. His eyes started bulging and my blood pressure shot up. This time it was about TV shows, specifically my fondness for Empire and Scandal. This particular debate started when I told him that I was just going to wait until today to catch up on the new episode of Empire instead of trying to watch it when I knew he and our daughter would distract me. He stopped clearing the dishes from the table, glared at me, and had the nerve to ask me a question that has been echoing in my head ever since, “How does someone like you that has this blog about female empowerment…how are you able to watch shows like Empire and Scandal? Shows about drug dealers and hoes?”

I looked at him and I think my mouth was open. Our 1 year-old daughter was sitting in her high chair looking from him to me, waiting for my answer. I told him that I think both shows are about more than what he described. I asked him to explain what he meant. During the twenty minutes that he talked about his thoughts first on Empire, then maybe another 10 minutes on Scandal, I did my best not to interrupt and to just listen even when certain things he said would make me want to jump out of my seat. He brought up some very good points. The best of the ones I can remember were:

1. Why is Empire on Fox network right before the 9 o’clock news? He argued that it’s not a coincidence that this happened. He said it is because the show portrays black people rapping, thugging, shooting, and killing and the news reinforces these things for the mostly conservative audience that watches Fox news.

2. Why does Empire have to center around a once-drug-dealer that builds a music company? He argued that the media pigeonholds successful black people into two major areas: sports and music. He said that he would like to see successful black people on TV that are not in these two fields.

3. Why does Olivia Pope [in Scandal] have to be the President’s hoe in order to be a leading character in a popular TV show? What kind of message is that sending our daughters? How does that show empower black women?

After I let him finish with almost everything he had to say, the first thing I told him is that I agree with him and I’ve thought about all of those things before. I told him that it does bother me that Empire is on the most anti-black network that I can think of. This rubs me the wrong way, especially considering the content of the show. However, I did tell him that I believe Empire is about more than drug-dealing and music. It is about family, relationships between brothers, mothers and sons, fathers and sons. It is about homophobia in the black community. It is about mental illness and the lack of discussion about it. The show seems to question the “ride-or-die chick” archetype that we love so much in the black community. Yes, we love Cookie’s character, but I hope I’m not the only one that sees no honor in going to jail for 17 years while your sons grow up without you. Not to mention the fact that her husband not only divorces her, but doesn’t bring the kids to see her and stops going to see her himself. Cookie is feisty and genuine, but flawed.

This idea of being a flawed character is what I spent most of my time talking about last night with my husband. I get frustrated because people are quick to get offended when black people on TV are flawed. We say that we want more positive black characters, but it seems like what we really mean by that is we want perfect, black characters. We want to portray black people as perfect on TV so that our white friends and coworkers won’t think that we are like the “bad” black people that they see on TV or on the news. This type of thinking doesn’t allow black people to be real, whole people in the media or in real life. This really bothers me because I feel like it affects black women the most. We applaud successful black women like Michelle Obama because she has achieved immense success and carries herself with grace. But don’t let her lose her temper or give a face full of attitude. If she does, the media and many racist people on social media will call her names that should never be uttered. She has to be perfect in order to be acceptable. She can’t show any attitude because she would then be validating the stereotype of the black woman with a bad attitude. Sure, you may say that this is because she’s the First Lady of the United States. Of course that has a great deal to do with it, but any black woman that has been in mostly non-black surroundings will tell you that there is more pressure on them to be perfect and keep it all together than their white peers. They carry the reputation of the race on their shoulders after all. This is the reason why I can watch shows like Scandal where the main character is my definition of a “boss” in every way: smart, wealthy, powerful, successful, stylish-yet she fails miserably in her love life by loving a married man. No, it is not ok, but she is not perfect. She has a major flaw, but this doesn’t negate all of her other positive attributes in my opinion. I believe that the day when black people can be whole people on and off the screen, flaws included, without the flaws being attributed to race, we have made progress.

watermelon book

Yes, I am black and I love watermelon. Is that a problem?

When it comes to the question of why a popular TV show featuring black people has to center around drug-dealing and rapping…I told my husband that sometimes we gotta be honest with ourselves. It may be a stereotype, but the creators of the show were not wrong that this type of storyline would be appealing to many people (not even just black people, Americans in general) because most people love a good gangster flick (Godfather, anyone?) and hip hop culture is becoming more and more mainstream than “black” it seems. The two together are a winning combination. Does it bother me sometimes that black people are relegated to sports and music? Yes. Do blacks dominate in those fields? Yes! They do and I’m tired of acting like there is something wrong with that. Of course, black people are talented in all areas and this should be portrayed more, but I’m not offended that the show puts its characters in these two fields.

Towards the end of our debate, my husband brought up the fact that everyone won’t separate fact from fiction, stereotype from reality like I do when I see shows like Empire or Scandal. It is true that it will reinforce to some people that black people are only good at rapping, singing, and being a side-piece. However, I believe that people that truly feel this way are going to look for anyway they can to reinforce those prejudiced beliefs. It is the reason why Seattle Seahawks player, Richard Sherman, was called a “monkey,” “nigger,” amongst other things when he talked passionately to a reporter after winning the Superbowl last year. Nevermind that he is both a phenomenal athlete and Ivy-league educated. Some people will use any excuse to dehumanize him. The same is true for President Obama. He is the epitome of class, intelligence, and success but if he does one thing that people deem out-of-order, he is every racist slur ever stated or written. I, personally, am tired of being enslaved to staying inside of the “good black person” box in order to gain and keep acceptance from our white-dominated society and I don’t mind if my favorite TV characters are outside of this box as well.

I will leave you all by stating that the last episode of Empire did leave me with some not-so-good feelings. One of which was the joke made by DeRay Davis’ character about the “cute, light-skinned girl.” I was thinking, “Please stop with the light skin/dark skin colorism crap. It’s not funny.” Another uncomfortable aspect was the entire music video shoot with the scantily clothed video girls. I have to say that I am torn. I see the major flaws that at times seem to overshadow the more redemptive qualities, but then it’s like I just can’t stop watching. I’m all for more positive black characters in TV and film, but I am known to indulge in my share of ratchet every now and then (Real Housewives of Atlanta, anyone?) What can I say? I am by no means perfect.

What are your thoughts about shows like Empire and Scandal? Do you think the success of these shows do the black community more harm than good? Share in the comments or on Facebook.

On “Light Girls” and Using Positive Thinking When Fighting Systemic Injustices

This post was inspired by a lot of the controversy surrounding the Light Girls documentary that premiered on the OWN network January 19th. I still haven’t seen the actual documentary (I know :-\), but I’ve read a few articles and blog posts about it. I saw the film’s predecessor Dark Girls and was really moved by it.

#teamAllSkinIsBeautifulSkin

#teamAllSkinIsBeautifulSkin

There was criticism surrounding Light Girls before the documentary even aired on OWN. There were people who believed that light-skinned women of color didn’t deserve to have their stories told because of light skin privilege or privilege towards blacks with “whiter” features over darker skinned blacks. However, after the documentary actually aired, judging simply from the articles and blog posts I’ve read, it seems like the criticism ranged from the documentary not addressing the key issue of white supremacy to it reinforcing stereotypes about dark-skinned black women. I believe that these may be valid points (I say ‘may’ only because I haven’t seen the film myself). The aspect that I want to focus on specifically is influenced by a blog post that I encountered called “Light Girls, When Documentaries Get It Wrong” by Jessica Ann Mitchell that stated “colorism cannot be changed through positive thinking.” The author seems to go on to say that positive affirmations and other positive thinking tactics reduce the very real and important issue of colorism when referencing portions of the documentary where positive thinking/self-help ideas were brought up.

Firstly, I wholeheartedly agree that systemic racism, sexism, and colorism exist in America and we must fight against it. When statistics show that dark-skinned African Americans are less likely to be hired for jobs than light-skinned African Americans even when they have better qualifications, we have a HUGE problem and this problem must be addressed. The problem I have is stating that positive thinking/self-help has no role in addressing the problem of colorism or other injustices faced by people of color. I believe that positive thinking must go hand-in-hand with (never in place of) peacefully fighting against systemic injustice because it is self-confidence that will get that person up and out of the door for the job interview in question whether he/she is light-skinned or dark-skinned. With the weight of racism and sexism, I believe it is that much harder for black women of all shades to be confident in their abilities and autonomy.

While I agree that positive thinking won’t solve the problems of colorism or racism, I do believe that positive thinking is key to taking back our power to reach our fullest potential. This issue goes beyond any individual experience but of course I have to bring up my own.

When I think about my past of growing up with an alcoholic father that was a great provider, but wasn’t so great at making me feel valued as a young woman, I believe that my lack of self-esteem held me back from stepping out and taking advantage of the many opportunities available to me. There was one particular time when I had a job interview with Jewel-Osco at their Itasca, IL headquarters during college for a management-in-training position at my local store when I felt tension with the white female job interviewer. I felt like she looked at me like I was nothing and with so much disinterest that I wondered why I was even called for an interview in the first place. This tension could have been because of my race or because of my skimpy resume; I will never know since there was nothing blatantly racist stated. However, I do know that I botched the interview before it even started because I didn’t believe that I had a real chance. I didn’t believe in myself and if I didn’t believe in myself, how could I sell my skills and experience enough to get a recruiter to believe in me? How could I stand a chance fighting external and internal forces working to keep me behind?

I believe without a doubt that low self-esteem held me back from achieving and doing some amazing things. Does this mean that racism or sexism couldn’t have been at play as well? Does any personal experience I have invalidate hard core statistics suggesting colorism is a legit issue? Of course not. However, I believe that while we ensure that systemic injustices are confronted and addressed, we must also address ways that we hold ourselves back because we feel defeated before the  game starts.

All women struggle with self-image and self-worth. Yet, black women also have the added battles of racism and colorism. As we fight the long, continual battle for equal treatment of all people, why not also work on building ourselves up and encouraging ourselves to make bold moves to achieve little successes until that big success is won?

Share any thoughts you have in the comments or on our Facebook page. I love a friendly debate! Be sure to “like” the Popped Black Woman Blog Facebook page!