Can we hold fellow black women to blame for sabotaging our image on TV?

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

On Sunday, I was happy to catch up with blogger New Black Woman. (Definitely visit her blog and be sure to check into her recommended reading list.) I’ve been wanting to talk about her recent post, “”Why do black women continue to sabotage our image?“–a lamentation on the poor portrayals for black women, particularly on reality TV.

Black women are well aware there is indeed a lack of diversity in the array of characters we’re allowed (yes, allowed because these characters are concoctions of a producer or writer’s mind) to portray. The majority of black women on television are making waves in reality TV shows, which are typically edited in a way to play up to the expectations of viewers to see more drama, more cat fights and more angry black women. We do not have the luxury of having 10 different shows that feature 10 different characters of black women. We don’t have the diversity in characters to show mainstream America that we, too, are just as diverse as the white women they encounter on a daily basis.

As black women, however, why do we keep doing ourselves this disservice? Why do we continue to support the madness by proudly embracing the angry black woman stereotype on reality TV, by watching these shows and relishing in the drama black female characters convey to viewers?

This link to the clip from Sunday’s Celebrity Apprentice episode in which the never-ending drama between NeNe Leakes and Star Jones is a prime example of how black women are portrayed–and how they portray themselves–in reality television. In the clip, Leakes of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame bolsters her “street game” by rolling her neck and talking smack in Jones’ face. The white onlookers, including birther,racist fraud Donald Trump and nonsensical rapper Lil’ John, look on amused as if they were expecting the drama to happen. Read More

I share New Black Woman’s disdain for the way black women are framed in the media, including reality television. But I wondered if it was fair to hold other black women accountable for those portrayals. What follows is our discussion.

Tami: So, your post was inspired by Alison Samuels’ piece in Newsweek about the portrayal of black women in reality television. What bothers you about what you’re seeing on the TV screen?

New Black Woman: I think what’s bothering me is the television image of black women seems to be regressing. We went from Claire Huxtable in the 1980s to the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” (RHOA) in the new millennium. What’s more disturbing is how many black women have embraced this “downgrade” so to speak.

Maybe it’s part of the collective regression of television shows that’s occurred in the past three decades.

Tami: I think it is part of the decreasing quality of television and the rise of reality TV that exists to make money through controversy (See Jennifer Pozner’s terrific book, Reality Bites Back). I suspect the impetus for this isn’t necessarily race, but–and this is a big but–marginalized people, including black women, are
disproportionately effected by these rampaging stereotypes, because the public sees little to counter this stuff.

New: Right. There doesn’t seem to be a diverse offering of black women and other marginalized groups on television and in other forms of media. And I think that’s primarily what makes all this unsettling.

Tami: And add to the rise of the angry black woman on screen, the attacks on black women in other areas. Y’know, if one goes by media coverage, we are single, unloved, too educated, too religious, too emasculating, and…as of late…too unattractive.

New: Yes! All of that supposedly prevents us from netting our black prince charming…

Tami: This all adds up to an unfair portrayal of black women–one that impacts the way we are seen by non-black people, but sadly, also how we see ourselves.

New: I think that’s a great point. I also read your 2009 blog post asking “are you a credit to your race.”
It got me thinking about my instinctual habit of feeling embarrassed or annoyed at these stereotypical media portrayals of black women.

[Editor's note: In 2009, I wrote a post inspired by RHOA, asking "Are you a credit to your race?" I wrote:

As last week's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" post has played out here and on What Tami Said and Racialicious (where it was crossposted), I have been thinking about what it means to represent the black race and how black people act as ambassadors to the mainstream world. There is this tendency, from which I am not immune, to feel embarrassed by and to make excuses for black folks who behave badly, or rather, act in a way contrary to a certain set of values and accepted norms. There is a real reason for this compulsion: Black people and other people of color are often unfairly judged as group by the mainstream. In other words, the actions of one equal the actions of all. And so, many of us, learn from the time we are children to mind ourselves around white folks--to not do anything that brings discredit to black people and, ideally, to live life with the goal of uplifting the race through our actions. Admittedly, this idea of being a proxy for the entire race has been tied to excellence and achievement--both wonderful things. But, ultimately, this way of thinking is a tyranny and a perpetuation of race bias. Read more...]

Tami: Yeah, so let’s get into that. Cause when we start talking about black women on television, it gets complicated. Part of me cringes when I watch a Nene Leakes on TV. Why can’t she just act differently? Must she be such a stereotype? Then, the other part of me says, why should this woman be any reflection on me? I know other people think she is, but why do I need to answer for her foolishness?

New: Yep. Whenever I turn on the television and see a black woman acting in a stereotypical fashion, I can only think about what white people must be thinking about us when they view those characters. Until I read your post, I never really thought that instinct to feel embarrassed was just me perpetuating a race bias.

I even found myself doing this in my everyday life. I work in the journalism industry in a north metro Atlanta county that has a black population that’s about 12 percent. There is only one black elected official (that’s counting six cities, the local board of education and county commission).

Tami: It’s instinctual, I think. It happens all the time. Like when you hear about some scandalous crime and sit waiting for them to show the photo of the perpetrator going “Please don’t let the person be black.” It’s because we’ve been so conditioned that the actions of one reflect on the whole race.

New: YES! I find myself doing that with the local news all the time, especially since the Atlanta area has big, black population.

In my job as a journalist for a local newspaper, I have noticed that I’m probably the only black person many of my sources have to deal with on a daily basis. So, whenever I’m around them, I always feel like I have to present my best face. My instincts tell me I need to project the best qualities because, whether I like it or not, I am representing my race…

Tami: Oh, I can so relate. I started my career in journalism on a newspaper copy desk and I’m well aware of the feeling that you have to represent for black folks.

New: I can remember sitting at one city council meeting, a black man came up and began to speak about a piece of property he owned the city was wanting to buy. This man was a native of the county and had a thick, southern accent. I remember feeling embarrassed because I felt like he was “embarrassing us.”

Tami: That’s what makes this all so complicated. Despite our best intentions, we end up judging and stereotyping in the same way the larger culture does.

New: Since I’ve read your blog entry, I’ve thought about that incident and realized I unnecessarily placed that burden upon myself and projected that same racial bias upon him that’s been placed upon us. We end up acting like the same people we chastise for stereotyping us.

Do you have any instances in which you did the same that you can share?

Tami: Definitely. I remember traveling to New Orleans for work with several colleagues. At the time I was the only black person working at this particular PR agency. My white colleagues and I were driven around town by a older black man– thick accent, poor grammar, animated and talkative to the point where it felt like shucking and jiving to me. I could see my colleagues patronizing him. It made me mad at them, but more mad at him for being so damned embarrassing … not acting “right.”

New: We’ve all been that situation one too many times.

Tami: But the thing is … I know about the inequality in New Orleans — the huge gap between the haves and have nots. This man was probably old enough to have seen a the tail end of Jim Crow. His education and opportunity had likely been limited. He was handling his business making a honest living — probably knew how to act to secure tips from tourists traveling to the Big Easy. How dare I be embarrassed by that.

New: I know the man I looked down on at that meeting was in the same predicament.

Tami: And truth be told, if I read about, say, Rush Limbaugh, judging a man like this, I would have jumped all over him, but there I was sort of making the same judgment.

New: I think many black women like myself don’t realize we’re being just as nasty as the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Many women like myself have come to the conclusion that we (the educated ones) have a right to tell the others to mind themselves in front of white folks. Who made us the behavior police?

Tami: And see, I think this is relevant to RHOA, too. In watching that reality show, I have more than once got the feeling that Nene Leakes hasn’t had the easiest life. I suspect her aggressiveness and defensiveness has its roots in feeling powerless and inadequate. Now, she doesn’t handle her pain in the way I would…or in an effective way, imho. But she is not just a stereotype. She is a woman who needs some counseling, if you ask me. But when I saw promos of her looming over Star Jones, loudly going off, I didn’t think of her as a black woman who is hurting. I saw her as a raving Sapphire who is screwing stuff up for the rest of us.

New: I think NeNe has some issues (I can’t remember). From what I can recall, she had a hard life. Watching her going off on Star Jones was probably one of the lowest points for black women on television I can recall from recent history. Did you happen to see the reaction of the white folks who witnessed this tirade? They were reveling in the drama; as if they were used to it …

Tami: I didn’t, but I’m not surprised. Folks love to have their biases affirmed.

New: Even when I watch America’s Next Top Model, the black women routinely get into screaming matches and the white women always are the amused bystanders.

Tami: See, I think this is the crucial thing. Reality programmers seek out the most outrageous, controversial characters they can. They PURPOSELY court racist and sexist and ethnic stereotypes (See Jersey Shore or Teresa Giudice of RHONJ). So, even though Nene Leakes bears no resemblance to any black woman I know, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that most of us have our shit together. They’re going to seek out people that don’t.

New: Because those people provide the best entertainment and the best ratings.

Tami: So, what is a possible solution? How do we address the harm that these portrayals do without making black women the villains?

New: In an ideal world, producers would become enlightened and cast characters who didn’t fall into the stereotypical characterizations of black women. But, we both know producers are all about money and are too proud to own up to their lust for casting the Angry Black Woman in their shows.

That’s the million dollar question.

Tami: I think our options are two-fold. One, I think we as black women, ought to focus on supporting and nurturing black girls. [Editor's note: ... and women, too. It's going to be a hard slog to change the racist and sexist biases against black women, but we can work together to nurture happy, healthy, well-adjusted black women.]

New: I think we also need to teach black boys that black girls are valuable.

Tami: Yes!

New: Another sad facet of this is we see many black men often joining producers in making black women look bad on television. Flavor Flav is a prime example.

Sadly, the black community is male-centered and puts the values/wants/needs of black men and boys ahead of black women and girls. This lopsided system often comes at the expense of black women and girls.

Tami: Secondly, I think we need to be vocal about challenging our portrayals on TV and in other media. It’s not reality TV, but I was heartened by how quickly folks jumped on Satoshi Kanazawa and Psychology Today for that ridiculous piece on black women. We were heard and now Kanazawa lost his spot as a PT columnist and may well lose his academic post, too. We need to use our voices more often.

New: You’re exactly right. I think the Internet has served as an excellent tool to demonstrate how powerful black women can be if we all came together and denounced these harmful images and “scientific conlusions.”

Tami: I agree about our community being patriarchal. I think that contributes to the lack of support women receive. Folks in the black community are way too quick to buy into stereotypes about black women where they would reject stereotypes about black men.

Case in point: In the wake of domestic violence charges against Chris Brown, I was hearing way too much of that “You know how island women are” mess. Xenophobic and sexist.

New: Exactly. We are quick to denounce the stereotypes of black men and boys, but turn the other cheek when black women and girls are stereotyped.

Sadly, given the fact that so few black men stood up in opposition to the Psychology Today article, this will be a revolution that will primarily led and organized by women.

Tami: Luckily, some black men did push back on the PT article. Ta-Nehisi Coates did. Villager did.  Elon James White hosted my blog buddy Mikhail Lybansky on Blacking It Up to refute Kanazawa’s foolishness. and several others. That aside, you are right that we will be the ones leading this revolution. I think our community has a ways to go in recognizing the detrimental effects of patriarchy.

New: I just hope we can reach out to the younger black girls out there who have only grown up with reality TV as their guide to how black women should act…

What affect do you think this would have if black women just stopped watching these shows altogether? Is the boycott of these shows enough to get people to change?

Tami: We could not watch. That would probably be the best thing to do. Or, as Pozner recommends in her book, we can have the “guilty pleasure,” but make sure we are actively consuming all media, including entertainment, which means seeing and rejecting stereotypes.

  • siendopeligroso

    I feel the exact same way about gay men. Whenever I see a lispy, effeminate man on TV talking about being shallow and materialistic, I cringe very deeply. I am totally behind somebody being whoever they are (save the materialism and shallowness; every one can do without those); but given people’s propensity to use “gay” and “fag” as adjectives (I hate even typing the latter), it’s very obvious that putting these images of stereotypes out into the world, and only of these stereotypes, will make it very difficult to really eradicate homophobia, not so much in the outward expressions of hate, but in the more (unfortunately) innate and accepted ways.

  • angry black woman

    For me, Reality TV is particularly difficult for me to swallow, because in shows like Bad Girls Club, particularly after the first season, almost all the women on the show are there intentionally — they want to act a fool or be dramatic or cause, because it might lead them to some kind of fame or money.  And in turn, that presentation/specific alteration of their selves is put out to millions and millions of viewers…those specific stereotypes IN QUANTUM.  It just really makes me angry/upset that they willingly put themselves in these positions.  Of course, everyone has the right to live their lives however they so choose.  And we should be free of that “you are a representation of your race” burden that follows us 24/7, but we’re not.  And knowing how lasting these images are, and how devastating they are to black women in this nation (and others)…it’s just mind-boggling how we keep signing up for these degrading shows.

  • Pingback: Black Women, Stereotypes, and Reality TV « BROTHA WOLF

  • Drhiphop85

    First off I have to say very insightful discussion between you two. As a black man I’ve never been privy to hearing a discussion like this between two Black women. Typically in non-direct ways (usually through non-verbal cues) I’m asked to kinda fade out the conversation. Or there is this tendency for them to fall to me for my opinion (probably because of the patriarchial nature of many Black relationships). So it was very refreshing to see this discussion being unhindered by those things.

    Second, I definitely agree with the solutions presented. There needs to be more action on the part of viewers in changing the types of roles/characters we allow to be presented to us. That isn’t to say that stereotypical (and really everything can be made into a stereotype) characters can’t or won’t exist, but that they shouldn’t be the only characters that represent for marginalized groups.

    However, I will say that for me, I do find some issues with the notion of “black community” (or “gay community” or “Italian community”). Only because it goes off the assumption that every black person has a consensus on things. I understand that many (most?) of us are treated a particular way because of our skin color, but I do not believe that we should allow that to force us to negate our own uniqueness to fit into some monolithic identity. Because when we do that we in some ways nurture this idea that we are all alike. This also creates more divides then connections between different groups because there is always this sense of “us” and “them”. I know, however, that the idea of a community is a trope that we have used for so long. But I do believe that for all oppressed and marginalized groups to ever go anywhere, we have to get pass a dichotomous view of “us vs them”.

    Just my 2 cents, still I really enjoyed the article and very glad that I started coming to racialious.

  • Val R.

    “Yep. Whenever I turn on the television and see a black woman acting in a stereotypical fashion, I can only think about what white people must be thinking about us when they view those characters.”

    For me it isn’t about what White people will think but what Black children and in particular Black girls will think when they see this stuff. Sometimes we can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If a Black girl grows up seeing this and being indoctrinated by it then she might be come to see NeNe Leakes type behavior as normal or as how Black women really behave. That’s what scares me.

    Btw, Whoopi Goldberg defended Kanazawa today on The View. She makes a habit of defending racists.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    whoa, no mention of “The Bad Girls Club”?? The show is pretty bad when it comes to casting black females, casting producers deliberately pick certain black & mixed females who already hate on other black females and will rip each other to shreds purely for the DRAMA VALUE.

    Um, I must confess I’m addicted to BGC. some of the mixed girls are always loud and proud to proclaim that they are MIXED and not just black (as if being 100% black is BAD and unthinkable…) and they always made sure to attack other black females for being ghetto. The worst offender of this is Natalie Nunn.

    and yeah, the black sheep of BGC for almost every season is almost always black.

    • http://jasminllenadegracia.blogspot.com Jasmin

      This season a girl I grew up with is going to be on BGC, and I hear she’s going to be the self-proclaimed “crazy creole”. BGC courts the women who are looking to be the HBIC while trying to become D-list “celebs” at the same time.

  • nicthommi

    I think that one major point that needs to be adressed is the fact that the negative stereotypes somehow swallow up, literally consume, the positive images.

    There are plenty of women in the mainstream media who defy the notion that black women are ugly, loud, uncouth, and uneducated.  

    However, if you visit the comments section that discusses the positive images, they are inevitably dismisssed as being a stereotype.   We also have the unenviable position of being viewed through these racist “beer googles” so any black woman who displays emotion is being loud or angry.  Our looks are viewed through the same distorted lens. 

    So you have Rush Limbaugh attacking Michelle Obama’s weight, calling her obese, and even the DEFENDERS said that it was unfair because she was a “real woman” overlooking the fact that she is actually in amazing shape with fabulous arms, and a nice, toned figure.  She looks far better than the AVERAGE woman but was still knocked down to being only average by her supposed supporters.

    I read another article that was refuting the fact that black women were unattractive, and all of the commenters took issue with the fact that the picture used (Tyra Banks) and examples of attractive black women didn’t count because the mostly non-black commenters felt that they were all biracial, mulatto, etc. (none of the women mentioned were by the way).

    Oprah is immensely popular with non-blacks but somehow they stop viewing her as a real black woman too.

    So Nene Leaks as the angry black women overwhelms the image of black women portrayed by  Star Jones (I didn’t watch the show but whether you like her or not, she’s an educated black woman and I’ve never found her behavior to inappropriate-quite the oppposite, she’s poised and confident), or the very soft-spoken Latoya Jackson.

    It’s as if the black women who behave normally, or who are quiet, or who are poised and confident disappear and all anyone hears/see are the Nenes of the world. 

    I don’t know that I expect anyone like Nene to be more than she is, and I agree with the assessment about why some people are touchy and aggressive with others. 

    But even if you took them off the screen, I think that we’d still be judged the same way.  So the angry black woman would be Star Jones, or Michelle Obama, or any black woman with an opinion.

  • Logoskaieros

    Great post!

    “Can we hold fellow black women to blame to sabotaging our image on TV?”
    It only counts as sabotage if the person on TV is taken to represent the image of all black women.  And so, what’s really to blame for the ‘sabotage’ is the racist/sexist frame that creates “black woman” as a category where people expect that behavior of one member of that group will speak for the behavior of all members of that group.

    A white dude being a d**** on TV doesn’t sabotage the image of white dudes, so it can’t be a black woman being a d**** on TV that creates (and then sabotages) the image of black women. 

    Sorry if this is stating the obvious; I’m trying to highlight that if you think about the the social creation of “black woman” as a category of people who all behave in similar ways, then the original question doesn’t even need asking; it would be like asking “can we hold fellow black women to blame for not being pretty enough for black men to want to marry over non-black women?”

    It’s not the people to blame; it’s the hierarchy that frames those people as a homogeneous sub-human lump.

    I also dont’ mean to argue that this post is asking the wrong question; I mean to only add another reason why the answer to the question is “No!”