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.
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.