How to Get Away with Misrepresentation?
Prior to college, all I learned about Black history was that slavery occurred a long time ago, but it had ended with the Civil War. In my small town of Centralia, Washington no one taught me that during and after slavery, certain stereotypes prevailed to oppress African Americans and the Black community. The little middles school me thought that with the end of slavery, racial equality was achieved. When my Korean immigrant mom told me to “be careful of Black people,” I did not catch the racist undertone in her warning. Inevitably, learning about the transformation of racial and gendered stereotypes in this class opened my eyes to more than I had ever expected. I was not aware that the stereotypes were created simply to benefit the Whites and to justify discrimination during each period of time. How sad is it that these stereotypes have transformed to maintain the oppressive system even to this day. It was not mentioned directly in class, but I believe these stereotypes benefit me, an Asian American, too! Although I had hoped that I would be wise enough to filter out what is accurate and what is false, the misrepresentation, or the lack thereof, in the media had caused me to have a flawed view of the Black population. Just as the past stereotypes had influenced public policies and private prejudices, the persisting stereotypes of today serve to oppress the Black women and men in every aspect of their lives. According to the fundamental ideology of Black feminism, one of the most effective methods to deconstruct these racially charged and gendered stereotypes is to show positive and multiple images of Blacks in mainstream media, where the content is available to both the Black community and non-Blacks (Professor LaShawnDa Pittman, African American Studies, December 8, 2015).
Since the wake of motion pictures, films likes Ethnic Notions set stereotypes, including Zip Coon, Sambo, Jezebel, Mammy, and so forth, that were detrimental to Blacks (Professor LaShawnDa Pittman, African American Studies, December 1, 2015). Even so, those characters were not even acted by Black folks but by White people with Black face on (Professor LaShawnDa Pittman, African American Studies, December 1, 2015). Although it has been over 150 years since slavery ended and over 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement, racial disparities still prevail and are largely influenced by racist and gendered stigma. How can one say that stereotypes are “just stereotypes” and they do not hurt anyone when Black men were lynched because of the possibility of them raping White women during Jim Crow and Black women were exposed to sexual harassment and rape due to their own set of stereotypes (being morally loose, so they are impossible to rape) (Collins, 69)? How can we gain racially equal representation in mainstream media if the only Black characters are the token sidekicks, criminals, phony psychics, and slaves? We simply cannot. The heartbreaking truth is that Blacks are STILL hugely misrepresented, STILL un-represented, and STILL blamed for those false accusations made by the media.
White people have created their own system of media, especially in film, to exclude minorities. In this day and age, no matter how “diverse” their cast is, most films or shows never go beyond casting at most a couple token Blacks and even then, they are featured as stereotypical criminals. As Matt Damon “whitesplained” to Effie Brown what diversity meant in the film industry, “when we are talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show,” it is crystal clear how Whites generally perceive diversity (Coco, Twitter). Diversifying the cast is important, but what is equally as important is to diversify the staff that is outside the frame of the camera – the writers, directors, and producers. We have seen far too many shows with a White writer who butchers the struggles of Blacks and bolster the negative stereotypes (e.g. The Wire, Basketball Wives).
In this period of covert exclusion and so called diversity that seems to hurt more than help the Black folks, a true diversified crew is hard to find. However, Shonda Rhimes gives us a sprinkle of hope for the present and the future. Widely known as a producer and a writer of many popular shows such as How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes diversifies the cast, the crew, and the characters within the stories (Rhimes, Shonda, “How to Get Away with Murder”). Specifically in How to Get Away with Murder, a Black female lead is not only a successful law school professor but a queer woman who owns her sexuality and sexual desires as she engages in sexual and emotional activities with her husband, an old friend, and an ex-girlfriend (Rhimes, “How to Get Away with Murder”). This does not only go against stereotypes of Black women not being educated/independent but also represents queer women of color as mentioned important within the third wave of Black feminism (Professor LaShawnDa Pittman, African American Studies, December 8, 2015).
Another example of Shonda Rhimes’ show is Scandal, in which the Black female lead, Olivia Pope, is portrayed as an independent, powerful, and resourceful among White men who are involved in the government (Rhimes, “Scandal”). There are even episodes that touch upon police brutality and police shootings of innocent Black men, which is unheard of on mainstream media. This goes directly against the negative images flown around in some of the rap songs and the stereotypes that mainstream media is producing. These two specific characters, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, are not only mere representations of Black girls/women, they are positive and empowering.
I must admit that these characters are far from perfect, but it starts to show multiple images. Hopefully, we can see more Black characters on TV and in films not only as criminals or tokens but as a doctor, judge, pilot, astronaut, and other professions that are most often designated for Whites only. Even if a character is a criminal or a bad kid in school, as long as there are equal numbers of those characters as there are positive characters, media representation will enhance the self-pride in Black youth and adults. If Whites can own multiple images on TV, so should Black folks since multiplicity is what the Black community is all about: it is a diverse community within itself. As long as only negative stereotypes are assigned to Black women and men, racial climate of the U.S. will not shift due to societal ignorance and White resistance.
Coco, Glen. “Matt Damon Speaking over the Only Black Person in the Room so He Can Explain Diversity to Her Is SO WHITE It Hurts Pic.twitter.com/iaQStYZ0ij.” Twitter. Twitter, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 69-71. Print.
Pittman, L. (2015) Black Feminism [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures
Pittman, L. (2015) Black Sexual Politics [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures
Rhimes, Shonda. “How to Get Away with Murder.” How to Get Away With Murder. ABC. N.d.Television.
Rhimes, Shonda. “Scandal.” Scandal. ABC. N.d. Television.