Anytime the issue of the portrayal of black life in the media arises, we almost always resort to opening up a discussion about shows like Basketball Wives or Love & Hip Hop. We talk about how black women are devalued and make themselves the subjects of derision. We talk about how the men and women on these shows are portrayed as coons and are willing to take pleasure in self-exploitation for the sake of money. We also often talk about movies that insist on focusing on the “thug life,” honing in on drug-peddling gangstas, sexually provocative women, and the women who support the former and are a part of the latter. Then, of course, we talk about the likes of Don Lemon and Larry Elder (and a good portion of our athletes and entertainers), the group of black folks with class privilege who assume control over Black discourse and inevitably and strategically create a disconnect between them and the rest of Black America.
These privileged blacks are usually not about elevating black culture; rather, they actually only care to succeed within the existing white supremacist capitalist system. They must regurgitate the way the white dominant culture sees black culture in order to keep climbing up that sell-out ladder. They continue to promote individualistic success over communalism, and will do so at the expense of black culture.
These conversations of media manipulation of black life will always be legitimate so long as it continues to happen. But even more is the subtlety of black representation on television and on the big screen. The ones we’ve already mentioned have now been fairly well-documented and discussed; however, those discussions can be driven even further. In my last post, I talked about the media being more culpable for what they don’t say (or portray) than what they do.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the goal of the media isn’t to demean black life (stay with me here), but rather, it’s to present the facade that we live in a society of racial harmony. And within that, the commodification of black culture is perpetuated, which then points back to the demeaning of black culture. And what’s the name of that whole game? Subtlety. ‘If I act like it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t exist.’ If you capture the minds of blacks and whites and make them believe racism and white supremacy no longer play a factor in society, then that’s where the subtlety comes into play. Capture their minds without them knowing it’s being captured.
Now we have the co-existence of blacks and whites on television on every interrelational level. We have the crime drama shows that show blacks and whites working together. We have our romantic shows and movies where interracial relationships are commonplace. We have movies like The Blindside that show the benevolence of white people. These Hollywood portrayals of black and white interactions are seemingly harmonious. The message that is sent is that we have evolved passed racial tensions and we all love each other as humans.
But let’s REALLY get down with the get-down. When you break down the interactions between blacks and whites on crime drama shows and movies, blacks are always subordinates. Blacks being presented as criminals is something we talk about ad nauseam. However, even within the ranks of the good guys, blacks are still presented as subordinates. There’s hardly a departmental head or police chief on TV who is black. Shows like Criminal Minds, Law & Order, and Flashpoint all show a white man in charge and the token black man within the group who does everything to remain in the good graces of his white boss. So racial harmony is maintained as long as everyone stays within the bounds of that hierarchy. Even in movies like the Lethal Weapon sequels, the black co-star (Danny Glover) is never allowed to outshine his white co-star (Mel Gibson).
We can’t deny that romantic relationships between blacks and whites on-screen are customary now. But again, let’s look at the subtleties. In The Bodyguard, Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston’s relationship is not made to last. Their love is strong, but at the end of the movie, they are separated. In Jungle Fever, Wesley Snipes has an affair with a white woman while being married to a African-American woman. Even in movies where the interracial relationships have a happy ending, there’s still a hierarchy that the relationship must abide by. In Save The Last Dance, Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles fall in love, but he’s the product of the hood and she’s the middle-class, Midwestern white girl. And then we have the show that has created a new buzz – Scandal. Yes, Kerry Washington is the undeniable star of the show. But of course, her relationship with Tony Goldwyn is an illegitimate one, an affair with the married fictional president of the United States. In other words, her character, Olivia Pope, is the white man’s whore.
That’s how the cookie seems to crumble when it comes to interracial interactions on-screen. So, on the surface, it seems as if racial tensions are no longer. And it’s true… as long as those interactions remain within a race-sex hierarchy that reinforces white supremacy. Interracial relationships are presented as either not being able to last or created under illegitimate or immoral circumstances. Even the good black characters have to be under the surveillance of a white overseer, which in turns means there’s still racial tension. Thus, when the white audience is watching TV and movies, or even the news, and see a black person being mistreated, they can assume that the black person had to be the one acting out of line because otherwise we interact in racial harmony, according to media. As a friend (@DopeBlackGuy) pointed out to me, Denzel Washington wins an Oscar for Training Day but not one for John Q, furthermore perpetuating the notion that our people are at our best when we’re at our worst. As long as we’re playing the role of crooked cops and maids, we are glorified.
Mass media is one of the most powerful tools of white supremacy. Consequently, to maintain our grip on our true reality, we must challenge that. You may not have money to make alternative films and shows, but you still have power. Boycott. Write letters. Talk about it. We can thus help find ourselves based in our actual reality, one that is humanely mediated.
This guest post is courtesy of Manushka Gracia-Desgage you can hit her up at @drnush.
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