(Mis)Representation of Black Women in Media

I attended the event “Black Women’s Cultural (In) Visibility” from the Discussion Series: The Black Present and Presence — coordinated by Professor Chanson Miller, and sponsored by the Humanities Center at the University of San Diego. The discussion series explores the origins and progress of Black: languages and lingos, communal traditions, bodily performances, and spatial constructions; and beyond and where they can be found in our present time. It consists of presentations by speakers talking about their experiences of being Black individuals in the present day. Contrary, the “Black Women’s Cultural (In)Visibility”, focused on the experience of Black women in today’s society. The speakers at this event were: assistant professor at the Copley Library, V. Dozier and program supervisor, SOLES and Student Affair, Khalia li, Ph.D. Candidate. The program explores how Black women have been misrepresented in and by the dominant white society in the United States. People of historically privileged backgrounds have co-opted or stolen Black women’s thoughts and works, especially white women scholars who benefit from Black women’s intellectual labor. In the media, Black women’s characteristics, particularly their hair, have been criticized and belittled. Black women utilize social media and “call and response” to fight back.
Professor Dozier spoke about Black women’s work has been co-opted or stolen and how the rise of social media, Twitter, in particular, has given Black women a space to respond and resist this oppression. The first example that Professor Dozier gives is Kylie Jenner’s nails. She talks about how white women like to take on parts of Black women’s features without giving them credit for it. White women like to wear Black women’s nails, but don’t want the struggles that come with being a Black woman in today’s society. Without Black women given credit for their work, their work is being overlooked and neglected. Another example of white women stealing the ideas of Black women is Jennifer M. Buck and her book “Bad and Boujee”. Though the book centers on Black women’s experiences and aims to give voice to the Black women’s communities that have been marginalized, the “Bad and Boujee” is not written by a Black woman. Instead, the book is written by a white theology professor, who fails to credit the Black women, on whom she based her book on.
Black women deserve to have their voices heard and their work represented and Professor Dozier suggests that “Black Twitter” may be a good tool to do so. Black Twitter can be used as a tool to amplify the power and voices of Black women in a way that they can interact with the audience both ways. Twitter threads are an example of the “Call and Response” idea, which has been used since the times of slave ships. Dozier illustrates a Twitter thread like a trope in church, where the father gives a call to which people are asked to respond. The difference between the two is that on Twitter, anyone can give a call and start a discussion. The use of Twitter by Black women has been stereotyped as “angry black woman ranting”, however, what many people don’t realize is that Black women and Black Twitter are what is keeping Twitter as a whole afloat. Twitter threats also reminded me of the religious ritual “Ring Shout”, developed by slaves in the West Indies and North America that involved “forming a circle and shuffling counterclockwise while singing and praying” (371, White et. al). Black Twitter is community-centered around Black culture. In a way Twitter is similar to the Black church; it provides a voice for the voiceless and allows for greater opportunity. In the book “Freedom on My Mind” by Deborah Gray White, Black church is defined as “a term often used to indicate the centrality of black religious congregations in African life. Traditionally, the church serves as an educational, social, and civil rights center as well as a place of worship. This does not, however, indicate that all black people attend the same church or belong to the same denomination” (1026, White et. al). The black church gave Black people a place to worship God but also offered services such as job training programs, education, and a place for community gatherings. Black churches, especially their pastors, advocated for racial equality. Black Twitter is in particular similar to the invisible church; “groups of African American slaves who met in secret Christian worship” (370, White et. al). Most people don’t know about Black Twitter until they are a part of it. Black Twitter allows Black women to stick up for themselves and their work. It allows them to call people out. Something that stood out to me that Dozier said was that women are as self-sustaining, researched, and used as the rainforest, people want their rhythm but not their blues. What this means is that people want what’s good use to them, but not the challenges that come with it. Women want Black women’s nails but not the struggles that come with being a Black woman. People want Black women’s hair, but only when it’s in braids, which connects to the second speaker of the event, Khalia Li.
Khalia Li spoke about the challenges that she faced regarding her features as a Black woman, her hair in particular. In the dominant white society that we live in, natural Black hair sticks out and there are a lot of misconceptions made regarding a Black woman’s hair. Because white is the dominant, Black women are often not represented or misrepresented. What this does is make Black women feel like their natural features are not beautiful because they are different from the ideals. Khalia Li uses herself as an example and how as a little girl she was never satisfied with the way her hair looked. Because Black women have been ridiculed and misrepresented in the media for their features, many of the representations are incorrect. In her presentation, Khalia Li shares an informational video by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry debunking the myths about Black women’s hair. Black women are often subjected to societal pressures and norms to tame down the beauty that their hair brings. For example, a lot of people make assumptions regarding weaves and wigs. Not all Black women wear weaves and they do not wear them just because they don’t like their hair. People don’t have to make comments about a Black woman’s hair unless it is a genuine compliment. Historically, Black women have put a lot of effort into their hair. They can have straight, curly, wavy, long, or short hair. At the end of the video, Harris-Perry says “there is nothing dreadful about dreadlocks, they’re also not a sign that someone smells or smokes marijuana and, by the way, they’re locks, not dreads and a black woman who chemically straightens her hair is not trying to be white”. On the other hand, white women want to wear their hair braided as Black women do. The problem isn’t with the hairstyle itself but rather with the idea that Black women are not given credit for it. Braids are something that has been worn for a long time as a way to represent different Black communities and that has to an extent become a tradition. Braiding is a process that takes hours of work and therefore its creators deserve to be recognized. Without recognition, braids are like a painting without a signature. Similar to Dozier’s example of Kylie Jenner wanting Black women’s nails, white women want Black women’s braids, but neither want the problems that a black woman has to face.
Issues like the misrepresentation of Black women need to be addressed to get rid of the negative stereotypes and connotations of Black women. In a text, “That’s Not Me I See on TV…: African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females” by Adam-Bass, Bentley-Edwards, and Stevenson, I learned that youth may not blindly accept media image as representative of the reality (Adams-Bass, Bentley-Edwards, & Stevenson, 2014). Cognitive processing affects youth’s ability to interpret media. Hypothetical reasoning also allows teens to understand the messages behind the media. This is important because the way they interpret Black women in their youth will impact their perception in the future. When thinking about the issue of misrepresentation, I also thought back to watching the documentary “Ethnic Notions”. In the past, one of the stereotypical interpretations has been the cartoon character “Mammy”. Mammy is a larger Black woman with her hair tucked into a scarf as a way to make her appear as less than a white woman. Mammy was a happily obedient lady, loyal to the white family that she served. Mammy was shown in this light to avoid posing a threat to White Supremacy. For a long time, the misrepresentation of Black women was a means for white people to feel superior, which led to clichéd interpretations such as “angry black women.” Today’s media, such as Twitter, has allowed all Black women to be acknowledged for who they truly are, dispelling the media’s false perceptions. Black women are so much more than servants; they have the right to be anyone they choose and deserve to be acknowledged for who they are and what they have accomplished.
In conclusion, the stories of Professor Dozier and Khalia Li from “Black Women’s Cultural (In) Visibility” from the Discussion Series: The Black Present and Presence, helps our understanding of African American history by showing us how Black women have been misrepresented in and by the dominant white society in the United States. Black women’s portrayal in the media has played an important role in shaping how people interpret them. From the character, Mammy to the “angry black woman”, to the idea that Black women straighten their hair to be like white women are all stereotypes that have been brought upon us through the use of media. Black women have been not only misrepresented in the media but have also been robbed of their ideas. The “Call and Response” idea has been used on Twitter as well as other media platforms as a way for Black women to resist these stereotypes and call people out for abusing their work and themselves. Though the media has played a significant role in the misrepresentation and perception of Black women, it can also be used to refute these misconceptions and empower individuals who have not been adequately represented. Because media has become ingrained in our everyday lives, it is a powerful instrument for promoting more positive and realistic images of Black women and Black people in general. It is a tool that may be used to further our education and understanding of African American culture. Future generations will be able to comprehend and perceive Black women appropriately, rather than as the stereotypes that have been attributed to them.

 

References:

Dozier, V. and Ii Khalia, “The Black Present and Presence” Saints and Serra Hall University of San Diego, San Diego, California

Riggs, M. (Director). (1987). Ethnic Notions [Documentary]. California Newsreel.

Valerie N. Adams-Bass, Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Howard C. Stevenson; That’s Not Me I See on TV . . . : African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females. Women, Gender, and Families of Color (2014); 2 (1): 79–100. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5406/womgenfamcol.2.1.0079

White, D. G., Bay, M., & Martin, W. E. (2021). Freedom on my mind: A history of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins

 

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