As I get older and wiser (all 21 years and six months), I’ve come to realize that although I am an American, America (or my country) was not made for me. This land of the free was made on the backs of my ancestors who did not enjoy such freedoms. Having grown up in mostly white environments and choosing to attend a predominantly white university, I’ve become accustomed to being the only black girl in the room. My norm is either being singled out as the point person to explain race or feeling that people don’t want to speak about race around me. My norm is being put in awkward or uncomfortable situations where people might comment on my complexion, make intrusive inquiries about how I choose to wear my hair, or objectify the bodies of those who look like me. Even more so, I’ve become painfully aware of how society arbitrarily picks and chooses when to uplift black women, put them down, profit off of them, then push them aside. This can be observed in how society co-opts black culture, and in the lack of positive representations of black women in the media.
For example, in 2015 Allure came under fire for their hair tutorial “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro,” which depicted a white model wearing an Afro hairstyle. As Essence Grant of BuzzFeed points out, critics were not just upset over the fact that a white model was used in the place of a black one. While the picture was featured in their “Retro Modern” section and labeled as a fearless style, Allure failed to point out that the Afro was “worn [by black women] during the American Civil Rights era as a symbol of black pride and a protest for equality.” And even today, if a black woman chooses to wear her natural hair or other cultural styles like Senegalese twists, box braids or Bantu knots, she is seen as ghetto or unprofessional in mainstream society. Nevertheless, the celebrities like the Kardashians have built an empire appropriating black culture and making it a fad. Kim with her “boxer braids” (Corn Rows) and faddish full lips, along with her sisters Kylie and Khloe have systematically stolen from black creatives. Let’s not forget Kylie and Khloe’s appropriation (or alleged theft) of designs from independent black designers this past year. The characteristics listed above society attributes to the Kardashians and celebrates, while at the same mocking and degrading black women for having the same characteristics or wearing the same styles inclusive to their own culture.
Take the characteristics of having a big butt as the grand example. Kim Kardashian’s 2014 “Break the Internet” photo shot by Jean-Paul Goude for Paper Magazine, where she stands in a long sparkling evening gown while balancing a glass of champagne on her rear, evoked much controversy because of its racial undertones. The photo which received wide acclaim was a recreation of the 1976 “Carolina Beaumont, New York” photo, also shot by Goude. The original photo depicts a black woman, naked, balancing a champagne glass on her rear in a similar fashion to Kardashian. On the surface, it may look like Kardashian is paying homage to a classic art piece, but the original “Carolina Beaumont, New York” photo appeared in the book Jungle Fever, a collection that animalized and fetishized black women’s bodies (ahem, look at the name of the book).
In addition, the Kardashian magazine cover has been compared to that of the early 19th-century figure Sarah Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman, born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, was lured to Europe under false pretenses and exhibited as a “freakshow” for white audiences because of her large buttocks. Baartman faced exploitation, degradation, and abuse, and can be seen as an early example of the commodification and exoticization of black women for societal consumption.
But why does this matter? A 2013 study conducted by Essence found that although black women might have some scant representation in the media, it is overwhelmingly negative. In surveying 1,200 people, Essence found that black women are most often perceived by categories such as “Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies”. So while the number of shows casting actors of color might have increased in recent years, communication scholar Carole Bell, in an interview with WBGH, suggests that many forms of media perpetuate mixed and/or problematic images of black women. For example, reality TV shows often portray a monolithic representation, and don’t always show the “breadth of African American womanhood”. Bell asserts that it is important to have a diversity and a multiplicity of images and voices within the media.
With these issues in mind, creatives like podcast hosts Amira Rasool, Sophie Williams and Tyler Okuns of the podcast Black Girls Being are making strides towards providing a voice to and changing the narrative about young black women in America. Rasool, a freelance writer and masters student; Williams, a journalism student; and Okuns, a fashion assistant and Credits Editor at Allure (according to her Instagram bio) come together weekly to “accentuate and celebrate the multifaceted lives of young black women in America”. Labeling each episode “BGB [insert X],” Rasool and friends highlight a different topic each week, ranging from colorism and dating to hair, pop culture, and current events. Although their perspectives may differ, their message and purpose is clear. They examine what it means to be a young black woman in America by drawing upon their own personal experiences to create a diverse and colorful narrative. To be completely honest, I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective they present (for example, their discussion on the N-word, black-elitism, etc.) but I listen in order to challenge even my own beliefs as a young black woman.While the podcast is clearly targeted towards young black women, anyone can benefit from listening. The existence of a podcast like BGB attempts to challenge the media (as a result of society’s) misrepresentation and underappreciation of black women. Therefore, listen, challenge your own beliefs, and perhaps learn a little.
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