There’s been a Great Awakening in America in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
In every corporate, entertainment, and media C-suite, executives and decision makers have miraculously become aware of the mistreatment and invisibility of African-Americans and are looking for ways to make amends. The method most have agreed on is using social media interns to post somber messages of support for Black lives and sending conscience money to organizations with the word “Black” in their names, along with capitalizing the “B” in Black when referring to African-Americans. These are wonderful gestures. But except for Ben & Jerry’s, Alexis Ohanian and a handful of voice actors, the power structure hasn’t taken much direct action beyond performing wokeness and anyone in that sphere who truly desires change is in danger of being misled, depending on who they listen to.
Long before this recent Great Awakening, after the death of another Black male at the hands of law enforcement, there was a renewed conversation about Black people being underrepresented in mass media. Since that time, there’s been an explosion of creative work with Black people in front of and behind the camera. But a lot of this work seems centered around Black people’s relationship to white people, or caricatures of Black culture written by Black people who don’t really know Black American culture.
Content like Slave Play, 2 Dope Queens, blackAF, Bob Loves Abishola, and Harriet is stuff that most Black people can’t identify with, and seems to be written for a very specific audience: Black people who work in media and are learning about their Blackness along with their white colleagues. You can feel the cultural disconnect in the work of Black creatives from this background. And since the people who greenlight these projects only see skin and don’t know any better, they sell it to the rest of us as “our cultural voices.”
Nowhere is this sort of cultural disconnect seen more keenly than cable news. Whenever there’s a racial uprising in America, cable news producers scramble to bring in a designated “Negro Whisperer” to explain Black anger in a non-threatening way to assure their viewers that everything is fine and will soon go back to normal. These are overwhelmingly academics who spend most of their time with theory and as little time as possible around the poor and working-class people they presume to represent with the result being talking points full of vague, outdated analysis of Black struggle designed to make white liberals feel good and doesn’t threaten the Black academic’s chances of getting tenure.
Politics isn’t much different. If you check all the identity boxes you can support the most anti-Black, neocolonialist, and elitist policies provided you can dance on beat and namecheck a couple of popular hip-hop artists. It’s a tactic that far too many Black politicians have used, expecting to get the Black vote while providing nothing in the way of policy for their proclaimed core voting bloc.
What all this adds up to is the voices of poor and working-class Black people being drowned out by Black opportunists allowing themselves to be used as shields for the white power structure. The white liberal in media and government gets to feel good about “listening to a Black voice” that is actually disconnected from Black voices and allowed to do the rounds of televised town halls and “conversations about race” that have been going on since the 1950’s with no real discussions about how to solve the problem.
The idea of representation has become an obsession that overshadows the reality. What good is it to have a few Black faces working in a building that someone else owns? White men still sign the checks and write the words that come out of the mouths of Black talent. There seems to be a deep fear among “good white folk” of authentic representations of Black expression or Black anger reaching the masses. This is extremely dangerous. White America learns nothing, Black America goes ignored, or a handful reap token benefits until the next racial explosion that could have been avoided by honest dialogue happens and the cycle continues.
There’s no one way to tell a story. But what if we gave that support to creatives and scholars who truly represent us?
Black Twitter has the power to make anything successful that it puts light on. The current global outrage at police brutality wouldn’t exist without Black people documenting it. Black creatives are making content with smartphones that are better than network shows. The entertainment industry and news media know this. Film studios and sitcom writers lurk and data mine social media for content and Black Twitter is keeping at least 10 online magazines and TV shows in operation. For free.
All stories are valid but making stories vetted by one or two white-adjacent gatekeepers the standard for the rest of us is a mistake. Media in all its forms is America’s most powerful export. But if the Black people chosen to represent us don’t really identify with us, what images will represent us in the world?