Why seeing black people on TV is good for white people everyone.
I don’t remember much from when I was 7-years-old, but I do remember that when I was in the second grade, I was told by one of my white “friends” after an argument that she now understood why some don’t like black people. It’s probably something that I will never forget. I remember being so upset, but not understanding why. Now that I am older, I think about that statement and wonder how she came to understand and agree with discrimination and segregation after what was probably an argument about which Bratz Doll was the prettiest (obviously, I said Sasha). How did she turn a black history month MLK day “I Have a Dream” lesson into a the white people were right all along understanding?
I grew up in the suburbs … like … I was the only black kid my age in my neighborhood. I was probably the first black person her age she had ever had a real interaction with, and she obviously didn’t like it. I think about this statement every day, but I don’t hold anything against this girl. She was a kid. In fact, we’re friends on Facebook, now, and she probably doesn’t even remember making that statement. I don’t fault her for making a statement based off the things that she saw on TV or heard her parents say. When I think back to what I was watching in elementary school, the only black person I remember seeing on TV is the auntie clown from the Big Comfy Couch. Then, a little later, came That’s So Raven and The Proud Family. I’m not sure what she was watching at home, but I’m sure it included white-washed sitcoms like Friends or Full House. If that’s what she was watching, she didn’t have much to reference when it came to black people, and that was not completely her fault.
I didn’t have many models that looked like me on television in my younger years. So I began to model my behavior based off the people on TV who looked like the people around me. For a while, I wanted to be just like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. It wasn’t just the fact that she was a princess, but my desire delved even into her whiteness. She was so beautiful to me; she had hair that was easy to comb through, her skin was pale and fair, and she had small lips. Everything that made me beautiful as a black girl was what I hated about myself. I didn’t realize it before, but it was because of the people I was surrounded by and the things I was watching on television. If Google, computers, and cell phones had been what they are today when I was little, I could imagine myself Googling, How to make my skin lighter, or, How to be pretty like a white girl.
I had a complex. I thought I was ugly, but not because I actually was.
I thought I was ugly because I was black.
My standard of beauty was being white. I would look in the mirror and would resent my kinky hair that everyone asked to touch or my big lips that kids would pooch their own out so that they could make fun of me. The moment my mom let me get a relaxer for my hair, I jumped on it. I would stay out of the sun in the summer because I noticed that kids wouldn’t talk to me as much during the first few months of school simply because I was darker. I remember trying to suck my lips in (like … how do you even do that?).
“Most people have simply been conditioned to think a certain way; and that’s a major component of privilege. More often it’s nurture rather than nature.”
But I now know I am not the only black girl to go through this from, and a great part of that lesson came from watching shows like Dear White People. But even then, not even a full decade ago, I felt incredibly isolated because there wasn’t representation like that for people like me. Thankfully, little black toddlers now can watch Doc McStuffins and aspire to be a doctor like the show’s titular character. Black teenagers can watch Yara Shahidi in Grownish, Zendaya in KC Undercover, or China McClain in Black Lightning and see black, smart, and beautiful people who are successful and living their best lives. There are shows like Insecure that allow them to feel silly and unsure about the direction of their lives that examine the insecurities black adults and young adults face; or She’s Gotta Have It, which allows black women to explore their sexuality without the fear of being condemned. Black people—women, men, trans, cis, nonbinary, gay, straight, bi … all of us!—have someone to model ourselves after that doesn’t involve changing the best parts of blackness.
Television is such a large and integral part of our modern society. Everybody has at least one show that they love to watch. While people are watching, subconsciously they are creating an understanding of people whether they look like them or not. Until recently (and even some still), black people on television were only available to perpetuate stereotypes. They were the loud and sassy best friends, or the sketchy unpaid extra walking down the alleyway. But in most cases, they were nonexistent. I, for one, love the show Criminal Minds, because who doesn’t love Shemar Moore? Almost every single one of those serial killers were white males. I, however, do not go through life thinking that every white male I see is a serial killer (well … mostly). So, if I, as an educated black woman, can take the time to differentiate between television and reality, why can’t everyone else? For non-people of color (read: white folks), it’s not always their fault. Most people have simply been conditioned to think a certain way; and that’s a major component of privilege. More often it’s nurture rather than nature.
I love to tell my friends that Shonda Rhimes tricked white people into loving Greys Anatomy so that she could create a platform for herself. She created this show that was seemingly about a white woman becoming a surgeon. But here’s the gag:
The chief of surgery? Black.
The best resident in the hospital that eventually becomes chief of surgery? Black.
The chief of cardiovascular surgery? Midnight black.
Black people pretty much run that hospital; and no one has anything negative to say because it’s a show about a white girl falling in love. Right?
Through Rhimes’s platform which she received from creating Grey’s, she has gone on to create and executive produce shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder—both led by strong, black women. Then, taking Shonda’s lead, Lee Daniels created Empire, and then Star. Soon, Kenya Barris created Black-ish, then its later spin-off, Grownish. Shonda became and remains a trailblazer when it comes to making black people relatable enough for white people to watch on television. Issa Rae, creator of HBOs Insecure (and whom even collaborated with Shonda after the success of her YouTube series), said that she created shows like Awkward Black Girl and Insecure to make black people relatable. It is a sad reality that black people need to be made to be relatable, but that’s the world in which we live. Society has created a long list of negative stereotypes about the black community; and sadly not very many stereotypes are ever positive. The idea is that black people are loud, or ghetto, or criminals, or that they only speak in Ebonics, or they are sketchy and dangerous, especially at night. And the list doesn’t end there.
Sadly, some white people that I know believe that these stereotypes don’t exist anymore, or they believe black people are being dramatic when we talk about white privilege or the oppression and discrimination of black and brown people. But can I just say that I recently went to a job interview and the interviewer, who was white, told me that she was surprised by how put together and well-spoken I was. She’s probably not a racist and I am not accusing her of that, but she does in some capacity engage in the stereotypes that society has created for black people to be surprised that I spoke in full sentences. Have you ever heard of something called the Dog-Whistle Effect, or even Dog-Whistle Politics? Both are variants of coded language that might sound as though it means one thing to a general (again, read: white) audience, but that is actually layered in derogatory language. It’s often used in politics when talking about women, people of color, the LGBTQIA community, and other minorities. The name comes from the effect that a dog whistle has on dogs vs. people. Dogs can hear it because the frequency of the sound is far above what is audibly discernible to humans. Considering the latter part of that statement, humans can’t hear the whistle. The same idea applies to this sort of coded speech. When the interviewer said that she was surprised by how well-spoken I was, it may have sounded like a compliment to any white male sitting in the room. But to another black person, they would have reacted to the same high-frequency whistle I had. And it’s because, even without realizing it, everyone engages in stereotypes, because society is a bitch. But seeing black people on TV and in the media in contrast to these stereotypes allows non-black people to somewhat look past stereotypes and see black people in a positive light, even if it’s just for a minute.
Right now, you can turn on primetime television and see black people represented in so many ways. Some ways still perpetuate stereotypes for a laugh, but mostly it’s just satire. By participating in these stereotypes, they aren’t mocking black people. They’re holding up a mirror to the people who believe these stereotypes and are saying, “Look at how ridiculous you are for buying into this shit.” There are so many examples of black family, black friendship, and black leadership. Black television allows a deeper understanding of black culture, and that is what is needed most in the world right now: and understanding of things and people that may be different from you. I am so glad that my little sister gets to grow up in this era where being black is starting to be normalized and not something to be ashamed of. We are no longer the ghetto best friend or the sketchy hooded man in the alleyway. We are smart and handling things like Olivia Pope, sassy but strong-willed like Zoey Johnson, beautiful like Nola Darling, and a little insecure like Issa Dee.
As minorities, we are starting to get our representation. But until others begin to engage in the education of that representation, we still have an awfully long way to go before …
Below is a list of television shows where black people are represented in many ways. If you are black and looking for yourself in mainstream media, or if you’re not black and want more of an understanding of the culture, here is a good place to start:
Insecure – HBO | Black-ish -ABC/Hulu | Grownish – Freeform/Hulu | Dear White People –Netflix | The Mayor – Hulu | She’s Gotta Have It – Netflix | Scandal-ABC/Hulu/Netflix | How to Get Away with Murder – ABC/Hulu/Netflix | Greenleaf – OWN/Netflix | Empire –FOX/Hulu | Star – FOX/Hulu | Queen Sugar – Hulu | Atlanta – FX/Hulu | Being Mary Jane –BET/Netflix | Marlon – NBC/Hulu | The Chi – Showtime | Power – Starz/Hulu | Black Lightning – The CW | Loosely Exactly Nicole – Facebook
This is not a complete list of TV shows that have black representation. This is just what has been released and impacted me recently. If you want more, start with a 90’s sitcom, there are many to choose from, and no wrong choice.