Complementary to my discussion on the importance of looking at whiteness based on Richard Dyer’s text White: Essays on Race and Culture, I am now going to briefly analyse blackness in media and look at a few ways in which the “othering” of blackness is being tackled in the present day.
The position of black people in films and various media is still finding its way out of the confines of the image. The image being our conditioned perception of black people. We are not born with this perception. It is entirely learned from imagery passed on by our predecessors. The way in which we perceive things determines our understanding of them and therefore determines how we respond to them.
Although rooted in the past, culture is ever-changing, constantly undergoing transformation. We all come into this world the same way, we are constructed of the same biology and the small differences in our physical features are meaningless without our knowledge of human history. Independently of history, these physical features do not determine our identities. “Identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned, or position ourselves, within the narrative of our past.” (Hall, 1991)
In Black Looks: Race and Representation, Bell Hooks explains that “we are always in the process of remembering the past even as we create new ways to imagine and make the future.” (Hooks, 1992)
Racial equality implies that we each have the opportunity to define our identities independently of the history of our racial groups. As a young black South African woman living post-apartheid I would like to say that I have the opportunity to create my own identity, outside of the confines of Apartheid laws and black oppression. However, because all racial and cultural identities come from history, the struggle of black people during apartheid is an inherent part of my identity. It is taken into account when determining various aspects of my character and even my future.
As a black person, the history of people who look like you is an inherent part of your identity. We are conditioned to refer to black people of the past as “our people” even though we never met them and did not share their experiences. The struggle of this generation of black people is not of slavery but of imagery. Imagery and conditioning was used to “other” black people during that era and that medium is still in play today. This is why the general voice of the black community is constantly in active opposition to the image that is projected onto us. We are in the process of shaping our identity. From the day a black person is born, they are placed into a category with a predetermined set of rules. It is then up to them to challenge that ‘status quo’. Therefore black people cannot create their own identity, they can only transform it.
“Challenged to rethink, insurgent black intellectuals and/or artists are looking at ways to write and talk about race and representation, working to transform the image.” (Hooks, 1992)
Viola Davis often speaks about the pressure she felt when approached to play the lead role in a television series where, as a dark-skinned woman, she would have the opportunity to play a sexualised character, which is not very popular in today’s public perception of what a sexualised lead role should be. She also often talks about her conscious effort not to perpetuate the stereotype of what a black woman is perceived to be when playing this role. This same opinion has been expressed by other actors, writers and film/TV producers of colour working today, e.g. Kerry Washington, Aziz Ansari, Shonda Rhimes, Justin Simien and many more.
The gist of it all is that image is everything. The closer the image of blackness is to normalization, the closer we are to true equality and authentic representation.
Hooks, B. (1992) ‘Revolutionary Attitude.’ in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press pp. 1-6
Hall, S. (1991) ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities.’ In King, A. (ed.) Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 44