Why Do Black Women's Lives Only Matter When We're Entertaining on TV?

by Kesiena Boom 

The success of television shows such as Empire—starring Taraji P. Henson as the inimitable, indomitable, and downright inspirational Cookie Lyon—and How To Get Away With Murder—headed by Viola Davis in all her stony, complex wonder—has demonstrated irrefutably that the public is interested in tuning into stories driven by and exploring the many-layered lives of Black women. The ratings for the former did the impossible and grew without fail every week of its first season, an accomplishment that would be notable even if it didn’t star a Black woman and feature an almost entirely Black cast.

The renewed enthusiasm for television that actually reflects the demographics of the U.S. has been taken by some as demonstrative of the way in which we are close to, or are currently living in a post-racial society. (I say renewed enthusiasm, because the golden age of television for Black folks was arguably the 90s and early 2000s, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Keenan & KelSister, Sister, and My Wife & Kids.) Obviously this is wishful thinking of the highest order, and if anything the increased appetite for Black women as entertainment is indicative of the continued use of Black women as means to an end, rather than us being viewed as ends in ourselves.

The fact remains that white people (and sometimes Black men) are happy to see us grappling with drama and despair on television, and will get emotionally invested in our fabricated narratives, but are unable to transfer this sympathy and depth of feeling to the actuality of our lives. These shows are not the problem, and their existence is imperative for Black women who are starved of decent representation, but their popularity in the context of a society that is racist and patriarchal and deeply unconcerned with the health and wellbeing of Black women feels like a small kick in the teeth.

The truth is that whatever happens to Black women, it’s just never given the same attention as is garnered by white women and Black men. The only people continually rallying for Black women are other Black women. That’s the way it is. In my most maudlin moods, I increasingly understand that this is the way that things will always be. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we shout, scream, cry, and plead; our humanity is just not recognized and respected.

This is apparent when examining black women who have been victims of police brutality. By now, the awareness around the ways in which state-sanctioned violence is meted out with impunity against Black Americans is high, even if the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. If anything the situation is worsening, with the death toll for civilians at the hands of the police for 2015 alone standing at 373 as of 25th April, and we can assume a disproportionate number of these victims were Black or Brown.

But of those we have lost, how many can people name that are Black women? It is the Eric Garners and Freddie Grays and Thaddeus McCarrolls and Walter Scotts who are afforded an outpouring of community grief and remembrance from Black folks, and who at least have cursory, fleeting mainstream media attention.

What about Natasha McKenna, restrained and then unnecessarily tased until she died?

What about Tanisha N. Anderson, killed in a physical struggle with officers?

What about Aiyana Jones who was just SEVEN-DAMN-YEARS-OLD when she was slaughtered as she slept on the sofa?

What about any of the other Black women and girls who have fallen or been injured at the hands of the police force? Whilst it is overwhelmingly Black men that are slain by officers, it does our sisters disservice to ignore the fact that their Blackness was a part of them being treated despicably, ultimately costing them their lives. This month, Black women were reminded that they are still disregarded and unimportant when only around a hundred people showed up to march for Rekia Boyd (in comparison to the thousands who shut down the streets for Eric Garner), who was shot and killed whilst chatting with friends in a park by an off-duty officer who was acquitted of all charges.

It was three Black women who created #BlackLivesMatter in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Let me repeat that, it was BLACK WOMEN who began the movement that has galvanized people across the country and highlighted one of the most important human rights issues of the moment. Can you imagine men doing the same in response to the death of a woman?

Discussions of rape and sexual assault also commonly ignore the fact that 18.8% of Black women will be raped in their lifetimes, as will 24.4% of mixed race women (many of whom are also Black). This compares to 14.8% of American women in general enduring the same violence and just 3% of American men. Where is the recognition in anti-rape campaigns that this form of assault is not just an all women’s issue, but manifests specifically along racial lines? (The rates for Indigenous American women are even worse than for Black women.) Is it because Black women have historically been seen as lacking in innocence and purity? Is it because secretly men think we deserve it? Is it because it’s easier to commit atrocities against those whom you regard as less than human?

This is the reality of what racism and patriarchy has done to people’s psyches. If people are able to feel sorry for Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder because she is a survivor of sexual abuse, but are unable to frankly and honestly confront the racialized misogyny that feeds into the rape of real life Black women, then there is still work to be done.

When we consider the addition of another axis of oppression—in the case of transgender Black women—the facts are even more sobering. The apathy around cisgender (non-trans) Black women’s deaths and struggles turns to vitriol when it is transgender women in the spotlight. I have previously written about the waves of fatal violence that Black trans women face. The visibility and popularity of Laverne Cox as an actress on Orange Is The New Black does not erase the fact that she, and women like her, walk a dangerous line in a society that is wedded blindly to archaic and restrictive ideas of gender. Trans women face a cis-normative (meaning, the assumption that being cisgender is normal, correct and the only possibility) culture that sees trans-ness as a spectacle and something to be poked at and probed by cis people. There is a wave of trans women centered programming coming to TV soon, including some featuring black trans women, and whilst this is a great first step, it’s important that folks’ support of said women doesn’t begin and end with consuming their lives for entertainment, without actively tackling (racialized) transmisogny in their day-to-day lives.

Black women can’t catch a break, in short. Black women deserve so much more than being chewed up and spat out by society whilst simultaneously being relied upon to provide entertainment and relief. We need white people and Black men to feel compassion for us in the same way that we are capable of doing for them.

I am not the first person to say this, and I will not be the last: Until people start listening and actively changing their prejudiced and hurtful behavior, we refuse to be silent.

Photo: Viola Davis as Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder via ABC.com

Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood, and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty years old. She is a regular contributor at For Harriet and has also written for Autostraddle.com. You can tweet at her via @KesienaBoom.

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