That's So Raven: Why We Can't Dismiss Raven-Symonè's Latest Antics

By Saaraa Bailey

Many viewers of The Cosby Show fell in love with young Olivia, played by a pint-size Raven-Symonè. Fans often reminisce on her performance in a series of memes that circulate on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. However, the once nostalgic feelings once associated with Raven via Olivia (and That’s So Raven’s Raven Baxter) are long gone.

Earlier this year, Raven made headlines due to her comments agreeing with a comparison of First Lady Michelle Obama's looks to that of a monkey. This comment resulted in immediate gasps of disbelief to which she indifferently responded "some people look like animals," conceding with her own resemblance to a bird.

Now, there are two types of people who were offended by this comment. The first are those who found offense in the comparison between humans and animals. The second are those who found offense in the racial implications of Michelle's comparison and Raven’s cavalier disregard for racist comments that overtly offend both her and Michelle Obama. The first group of people mark the majority of society that shallowly conceptualize conflict. Said group are always ready and willing to solve conflict, but in their inability to fully comprehend the issues at hand, the solution never truly solves anything. The second group is insulted for the right reasons and bear the ability to truly address the conflict at hand.

The comparison of a Black woman to monkeys or to animals is a prevalent component in our past. Although absolutely beautiful, Black women are denied acknowledgement of their beauty in order to maintain the myth of white women as aesthetically superior. Thus, Raven's proclamation of Mrs. Obama's likeness to a monkey echoed what historic and much of contemporary society still believe of Black women. The exact same dynamic is present in her most recent statement.

Last week, Raven confessed that she wouldn't hire Black people with "ethnic" names. While co-host Whoopi Goldberg’s immediate shock mirrored the response of many watching, Raven's words sound exactly like her oppressor. Black folks traditionally faced discrimination for the color of their skin, facial features, body shape, speech, etc. Contemporary society discriminates against names like Jamal, Shakeesha and Monique that sound "too ethnic." While companies and hiring directors may claim their actions are an effort to maintain professionalism, the reason is deeper.

If we rewind to our parents’ generation or even further, Black people had names that sounded exactly like their oppressors. Gertrude, Mary, Emily, Alice and Catherine (to name a few) are the common names of many Black women born during and prior to the 1950s. In the 70s, 80s and after, black naming took a turn. There was an influx of Black women named Keisha, Shameka, and Gevonna. Say what you will about these names, but the move away from being named after your oppressors is a feat to evoke esteem, not embarrassment. It is through the bravery of black naming that Raven is "Raven-Symonè" and not "Rachel Sarah." It is her own ethnic sounding name that probably earned her an audition for The Cosby Show – the show that launched her career.

While it is easy to dismiss Raven's actions, there are a number of reasons that she may exhibit such behavior:

1. Exceptionalism and success: The latest domino to fall following Raven's words is an open letter from her father. Understanding that a parent's love is unconditional, the letter offers insight into just the kind of reasoning that raised Raven. The letter focuses on Raven as an individual, not as a Black woman. An individual who occasionally makes off the wall comments is worthy of forgiveness; however, a Black woman who uses her platform to deny her blackness entirely or discount her people rather than build them up is not. The focus on her "success" is also problematic. Raven has fame, fortune and fair skin, and if this is how her father defines success then it is no surprise that Raven refuses to see the error in her ways.

2. "New Black" syndrome: Contemporary society prides itself on the implementation of a "new blackness" wherein a famous person is Black in skin color only. This stance is taken in order to capitalize on the ability to fill any and all roles targeting Black people without being "too black" and warding off white folk.

3. The Stacey Dash Affect: During the 2012 Presidential campaign many of those in the Black community were shocked and insulted following Stacey Dash's endorsement of Mitt Romney and open disappointment in Obama's presidency. Her endorsement launched a series of other small-minded comments that made the 90s beauty a contemporary hot topic. Like Dash, Raven's prime was over a decade ago. So in seeing how Dash was afforded an opportunity to obtain relevancy in the foolish act of distancing herself from blackness, it is quite possible that Raven jumped on that same tune. Stacey Dash's comments have taken her many places. But while her behavior takes her from Clueless to correspondent, the one thing she is not taken is seriously. Raven's comments place her in the same dynamic, but she's seemingly exchanged a positive legacy for contemporary relevance.

In Raven's mind her success allows her to transcend the taboo nature of her blackness and sexual orientation. This, of course, is impossible, but as Franz Fanon says his book Black Skin, White Masks, the destination for Black people as an oppressed people is whiteness. This is true in cases like Raven, where the visibility granted in fame and fortune drifts her away from attributes that eternally marginalized her despite circumstance.

I have personally withdrawn my support from Raven following her declaration on Oprah's Where Are They Now series. During her interview, Raven attempted to exist beyond labels stating the now infamous line, "I am not African American." While I understand the desire to live beyond labels in terms of ones that bind those of African descent to Western influence, for all intents and purposes, I am an African in America, a Black woman. I understand that viewing the world through a "colorless" lens does not liberate me; it erases me. And despite the reasoning that lies beneath Raven's adopted perspective, it erases her too.

Photo: Joe Seer/

Saaraa Bailey is an adjunct writing instructor and the pen behind the perspective on

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