Blackness and the Media: The Pitfalls of Colorblindness

by Kaila Philo

“I’m not African-American,” Raven said, in the now-infamous interview with Oprah, “I’m an American.”

Initially I, as many others on #BlackTwitter, jumped to calling Raven foolish, simple, or naive for shrugging off her blackness as if it played no part in who she is. While she’s lived in the Hollywood Bubble for virtually her entire life, she was still a major player in arguably one of the most important programs in black history, The Cosby Show. However, as I writer I began to understand why she’s so afraid (or possibly just tired) of being identified as a Black actress on Black TV shows.

In our white society, blackness can be limiting; it can swathe one in this indelible musk until it leaves nothing. In a sense, as Clover Hope noted in her Kendrick Lamar article for The Muse, blackness can be “overwhelming.”

But, isn’t “overwhelming blackness” inherently good? Yes and no. Overwhelming blackness can be considered good when it’s self-imposed and embraced as a facet of oneself; it can become the framework for who a person is without totally defining themselves as such. When a black person describes themselves as a such, they fully recognizes that this does not limit their personhood. Inversely, too often when a non-black person sees a black person as Black, they are forever seen as Black and nothing more. It suddenly becomes difficult to discern Blackness from multifaceted personhood. In an effort to seem less racist, many Americans embraced “colorblindness” because if they can’t fathom that a Black Person might enjoy Tchaikovsky or—better yet—be sentient, the concept of race itself must be the problem.

Raven seems to want to stray away from overt blackness in fear that it could and would shroud the entirety of her personality and flexibility as an artist. Despite popular belief, this is a valid fear perfectly encapsulated by ‘90s film and television, arguably the peak of inadequate racial representation and all-around bad screenwriting. I recently rewatched the famous teen flick She’s All That on Netflix.

(I have a slight fetish for incompetently-made-yet-widely-beloved teen movies, and She’s All That provided the relatively pleasant trip down memory lane I’d been hoping for.)

This time I noticed the same major flaw I’d noticed in Cruel Intentions, The Craft, and 10 Things I Hate About You. Nearly every black character was the token black guy.

In She’s All That, we’re privileged to several black characters including Dulé Hill as Preston, Gabrielle Union as Katie, Usher as the nameless campus D.J., and Lil Kim as Unnecessary Cameo Role #1. Preston is a secondary character as he plays Zack (Freddie Prinze, Jr) and Dean’s (Paul Walker) black friend. His first major line comes in the beginning, when the three discuss their spring break vacations while strolling campus as the opening credits appear on-screen. Soon, Dean spots Katie and her unnamed pal, played by Li’l Kim, and says “Well, well, well, check who’s back from spring break, lookin’ all fine and shit.” To this, Preston responds, “Dean, on behalf of every black person, shut up.”

This is the first of Preston’s approximately fives lines throughout the film. He reminds me all too much of Sean Patrick Thomas’s Ronald Clifford in 1999’s Cruel Intentions, in which he plays a cellist whose major function is to be the object of Christine Baranski’s racism. His defining trait is that he’s writing an opera about Dr. King. Imagine that.

To be fair, Union and Kim’s characters never mention their race in their few lines. Usher, who plays himself gets more lines than all three aforementioned black characters but never address race. There is another scene towards the end, however, in which two unnamed black characters freestyle on the Quad about who’s going to win Prom Queen. Imagine that.

I consider these boys—similar to Morris Chestnut’s character in American Horror Story—a version of the Magical Negro trope that’s born of cluelessness rather than contempt. It doesn’t matter that a man like Chestnut most likely would see no reason to go after Connie Britton—let alone sleep with her—and it doesn’t matter that a group of young black men wouldn’t even take notice to the Prom Queen race—let alone be engrossed by it—at a predominantly-white school. They are just there to further the white protagonist’s narrative, regardless of how real-life blacks would act when placed in similar circumstances.

And, of course, one could argue that all of the characters in these films were defined by some bland stereotype because they’re simply terribly-written. Fair enough, but Rachel Leigh Cook was not defined by her whiteness. Ryan Phillippe was not defined by his whiteness. Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Taissa Farmiga were not defined by their whiteness but their relatively one-note personalities. Not one of these listed characters reference or depend on their race through their bodies of work. I use teen movies as microcosms of more renown films with larger budgets and older audiences who, for a long time, followed the same damning formula. Lucius Fox, Kazaam, Oda Mae Brown, Uncle Remus—all variations of the Magical Negro trope in which, like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, their sole purpose in the film is to help you, White Protagonist. Whether or not their blackness is blatantly stated or wafted into their character like a fine musk, it aids not them but the white protagonists. A beautiful black man is here to steal your wife, Dylan McDermott. A friendly black woman is here to help you reach your love, Demi Moore. A kindly old Negro is going to inspire character growth, Miss Daisy.

Many of these films are still ingrained into the young public’s collective consciousness and ultimately have a negative effect on young blacks like me.

Luckily, there were the surprising few which either didn’t rely on race to define a black character or even addressed blacks’ identity crises at the time head-on. One may remember Stacey Dash’s character Dionne “Dee” Davenport in the 1995 Jane Austen adaptation Clueless. She’s less defined by her race than her money and could arguably be considered a much shallower interpretation of Alicia Silverstone’s Cher. She is less of a Black Friend and more of a supporting character, which was a start. On the other end, the late ‘90s-early ‘00s hit MTV show Daria opted not to talk down to their audience by addressing race directly through Jodie Landon, the overachieving star child who just couldn’t seem to overcome being black in her society. She could be considered the embodiment of Raven’s dilemma. As one of the only blacks in her city, she’s held up as what she calls the Queen of the Negroes as she, a star student and fashion model, and her (also black) footballer boyfriend are elected Homecoming King and Queen every year they’ve entered. Jodie is the extremely accurate black equivalent to Daria—just as perceptive but isn’t allowed the privilege of being imperfect because she, as a token, unofficially represents all blacks to her myopic community.

“At home, I’m Jodie,” she says in the episode ‘Gifted’, “I can say and do whatever feels right. But at school I’m Queen of the Negroes, the perfect African-American teen, the role-model for all the other African-American teens at Lawndale… believe me: I’d like to be more like you.”

Rather than attempt to ignore her race completely, however, Jodie goes the alternate route: in the series finale, she chooses to attend an HBCU to be surrounded with people like her and, ultimately, feel allowed to be herself. This solution to her identity crisis isn’t presented as the solution for all black youths looking for home. Jodie doesn’t provide answers but guidance in which one doesn’t need colorblindness to survive.

Photo: Tumblr
Daria became accidentally revolutionary in calling out its peers: teen shows and movies guilty of perpetuating the Black Guy trope. For a white-led show it even managed to satirize modern racism without succumbing to racism itself, Tina Fey.

Jodie shows one doesn’t have to ignore blackness to be considered a whole person. A nonblack person’s inability to see more than your race without ignoring it is not your problem but theirs. It is wholly possible to be black and an artist, student, or just a girl. Let the blackness overwhelm you!

Kaila Philo is a 20-year-old writer studying English and Philosophy in Baltimore, MD. She’s currently a contributing writer and editor for paprikah magazine. You can find her on Twitter: @kailanthropy.

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