For a woman who has made a career out of her love for culture – and consumes so much of it – it would not make sense for me to continue to watch and read and listen to things that I do not relate to. I have been a middle-aged, straight white father and radio psychiatrist, a mid-twenties flaxen-haired masseuse (and full-time kook). I’ve been an unexpected star quarterback from a small, football-mad Texas town. With no qualms. It took no extra labour; it cost me no additional part of my humanity to imagine myself in those shoes, even as they were as far from my experience as it was possible to get: Frasier Crane, Phoebe Buffay, Matt Saracen. The me that I see in all of these characters is not immediately apparent, but it doesn’t take much for me to recognise in them something that already lives in me. You could argue that some of us, more than others, are forced to find that thing.
How do you recognise yourself, if you have never seen yourself? Is it “yourself” – i.e. the things that you know, sight unseen, that you are – that strike a chord? Or is it that you look around and see that nothing looks familiar, and conclude that you must therefore be somewhere in the absence?
Earlier this week, I published a piece that highlighted 14 UK-based make-up, hair, and fashion YouTubers. Every single person on that list was black. It was a deliberate choice, in the style of this post, in which BuzzFeed Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald compiled a list of contemporary American writers for readers to get stuck into. The aim was not to “trick” anyone into clicking through – the post did what it said on the tin: These women are UK vloggers, and their tips on hair, fashion, and make-up will likely transform your morning routine. But the comments were interesting – but only in the way they revealed the unchecked biases that we carry around, unarticulated but always there.
The reward for being able to identify yourself in a character is being granted permission to take part in the grander cultural conversations. A narrative is built on what we consider to be communal cultural property. “Ross and Rachel” (or “Tim and Dawn”, or “Nick and Jess”) is the shorthand for a classic TV “will they/won’t they” romance; the image of Ally McBeal tugs on a vestigial memory of nineties career girls; “the Mitchell brothers” conjures up family drama.
What we consider to be the benchmark, or even just a workaday example, tells us all we need to know about what is valued, but also what is considered “the norm”. If we can agree that something is universal, i.e. “Everyone gets this!”, what does it mean when someone doesn’t get it? Would you recognise, in the same contexts as above, if I had said “Whitley and Dwayne”, “Joan Clayton”, and “Hakeem, Jamal and Andre Lyon”?
The takeaway is this: Everything all-white is for everybody, but all-black things are reserved for black people (unless it is being Columbused as the “new” thing). When someone complains about being misled because the blackness of the list was not brought up, how do you answer? What do you come back with when someone concludes a comment with a phrase I have thought about many times since: “I just couldn’t relate”?
A few years ago, Cord Jefferson wrote an essay, Hipster Racism Runoff and the Search For the Black Constanza, in which he encapsulated the empathy gap that is brought to light in cases like these. “When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld,” he wrote, “we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.” It is a simple line that packs a punch, a reminder of the ways in which the world has been deliberately shaped, and who we are to imagine as the universal, the everyday and the extraordinary, the default. In every single case.
For the December 2010 issue, UK Marie Claire magazine did a make-up feature, “It’s Party Time”, in which they laid out looks for the party season ahead. The model – the sole model – used to illustrate the looks was Premier’s Leomie Anderson. Anderson is a dark-skinned black woman. “Dark skins should opt for an on-trend pewter grey,” the “Gunmetal Glam” tutorial instructed, “while fairer skins can work a more silver/putty shade.” For the black glitter look, readers were advised to “work foundation into the skin with a brush and use an illuminating concealer under the eyes.”
And that was it.
I kept that issue for four years. It was one of the few times I had seen a mainstream magazine include women like me in their beauty pages, and I never forgot it. For a brief moment, I was the default, not required to adapt the look to fit (as we’ve been urged to do, if we were acknowledged at all, by women’s magazines for years). I have been required to see myself in others – to relate – all my life. And in reading the comments beneath my post (and countless similar comments across the internet over the years), I was forced to ask: Is anyone asking any of these people – these self-identified white people – to do the same?
The question of representation in popular culture has, in the era of vocal fandoms and social media campaigns, come up with more regularity in recent years. Are there enough black nominees (and Academy voters) at the Oscars? Are black films ghettoised when it comes to distribution? Is the uptick in people of colour in the last few pilot seasons “too much of a good thing”? And that’s just in the mainstream. Elsewhere, we have seen content producers of so many hues find their audiences on non-traditional platforms – YouTube, streaming sites, and so on. Questioning the status quo, and seeking to make it more reflective of the world we inhabit takes work, and that work begins in being able to “relate”.
What is it that prevents people from seeing themselves in us? What is it that you see in us that so easily precludes this precious relatability? What do you think we so profoundly lack, that makes you shut down so comprehensively? So much so that something as innocuous as a make-up tutorial is enough for you to walk away wholesale? What makes our existence so extracurricular to yours? Why must our place as the norm be so hotly contested? Why should we hyphenate ourselves, introduce addendums, and signpost our presence? Why are we required to call ahead in the dark, to thwack the bushes, to make sure those who startle easy are aware of our coming?
For those who urged the inclusion of the word “black” in the headline of the beauty tutorial article, I want to ask: Do you require the lists elsewhere on the internet to include “white”, ever? Does “diversity” matter to you when these kinds of lists, and others, are populated entirely by white people, sporting “fair n silky hair” and “super pale palettes”? On how many posts have you felt the need to call for diversity, when those posts had black and brown faces sprinkled through them like stray beans in a pot of rice?
Here is a Langston Hughes poem:
I could tell you
If I wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.
But I don’t
Really want to -
And you don’t
Give a damn.
So there is nothing to be gained in explaining my blackness, not really. Much as I want to write “STOP DOING THIS” under each of these comments, I don’t. But I do have a tip: Next time you see a list of entirely black faces that didn’t come with a warning label, don’t ask why. Ask why not.
And find something you recognise in those faces. It’s one of the easiest things you can do.