By: Mia Brantley

Recently I was sitting in my office, writing an email, and I overhear a young white woman crying right outside of my office.  I begin to quickly learn via her conversation that she is a student doing poorly in her courses, and she is venting this to her parents.  As her conversation continues, I immediately stop and shudder over the next sentence I hear her say something to the effect of, “…this stupid Black b**** is the reason I am failing.”  Even though she was not referring to me, she was referring to someone close to me; someone who is, other than myself, the only Black woman in the department.  The Black woman she refers to, not only has a Ph.D. from an institution that is considered top in the country for her field, but she has published research in top journals and is overall a brilliant woman; however, you would not know that from the student’s conversation because this brilliant woman was stripped down to merely a skin color and a derogatory term.  Not only that, but the student said this in an open area, outside of an office where she should be able to clearly see me, a Black woman, at my desk.  This was the moment when I realized she could not see me…because she had already stripped me down as well.  To her, I was invisible.

This event comes on the heels of the now infamous comments made towards Maxine Waters and April Ryan.  How these two women were not only silenced as they provided thought-provoking and intelligent questions and comments but were also humiliated, led me into a spiral of thoughts about times where influential and respected women were, not only shut down but silenced in media.  We have seen a number of times on CNN where Angela Rye will be in the process of providing facts and gathering wigs, and then someone will not only interrupt her, as if what she is saying is unimportant, but then will attempt to strip her of her intelligence, merit, and professionalism by referring to her as “sassy,” or “reckless.”  Although these are examples of real Black women in media, these ideas spill over into film consistently.

How many times, as you are watching a television show or movie as a Black woman, do you wish that the character in place to provide representation for you could have more development outside of her male co-star? Have you been watching The Flash on CW, and wished that Iris West could be developed more beyond the love interest of Barry Allen?  Yes, we know about her career, her intelligence, her caring nature, etc., but when we learn about these things, it is typically only within the scope of Barry Allen.  For example, her journalism career sky-rocketed only after she began her blog on Barry.  Or in the similar case of Claire Temple, she was not simply the nurse or friend to Matt Murdock and Luke Cage, but her character development also revolved around her being the love interest of both characters.  Although these are only two examples, this is a common theme seen throughout media, particularly within television and movies.  Even when examining film centered around historical events, the countless contributions and experiences of Black women are either diminished to an underdeveloped side character or ignored altogether.  These strong and powerful women are seemingly only deemed important when agreeing, or dealing, with a male (who is typically white), and when they are not in congruence with these men, they are, arguably, invisible. 

When it comes to media, the powerful and ever-present “Black girl magic” we, as Black women, look forward to seeing within these (both fictional and non-fictional) women is often minimized and even diminished.  Within media, Black women are rarely deemed with a super power; instead, they are deemed with the ability to assist, agree with, or be the love interest of, those who are predominantly male and predominantly White.  When these women dare to aim outside of that role, they are silenced and ignored, but was this role for Black women only recently created?

The minimization of Black women has a historical context that we are all too aware of.  Within the slave era, Black women were thought of as objects suitable for sexual encounters and taking care of children.  During Jim Crow/Civil Rights Era, Black women were utilized to fight for both civil and gender “equality” only to not fully reap the benefits of their work.  Finally, we can see how currently, although Black women are taking the lead for many organizations fighting against the harsh social climate of today, the needs and policies that predominantly affect Black women are often forgotten. 

This exclusion of Black women historically has found its way into our media and is perpetuating ideas that may cause the public, including the aforementioned student, to believe that it is okay to not see Black women or to strip us of our magic unless we are coinciding with your thoughts and actions. 

Now do not get me wrong, we need this representation of Black women in film and on screens, and I typically love these women more than I love the actual shows themselves; however, we must never grow stagnant or weary in the fight for diversity and inclusivity until we are granted more than the power of invisibility.

Mia Brantley is a doctoral student in the field of Sociology, where she studies race, racism/discrimination, and its effects on well-being.  She loves music, gaming, film, and all things nerd.

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  • CParis

    Excellent! Thought-provoking article.

  • Cherayla Davis

    passing this on to some professor friends of mine.

  • Jessy

    I agree. I love to watch a good sci-fi or fantasy film but my God it gets tedious to never see any one who looks like me on the screen. Great Flash and Luke Cage reference I was thinking the same exact thing!!

  • Elayne pallist

    I love what you wrote in the article, and have experienced similar episodes in my life where I or someone I knew became “nobodies”: empty suits, uniforms, or hollowed out skin sacks. In my case it’s hard to know whether the person is racist, misogynist, or both. I had to learn over time that the problem was not with me, but with the person who was ignoring or attempting to diminish my actions, words, etc… feel free to debate or dsagree with this outrageous claim, but the problem with this country is its “hidden-in-plain-sight” white supremacy and more specifically, white male supremacy. It won’t go away until people of color, especially women of color, gain control over our own stories, telling them through our movies, tv series, etc.. and outside the control of Hollywood. We have to accept that our entertainment consumption is ultimately a mirrror of this nation’s eurocentric, male-oriented Culture: it creates and responds to Culture through the lens of the white male and only a very few are willing to see characters of color play out anything in their stories beyond a plot device. Hollywood is also a business, where only ratings and ticket sales determine who is hot and who isn’t. Even a well-meaning casting staff will avoid casting a talented actor if that person can’t drive revenue for the studio. Think about the last movie you saw where the character you most identified with didn’t undergo some level of dehumanization. It is literally baked into our institutions, including how we consume and produce our entertainment. Do we get dehumanized on screen because we are not viewed as complete persons in real life, or is it the other way around? It’s an endless feedback loop.