Watch: Melissa Harris-Perry on “the invisible middle” of media representations of African American women

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Yesterday the MHP show highlighted a recent study by Essence Magazine following nearly 1,200 women who kept a visual diary of the depictions of African American women in media and ranked if the characterizations of black women were balanced. Not surprising, the study (available in the November issue of Essence) shows that the majority of imagery associated with African American women is heavily negative (nearly 85% of respondents recorded negative depictions) and rooted in stereotypes, falling into categories of “gold diggers,” “jezebels,” “angry black women,” and “uneducated.” 

Rightly, MHP wonders out loud if the the humanity of the “baby mamas”–or rather the complexities of African American lives in general–gets lost in the sea of respectability politics, becoming an “invisible middle.” It’s a great panel that cracks the surface of the very imbalanced presentation of American black lives in television, a coda to recent critiques of this year’s Emmys, and worthy of a much longer conversation.

Television certainly doesn’t reflect the rich and multidimensional narratives of African American people (people of color really) save the high stakes dramas by the most successful show runner in television today. She just happens to be black.

We are fortunate that the DIY ambition of Issa Rae has generated an eager audience and secured the attention of television producers and writers to push to present Rae’s brand of entertainment to a larger audience.

I agree on some level that if we as consumers of media are more proactive in demanding diverse and rich narratives to reflect realities hidden to a large segment of the television-consuming public, perhaps we’d get a wider range of programming that would give voice, face, and narratives to this invisible middle. However, I’d argue that it is equally difficult for creators to capture the interest of TV’s gatekeepers. Immediately, they’d point to the high ratings of hugely popular reality shows that are edited to reinforce stereotypes that unfortunately are appropriated as reasoning for bad social policy. Or worse, stories that present complex working class, or young and striving, African American female leads aren’t greenlit because they’re considered too “urban,” which is often code for not appealing to the presumed “white” audience.

I also wonder about the class consciousness and hypersensitivity of the women surveyed for the Essence study. As a defense in living in a culture that presumes guilt and shames black and brown bodies, could they too be projecting definitions of black American womanhood that silence poor, working class women? We can be brutal critics out of fear and distrust that folks outside our community will assume that the woman they saw on television is a mirror reflection of who we are in our professional lives, be it at McDonald’s or JP Morgan Chase.

All sides of black life and identity are deserving of complete characterizations of their humanity–and of our empathy.

Television is ironically a direct projection of the people who control it. America may not be post-racial, but the reality I live in NYC–my community of friends and family–is most assuredly post-racial. I’m fortunate to live in that universe. Media should catch up to us.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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