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It’s a regular weekday afternoon and I’m about submit some fashion or beauty story about some it-trend. The article itself is complete, all that’s missing are some images.
Finding images for a story, especially a stylish one, used to be so easy -- until I became “woke” and recognized the glaring disparity of race within the media.
I used to have no issue compiling a slideshow of images of white women rocking hairstyles I could never do or wearing fall’s latest nude color -- a color that’s far from “nude” in my case.
Every day I’d write stories about women who were not me. I’d only rave about people who looked nothing like me. White is the default and I dare not disturb the norm. However, I now find my work challenging and conflicting.
As a black writer, I try not to pigeonhole myself into writing stories solely based on my identity -- though, I do appreciate the opportunity to sound-off on serious issues concerning race and womanhood.
Despite my interests in social awareness, I find myself questioning my editorial choices. Am I being "the angry black girl?" Will readers see my valid point? Even with the most simple fashion and beauty stories I'll wonder, "Did I add too many black models to this lipstick slideshow?" Will my editor think I'm being too political? All of these questions run through my mind.
No matter how much we want diversity, there's this fear of disturbing the peace within the media spaces. There's a fear of challenging the white default.
Sometimes I feel as if I need permission to be black. Thanks to Viola Davis's inspiring Emmy acceptance speech last week, more folks are becoming comfortable discussing the intersectional issues black women face. Because a well-received celebrity said it, now it can be discussed as a social issue rather than just a black issue. It’s now safe to address in mainstream spaces.
Davis’s point was always valid, even before her big win. Furthermore, her message is the same as the one so many other women were called “angry black women” for voicing.
Before I expanded my writing to lifestyle and culture, I wrote exclusively about fashion. I now reflect on those early days and am puzzled at how I spent years writing only about white women and upholding Eurocentric beauty standards to the highest degree.
One would assume that as a black writer, diversity would be easy to navigate and execute. But honestly, it’s incredibly exhausting.
First of all, diversity within the media is largely unbalanced. Diversity really means 90% white people and a few token people of color here and there. For years, I’ve been upholding this skewed image of what the world really looks like, and now I’m overly conscious of how black my work is.
Here’s a little story. Some time ago, I wrote about a very general style topic and I wanted to create a diverse slideshow for it. I ended up creating a slideshow of about 10 black women and only three white women.
Upon realizing this, I quickly started to delete the black women and try to add more white women. I became overwhelmed with guilt. Why was I doing this? Yes, this was a very white publication. But why was I so quick to erase myself when there are hundreds of white representations to every one black person’s?
Though I did add more photos of white women to the slideshow, I still kept images of black women as the majority. I wanted to prove myself wrong, that this issue was all in my head and that this challenge would be welcomed by the publication.
However, I was hit with an email from my editor who said the images were “off-brand” and that they had revised the article. What was published was a traditionally “diverse” article with mostly white women, two black women, and a couple of racially ambiguous faces for good measure.
White imagery is perceived as the default. If I had made that slideshow exclusively black women, it would be treated as a “black story.” If I had used all white women, it would be just a story.
I am not ashamed of being black or writing “black stories.” Our narrative definitely matters. It’s just an incredibly strange feeling to recognize that your existence is simply a category tab.
I’ll a write a story about something personal and my editor will choose a stock photo of a white person for the story’s header image. The image is regarded as a safe choice, as if my readership would’ve been limited if a more realistic image was used.
I’ve been warned by my colleagues to not be too sensitive or too black in my work. Late last year, I launched an art blog called Casual Muse. I interviewed and featured several different people of all ages, races and walks of life.
Only recently, it’s been criticized as being “too black” due to my more-than-two features of black creatives. I understand how this world works and I understand the warnings from my colleagues. In order to break into a broader space, you have to limit your identity. It’s proved true for so many widely successful people of color, but that doesn’t make it less sad.
I hate that inclusion of my narrative or visibility is viewed as divisive. I hate that any mention or acknowledgment of my blackness will come across as controversial. I hate that I say “people of color” when sometimes I just want to say black people (in cases when the issue is truly personal and unique).
I hate that I have to temper my identity to fit into a broader space. I hate that writers, filmmakers and other creators are fearful of truthfully reflecting our very diverse reality in their work.
Not everything black is necessarily political. Intersectionality is a thing, other people do exist, and it's time to challenge the media's many defaults without it being perceived as such a disturbance.