Sunday, 4 March 2012

Black women need more good, not less, media representation

Hi Victoria Coren,

I think I might be one of the black women you are talking about in your article.

I’m a black British Caribbean woman. I’m not overweight, but I do feel confident in my body. However, this is not because women of my ethnicity are seldom represented in magazines, media, public life. I think having some sort of (broad and diverse) representation would help people to make sense of me and stop my having to make all sorts of declarations, and overtures to show and prove things about myself, because it’s so tiring and I don’t particularly want to have to disavow elements of my culture to do that. I wish there was a black girl in the media who liked reggae music and hip hop AND also went to uni and had a professional career afterwards and had white friends. I think the media plays a role in explaining that is possible, but instead I have the responsibility of showing that. Therefore, the media is doing a disservice to us. It creates a void of representation that can be misappropriated and is therefore disempowering. A very recent Guardian piece showed ‘models breaking the mould’. One black woman was featured, for her skin colour. That was it, for her skin colour. The white models could be older, plus size, and feminist. The black model could be black. I would like to see black models who are also older, feminist and plus size. I would like us to be mainstreamed in all of our glory and not constantly marginalised.

I do feel quite confident in my body, but this is despite the lack of discourse that highlights me as being attractive. I feel that lack acutely, actually. There is harm done to black women because of the conspicuous lack of acknowledgement that we are attractive beings. I was born in the 80s, but as a child I felt just as those children did in the 1950s experiments that showed black children of 3 and 4 despising black dolls and complimenting white ones. At aged six I was wishing for other things, too, to look like the girls on the cover of Sugar magazine, to be called Shelley, to have hair that blew in even light wind.

After reading your article Victoria, I felt as though you were pushing the message that white women are the victims and that black women somehow had it good BECAUSE we are marginalised. I find that hard to swallow.

That is always going to be a difficult, and patronising, argument to make. If we must look at things with sanguine specs on, I would say that instead, those particular stats suggest maybe that black women are trying to adjust themselves in incredibly hostile environments and a proportion of them appear, at least on the surface, to be doing this quite well. However, just a cursory look at the country’s mental health service will show you that black women have it so hard that some of us just can’t handle it.

I think this is where the interesting link with some of the other stats you mentioned comes into it. 68% of black women think it is ‘very important’ to have a successful career. I’m not so sure this is very much to do with lack of black models in magazines. I think this is probably a lot to do with the fact that when times get hard – like now - we often find ourselves among the first to be made redundant. Last year, my friend told me how her team of 20, with 7 black women including herself, announced redundancies and 5 black women and 1 white man had to go. My friend, and the PA to the director were the only two black women who stayed. Job instability for black women is a real concern. For example, in local government the majority of fixed term contract workers, as opposed to permanent employees, are ethnic minorities or younger women. According to the Scottish national census in 2001, the employment gap between ethnic minority women and white women was 21%, despite the fact that younger ethnic minority women are more likely to have first degrees. For example, Indian women under 34 were twice as likely as their white counterparts to have a first degree. Black women can’t afford to treat their careers, when they have them, as anything less than ‘very important’.

55% thought it important to have time to pursue other interests…. I’d like to know what these interests are. I’m not sure these are all lunching ladies, or those taking up hobbies as serious leisurely pursuits. ‘Other interests’ could very likely be caring for the elderly, physically and emotionally supporting friends and family who have little recourse to public funds, engaging in long hours of homework to supplement the deficient education their children receive in institutionally racist schools, joining community organisations like Saturday Schools and support groups, or simply getting up to speed on the law so that they can ‘work effectively’ with the police when they pick up their sons. Most of the black women I know spend their time helping others, frankly. As oppressed minorities we need to. I know that this doesn’t make as pretty an article, but I’m concerned at your superficial reading of those stats. I don’t think your article represents black women very well, in your article it sounds like black women are having it good, and that rings alarm bells for me.

You also said 52% of white women think it's "very important" to be in a romantic relationship, compared with only 44% of black women and somehow that speaks to our ‘liberation’ – what from patriarchy? I really don’t think so. Not rating it as ‘very’ important, does not mean that it is not important at all! Black women, like most human beings, want love and affection and support and all of those things that are possible in relationships (and it would be helpful if we had some healthy black relationships represented in the media, too). While I would fiercely argue against black women ‘needing’ romantic relationships, as I would all women, it’s classic white mainstream feminism solipsism to assume that familial relationships are necessarily bad. The family for black women does not always mean oppression, and restriction. It can also mean supporting networks that are often dearly needed. Also, one could argue that a consuming concern with romance is a luxury!

I don’t think your article is fair to black women. I don’t think your article is fair to white women either, but I’ll let them take up that argument with you elsewhere.


  1. I'm neither a black nor white woman but have much in common wiht both. However, I do believe as woman born in the the seventies, a child of the eighties and a woman of the 90s forwards, black women in this country have struggled to overcome some of the barriers other minorities have. We have men with disabilities in public office and raising families, gay couples deemed successful by society, women in more and more leadership positions, ethinic minorites among some of the wealthiest and most successful entrenpreneurs in this country. However, black women are not helped by the stigma attached to black women in the media. Who comes to mind from the past week's press coverage alone: Diane Abbot (perceived as successful by mainstream but not so much in the black community), Whitney Houston, perceived as beautiful 'despite' being black by the media, Rihanna (on saturday night) perpetuating a sexualised image of black women. As much as there is a lack of black make role models in this country there is also a lack of black female role models. But even the definition of a role model is subject to opinion.
    My neighbour is a black woman of my age with 2 teenage daughters. She may be church going and moral but she doesn't work, hasn't worked for 10 years and neither does her sister the children's aunt. I have a worked with black women who have lived on London estates and explained the discrimination they've faced from their own community for wanting to work in a jobs in the city which they felt were 'successful', the prejudice they faced from their communities for 'wanting to be white' was hideous. I think there's an innate change in perception of success and tolerance also required within ethinic minority communities.

  2. (Don't know how to put my name in the ID box, I'm such a techno-idiot, but this is from Victoria Coren)

    Very interesting blog, thanks very much for engaging with my column.
    I'd say this -

    "I think having some sort of (broad and diverse) representation would help people to make sense of me"

    Well yes of course! Broad and diverse representation would be lovely! But my point is that women are NOT represented broadly and diversely in these media - that they're all white *and thin and glossy and airbrushed*, which has screwed up the white women who make the mistake of thinking they're represented. None of us are really. But black women SO OBVIOUSLY aren't, it's easier to know that & harder to get tricked.

    "I felt as though you were pushing the message that white women are the victims and that black women somehow had it good BECAUSE we are marginalised"

    Ah no - I was trying to say something a bit more nuanced than that. It isn't "had it good", it's that there are two wrongs at play: white women are the victims of an overly-narrow representation, and black women of a massive under-representation, and it seems that the latter are less damaged than the former. Which, I thought, raised very interesting questions about the media.

    I'm not saying I'm right, it was just a theory. Hope it's okay for me to clarify those points above, in terms of what I was saying in the piece - I was really interested to read your blog and love the idea of this being debated in all sorts of ways.

    Best wishes, VC

  3. Brilliant reply to Victoria Coren, wish this was in The Guardian, it should be! Thoughtful, detailed and rounded response to a well-meaning but rather facile article. Thank you, Tina Bain

  4. Thank you for your comments Victoria.

    But, you are still missing the point, or you are choosing to overlook it making your article and your subsequent comments unhelpful. It is patronising that you insist upon telling us that we are less damaged by women's portrayals in the media than white women. You've read Lola's piece about skin lightening, which she has supported with the kind of stats that are used here to prop up all sorts of inaccurate statements about the 'emotional' state of black women versus white women. The pursuit of beauty KILLS black women - I'm absolutely certain you didn't miss that global news story from last year. You have the opportunity to watch the youtube click of black children hating black dolls because of their colour linked in my piece. And, have you ever read The Bluest Eye? When something is not mainstreamed and is instead driven underground or to the margins, it often becomes ever more heinous. Have you ever seen a hip hop video? A plastic barbie would be glad to sport those breast-waist-hip ratios.

    Despite this you hold tight and fast to the conclusion that the 'wrong at play' for white women is worst than that for black women.

    No, you are wrong. Wrong to make the deductions that you have from a fragile piece of pop social research. Wrong to compare the experiences of black women and white women in the way that you have. Wrong to not have taken the time to reflect on what we have said.

    Your article lacks the social analysis that it needs, and when published in a national publication, that makes it dangerous.

    Black women are also portrayed in every way that white women are 'narrowly' portrayed in the media, only at more extremes. We also have to be skinny, and fairer, with huge breasts, we are so overly sexualised that we also need huge butts and even tinier waists - have you ever glimpsed a cover of XXL magazine? Otherwise we are overweight nannies, or maids, or unemployed mothers who molest their children (cf. Precious). Where is the normal representation of your UK black woman? Not on Loose Women. Not on Eastenders where we are being burned alive by our partners, married to murderous pastors or a crack head about to be murdered by said pastor.

    We are on tv and in magazines, just there are far fewer of us and therefore the range of representation is far far stricter, and more ridiculous. I'll say it again - where there is room for white models to be plus size, hairy, and older, black models must be black AND household name supermodels. We have to be SO MUCH MORE than anyone white. That is a huge tyranny.

    A better conclusion for you to have drawn would have been that because black women are battered so fiercely by our marginalised representation in the media, we are growing ever-hardened to it. That is not a reflection of the lack of damage it is doing to us, it shows that it is just as bad, if not worse. It is a response to an horrendous situation, not a reflection of our immunity or insulation from harmful media images.

    Thanks for reading our page, I hope you continue to look back from time to time. It's important that we have our voices out there, but unfortunately we are under-represented among columnists, too.

    (And, just a very quick one. As a social psychologist I think it is important to say that there can be not only an emotional, but also a cognitive difference between black women and white women because of our experiences. Several schools of psychological thought back me on that one.)

  5. Hi! Just want to say your this blog piece is excellent. I'm a UK-based Black American woman and as much as I like Victoria Coren, she was all wrong on this.
    One of the reasons that black women are more focused than White women on careers is simply because we had to be. We have always had to work. We never had the luxury of a fairytale prince to save us. From the time we were brought over on slave ships to now, black women worked. Those of us who are the daughters and granddaughters of the maids, cooks, nannies and housecleaners were told by our mothers and grandmothers that we needed to do better than they did. They sacrificed to pay for extra lessons, to send us to private schools and such. We want to honour them by doing well.

    I'm not convinced we have a better body image either. Try giving a doll with dreadlocks or an Afro to a little black girl and see what happens. She'll drop that doll quicker than you can say "lace front." The hair care industry in the USA is a several billion dollar enterprise with the majority of those billions coming from black women who burn their scalps with relaxers or spend hundreds or even thousands on hair from the heads of poor Indian and Korean women. The mainstream images for black women in no way represent the diversity of black women. You still get the pretty "high yella" gals such as Beyonce, Halle Berry and Rihanna hawking goods or gracing magazine covers. You do get the Alek Weks for the sheer exoctism, but less extreme brown and dark skin isn't represented. The typical black face in the media seems to be one that looks mixed race, with corkscrew curls or straight hair. Nothing wrong with mixed race faces being seen on television-- my children are mixed race. But they are not and should not be seen as the standard for black female beauty.

    If the researchers of that survey had asked more probing questions, they would have got way more startling results. Ask how a woman who's been told she's "pretty for a dark-skinned girl" ( my sister used to hear that all the time) or "don't have kids with a dark skinned man because they will be too black" (words from my grandmothers) how high their self-esteem is.

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  7. Fantastic article and agree with another reader here, it should be published nationwide. I'm doing an essay on Black women and representations in Britain and may use this blog and source it if ok?
    Thank you again for a competently written, factual article.

  8. Fantastic article and agree with another reader here, it should be published nationwide. I'm doing an essay on Black women and representations in Britain and may use this blog and source it if ok?
    Thank you again for a competently written, factual article.

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