Before my family moved to the U.S. my idea of Black Americans was that they all had silky long hair and high-powered jobs at ad agencies, just like all the characters did in the Eddie Murphy movie I watched in Nigeria. Isolated and out of context with nothing to contradict them, these images formed my overall perception of a group of people. Luckily they were "good" images.
As shows like Scandal, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat lead the way to a more diverse TV landscape, and the Internet allows our friends and the media outlets we select to fill our feeds with images that might be more reflective of who we are, the risk of only a single story being told about a group of people lessens -- in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., however, there's still much more work to be done.
In interviewing women around the world about beauty standards for my docu-series, Pretty, I've naturally had several conversations about the media -- what images it perpetuates as beautiful and what groups of people get marginalized. The overarching theme when it comes to Black women in media is that of being exoticized or not included at all. The women that I spoke to in London pointed out that when Black women appear on the small or big screen they're either "other-worldly" or a cartoon-character-like portrayal of a loud African mom. When I asked women in Milan who were some of their Black Italian beauty icons, they all defered to Naomi Campbell because there aren't really any in Italy; they're left to borrow from the UK and U.S. In Israel, one of the women I interviewed explained that Black Israelis don't have a face in Israel, which might explain why when Israel crowned its first Black beauty queen in 2013, her beauty and heritage was questioned. One of the results of not showing all the different faces that exist in a country is an incomplete story being told and those people's identities and place unfairly being challenged.
Watch "What's Pretty in Tel Aviv" below.
I recently partnered with Hairfinity and presented some of the episodes of Pretty to a U.S. audience for the first time in person. In the conversation that followed the screening, we talked about everything from healthy hair evolutions to the media and how women in the U.S. share similar experiences to the women we watched. A nice outcome of the discussion about media was the simple solutions that popped up around tackling inaccurate and incomplete portrayals of Black people. One of our guests suggested that Black women be more discerning in the jobs they accept, even if it might mean turning down an opportunity. Another suggested we take a note from organizations like Black Women in Tech and build more organizations that help equip Black people to aspire to jobs not only in front of the screen but behind the scenes as well. Finally, of course the idea of more Black people creating our own content and platforms came up, and with the Internet and media landscape changing the way it is, we're already seeing (at least in the U.S.) more more minorities do just that.
Watch highlights of the discussion below.