WASHINGTON, September 22, 2014 — On Friday, Alessandra Stanley came under fire for writing a racist and jarring piece about Shonda Rhimes and the black women she writes about. In this piece, Alessandra uses an old term coined by many white Americans to excuse racism, bigotry and systems of oppression, “the Angry Black Woman.”
It seems that Alessandra has not done her homework.
The article in the New York Times was yet another instance in which a writer attacked the work of a prominent black woman without also attacking the systems of oppression that the same black woman has to navigate.
Alessandra almost praises black female characters she finds more palatable than Sonda Rhimes. She suggests that Claire Huxtable from the Cosby show is much better executed than black women created by a black woman. Now, if Alessandra were versed in not simply the use of buzz words to invoke a reaction but also the history of both black women writers, characters, and legislative circumstances, she would understand why such an assessment is untrue and also problematic.
Black women writers and actresses have long since fought to push back against systems that dictate stereotypical characters. These systems pigeonhole us as the “sassy best friend,” “the scheming mistress,” “the magical negro” or “the angry black woman.” Since the days of Aida Walker, who herself along with her husband and their vaudeville partner decided to show three dimensional dramatizations of black characters, this has been a fight that black writers encountered. Black writers and actors have often found themselves fighting against white executives more comfortable with a black character who fits the role of “happy minstrel” or “downtrodden whore in need of salvation.”
Alessandra seems to be mistaking the preferences of a “white audience” for good writing.
We are in an age in which the idea of “good writing” through a “white gaze” is no longer good enough. Instead, we need progressive writing that confronts systems of oppression without apologizing for the strength, power, and yes, sometimes anger, of its characters.
Mss H from the Cosby Show is amazing because she is the woman that can do it all. The Cosby Show was the first time we witnessed on a network television show (staring an all-black cast) a black female lead who was in a “high profile” career, embodying three dimensions, and was also a dynamic mother/wife. The black community, however, already knew plenty of women like her.
Network television now highlights a few black women characters, some created by Shonda Rhimes. Olivia Pope is a character in the show ‘Scandal,” created by Rhimes. Pope is sometimes likable, sometimes not likable, but she has shown that a black woman can be the lead of a successful show.
What is surprising is that Stanley, and others, continue to sling racist rants against female black writers. Alessandra Stanley did not call for the need for there to be more black women on television or for more black writers. Instead, she acted to erase black voices, representing the same sentiment that permeates the industry.
Stanley would likely protest that she was in fact praising Rhimes, but if she had done her homework she would notice Rhimes, in particular, has a way of detecting racism. Rhimes demonstrates this through her characters. In Season 1 of Scandal, Rhimes depicted a white woman as assuming a white subordinate of Olivia’s was “Ms. Pope,” simply because she was white. Another character, “Papa Pope,” blatantly reminds Olivia of her black identity and more importantly of her identity as a black woman. Both of these instances of course disapprove Alessandra’s Stanley’s idea that Rhimes does not write about race.
For too long I have known black writers and black actresses who have been a part of the rat race and the run around that sometimes can happen in network television as well as the cinematic community. Some of these writers and actresses are more than capable of reinventing the ways in which we experience blackness on screen. Some of these writers and actresses could by their very words begin to dismantle systems of oppression.
And sometimes luck, hard work and persistence blesses us with positions of “perceived privilege.”
Sometimes, we must rely solely on the power of our community to bring about the success of our work, and most of the time, even when we gain said “perceived privilege” it is our community that assures we are sustained.
The issue is not truly whether or not Shonda Rhimes is writing a troupe, or even who Shonda Rhimes is in her personal life. The issue is that we don’t have enough opportunities to create platforms for black women writers to write characters, especially black ones.
The issue is not whether any of Shonda Rhimes’s black characters are “angry black women” but that we don’t have enough black women being portrayed on television. This is not something that Shonda Rhimes has created, or that she can fix alone.
So, I offer this piece of advice to Alessandra Stanley: Stop and think. Black women writers, and characters, have a hard enough time navigating and in some instances attempting to dismantle these systems of oppression without having a “white sister” beating us up.
Instead of attacking, why not champion the need to see a greater diversity of characters on television?