The always-inquisitive Jada Pinkett-Smith recently posed a question that has many people scratching their heads and some folks outright upset. In short, she’s wondering if black women ask to be represented in mainstream media, on the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, shouldn’t white women be represented on the covers of traditionally black magazines like Essence, Ebony and JET?
The answer? Yes and no.
It’s not enough to have this discussion without a little bit of context. We didn’t come to this dilemma out of nowhere. There is a long, difficult history that informs our current dynamics around race that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. This country has a long history of exclusion and the many movements for equal rights and access including the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement (both of which black women fought in) reminds us that every person is not considered deserving and some of us had to, and still have to, fight for representation.
Magazines like Ebony and Essence were created from a need for black people to see ourselves featured prominently and positively. Ebony, which was founded in 1945, aimed to focus on the achievements of blacks from “Harlem to Hollywood” and to “offer positive images of blacks in a world of negative images.” Back then it was rare for mainstream magazines like LIFE and LOOK to feature black people in a non-discriminatory way. During a time when blacks were fighting so diligently for equal rights, it must have been a devastating blow to morale to be disparaged in the folds of corporate media. We’ve seen other marginalized communities like the LGBT and fat communities create their own media for fair and just representation. This plight is not exclusive to black people.
However, Pinkett-Smith’s question forces us to think about something a little deeper than representation. There are two things at stake here: the common good and the self-determination of the individual. It feels almost impossible for these two things to co-exist” common good means that we have a shared vision that benefits everyone (which we don’t just want realized for the people who look like us, but for all people) and individual self-determination is a philosophy that exists because many people don’t believe in the common good but instead in prejudices that exclude. Blacks were self-determined to create positive media representation because there was none. Pinkett-Smith suggested wholly integrating media so all of society, regardless of color, can start seeing ourselves as cohesive (benefiting the common good) and that while there is still a need for black women (and other communities who have been traditionally excluded) to be represented, we would all benefit from a shared presence in corporate and specialized media.
I don’t disagree entirely. But I would be remiss if I didn’t name the obvious issue with this suggestion: racism still exists. Ebony and Essence were birthed because people were racist. That hasn’t changed. People are still racist and some of those people work for and make up the readership of corporate magazines. These people have no desire to see black people on the cover or inside of their magazines and until their non-racist co-workers hold them accountable for their bigotry, they’ll continue to exclude folks.
It’s enraging when I think of how capriciously Americans shrug their shoulders and turn the other cheek when considering the value of Black life in this country. Institutional and interpersonal racism has left Black America in a very precarious place; just leaving our homes puts us at risk for being assassinated by any self-righteous, gun-yielding neighborhood watchman who deems us suspicious.
This way of thinking is an example of a broader societal philosophy that literally begins at conception of a Black life. Black mothers, often considered hypersexual in nature, are frequently treated with little to no dignity by doctors who dismiss their pregnancies as accidental or inconsequential.
With a maternal and fetal mortality rate higher than any other race (often caused by stress brought on by racial burdens), Black mothers often experience traumatic birthing experiences that include forced cesareans, trivializing attitudes by medical professionals, and contemptuous care that has led to death or serious injury. If they survive this, Black children are given the least resources, have the least access to healthcare, endure some the most toxic and contaminated environments, and deal with structural and interpersonal racism throughout adolescence and into adulthood, where they risk the chance of being shot to death by people like George Zimmerman.
It is disheartening how people have desensitized themselves to the plight of communities just because they don’t look like their own or how the lives of Black children are so undervalued, not because of something they’ve done but simply–just because. I can’t reconcile how some people have positioned themselves to make ethical decisions about who is and who isn’t deserving of safety, security, and justice and how those decisions magnify and shift culture, leaving entire communities on the fringes and moving targets for the Zimmermans of the world.