Today is a celebration. Of what, you might ask? Of our sweet escape from the white gaze! Everywhere I go, I see cries of the Black Renaissance — a “Black Panther”, a “Black Is King.” Due to the current surge of Black art and the increased visibility of Black artists in Hollywood, many have declared that we’ve finally freed ourselves of whiteness and are focusing on ourselves.
One of these people is Ibram X. Kendi, who penned an article for Time Magazine titled “This Is the Black Renaissance.” In it, Kendi defines the white gaze as that which “positions white people as the perpetual main character of Black life and thought [and] colonizes imaginations.” He claims that we have freed ourselves from it.
What if I said that a lot of Black art is still obsessed with whiteness? It’s possible that we’re becoming more self-aware, but I don’t see proper recognition of the system of whiteness that still infiltrates, controls, produces and directs everything. It still seems that the only awardable Black art has to be directly about Black pain and trauma. A celebration of art that solely highlights Black existence is a rarity. The movies with Black casts that are nominated for Oscars are always the “12 Years a Slaves”, or the “Selma”s. This makes the institution and the people upholding it feel better about themselves — since they sympathize with the victims of racial trauma, they are the good ones, the ones who are willing to listen and fix the problem.
But let’s redefine whiteness as more than just a color. Whiteness is a system, an idea, a mechanism of capitalism. As @idealblackfemale on Twitter put it, whiteness is “greed, acquisition, fear of the vulnerability of the human condition, of difference, need for categorization, binaries, social control.” An example of white, capitalist ideas infiltrating the common idea of progress is the idea of the Black bourgeoisie, or Black billionaires. If a few notable Black people acquire extreme wealth, it is seen as progress for the entire community, despite the fact that this wealth places them in proximity to whiteness, and that they may not give back to said community.
In addition, whiteness is still front and center in many forms of entertainment that have been named as leads of the current Renaissance. With the push for more Black media in recent years, I think there has been a movement towards the Blackness that serves white people, or Black people who are still uncomfortable with unambiguous Blackness. There has been a push for mixed-race and/or light-skinned actors to be the sole faces of Blackness in media. In a simple search for “young black actresses under 30,” every face passes the brown paper bag test.
Take the television sitcoms created by Kenya Barris: “Grown-ish,” and “Mixed-ish,” and take the Netflix show #blackAF. Most Black characters on these shows are light-skinned and/or mixed-race, and if they aren’t they are usually framed as irritable, annoying or troublemaking. Take the daughter Diane in Black-ish, played by Marsai Martin, who is scheming, sassy and spiteful. Or HBO’s Euphoria, where amongst the few existing Black characters, the most prominent ones are biracial, and the only other Black character, McKay, who is dark skinned, is vilified (additionally, the strangeness of Zendaya’s character Rue being seemingly the only Black girl in town paired with the white screenwriter’s refusal to acknowledge race in-story, despite the implications of Rue being a Black drug addict, is a whole other conversation).
Actresses like Zendaya make attempts to acknowledge privilege with claims that they only go for white roles, and try not to take up space for Black roles, putting themselves in separate rooms. But claims like these are harmful because at the end of the day, lightskin hypervisibility is playing up whiteness and strengthening its influence, because as soon as they are cast, that role becomes a Black role anyway. Claims like these confess that there are separate rooms in the first place, that white people favor lighter skin, and prove that they get these roles mostly because of colorism. Light-skinned people should stop allowing themselves to be muses for white directors and producers, under the guise that they’ll help progress the Black cause, instead of forcing the industry’s hand and putting dark-skinned people forward.
Many insist that critiques on Black art are not helpful to our movement, but why not ask for more when I still don’t see myself? Additionally, just because we see more of something doesn’t mean that it is improving. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Black Renaissance. I’m elated to see a “Get Out” or a “Moonlight”. Because of this, I don’t walk to get places anymore — I float. I grow wings when I see a dark female face on TV. There is only so long that we can go “one step at a time,” still letting white narratives control the size of our steps, until we have to make a leap. In the meantime, I still sleep well at night. I have two Black angels that watch over me. We break the white Bible in half with our dreams.
SEMILORE OLA is a first year in Timothy Dwight College.