“Black Doesn’t Do Well in Foreign: A Black Woman in Film”
“Black doesn’t do well in foreign”:
The thought that black people do not prosper when placed in unfamiliar situations, that black cinema is not universal, and that the black experience is not relatable.
Leah is an African-American professor at Loyola Marymount University. She works in the School of Film and Television. She has spent a lot of her professional career working in the entertainment business as well as the educational field. Leah was born and raised in Chicago during the 1970s but has spent most of her adult life living in California. Leah attended Cal State Long Beach, University of Southern California, and the University of California Los Angeles. I chose to interview her because of the several things that we have in common, which are that we are both African American women from Chicago who have a passion for film and education. In her oral history, we explored topics such as being an African American woman in the professional world, being an African American woman in the film industry, and existing as an African American woman in the United States.
A Black Woman in the Professional World:
Navigating as a woman of color in the professional world has never been easy. The professional world can be referring to both the workplace and school environments. Difficulties as a black woman range from pregnancies to language barriers to the very structure of power in the university or workplace. Leah found herself dealing with all of these issues when pursuing her degrees.
In Patricia Hill Collins’s piece “Towards a New Vision”, Collins describes the American university system as one that closely resembles the power structure of an American slave plantation in the 1800’s. She writes,
“For example, if you are from an American college or university, is your campus a modern plantation? Who controls your university’s political economy? Are elite White men over-represented among the upper administrators and trustees controlling your university’s finances and policies? Are elite White men being joined by growing numbers of elite White women helpmates? What kinds of people are in your classrooms grooming the next generation who will occupy these and other decision-making positions…Do African Americans, Hispanics, or other people of color form the majority of invisible workers who feed you, wash your dishes, and clean up your offices and libraries after everyone else has gone home?” (Collins 78)
College education is dominated by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. When a black woman peruses higher level education it is already an act of defiance. Unfortunately, the plantation metaphor is not too far off from universities in California. Being able to navigate and excel in an environment like so, as a black woman, calls for more effort and diligence in comparison to her white counterparts who exist in a system that is designed specifically for them.
Though Leah may not have had this specific image of a slave plantation in her mind while she attended Cal State Long Beach, USC, and UCLA, she definitely recognized that, as a black woman, her thoughts and ideas were not the same as the white students. Leah explained that “your politics as a woman of color continue to influence and inform the decisions you make”. She is saying that her intersectionality is what influences her decisions. bell hooks touches on this in her piece called “The Oppositional Gaze”. She writes, “Black women as victims of race and gender oppression, have an inherently different field of vision” (hooks 128). Black women have a specific lens in which they view the world. Because they face gender oppression from black men and racial oppression from white people, black women are secluded and often categorized as “other”. This “otherness” shapes the way that black women navigate everyday life. So, when placed in professional settings, whether that be work or school, the black woman will approach ideas with a different mindset than those who she is working with because of the life conditions that influence her.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of navigating the professional world as a woman of color came about when Leah discussed her role as a student at USC in the clip below:
Leah took it as her responsibility to speak up in her classes and ask questions that pertained to her as a black woman. Earlier in the interview, Leah explained how being at USC felt like “another world, another language”. This confusion and feeling of being out of place is what led her to ask these questions.
bell hooks explains this feeling of alienation and confusion in “The Oppositional Gaze” when she writes, “It is difficult to talk when you feel no one is listening, when you feel as though a special jargon or narrative has been created that only the chosen can understand” (hooks 125). Oppression is embedded in our language. In our gender studies class, we have discussed how language belongs to men because they were the ones to create it. However, it is important to note that not only was language created by men, but it was created by white men. By realizing this, it becomes clear that race plays a large part in the way that we speak. This is a way in which black people, or people of color in general, are silenced. If a language is created that only wealthy white people can understand and speak, then the minorities and poor white people are excluded from a huge portion of society. Perhaps, this is what forces these marginalized groups to create their own “languages” like Ebonics with African Americans. When entering the professional world that is largely dominated by white men, it is difficult to fully participate if one simply cannot decipher the dialogue. This is done purposefully to exclude minorities and those of a lower class. Fortunately, Leah did not become defeated by this exclusion. It forced her to ask questions and make others aware of her presence. Her current success as a college professor roots from this defiance.
Although Leah’s efforts to question her professors and peers are commendable, it is not rare that minorities are forced to have to educate their oppressors. In Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class, and Sex” she writes about this when saying, “Traditionally, in American society, it is the members of oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor” (Lorde 1). In other words, it is up to black people to be knowledgeable about the white experience and, at the same time, educate their oppressors about the black experience. The oppressor does not have to work to understand that of which they are not familiar. Lorde goes on to write, “I am responsible for educating teachers who dismiss my children’s culture in school” (Lorde 1). Is this not the same as Leah? Black students and parents are expected to teach their instructors and classmates about the black experience. These black people are expected to be the voice that speaks on behalf of their entire race.
Leah’s navigation as a woman of color in the professional world had its difficulties. She became pregnant with her daughter while applying to graduate programs, but schools would not defer her enrollment. So, she had to decline her acceptances and reapply the following year. When she finally did attend school for her graduate program she was isolated and confused, but she did not let it stop her. Leah continued to ask questions and give her contributions proving that black can, in fact, do well in “foreign” environments.
A Black Woman in Film:
Hollywood, both behind the scenes and onscreen, is mostly white. This statement does not come as a surprise to anyone who has immersed themselves in American film. When Leah, along with other black filmmakers, creates content, it comes from a place of rebellion because for so long African Americans were not even meant to watch their oppressors on screen. As more black people create films, the gaze of the filmmaker will begin to change. In “The Oppositional Gaze”, bell hooks writes, “all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality'” (hooks 116). By both watching and creating media, black people bring about a new meaning that did not exist when the media was only consumed and produced by the oppressor. This “oppositional gaze” is an act of defiance because the white male gaze has always been the only “suitable” way to view and create media. As mentioned previously, black women have a different view of the world than black men and white people. So, Leah, as a writer, is able to bring a sense of “newness” to her works. Leah speaks about what led her to becoming a writer in the clip below.
Because Hollywood films are created by white men for the white male gaze, anything outside of that becomes “foreign” or “other”. Audre Lorde defines this by the term “mythical norm”. She writes, “In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure” (Lorde 2). This mythical norm is what “justifies” the neglection of minorities in film. This is called “ethnocentrism” when one group views themselves as the norm and everyone else as a variation of it. She goes on to say that “women of Color become ‘other’, the outsider whose experience and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend” (Lorde 3). When women of color are “othered” it gives film studios an excuse to not tell the stories of black people in fear that it will not be received well. This idea of black not doing well in foreign plays a large role in annihilating people of color from cinema. Leah speaks a lot about this and how it affected her in the three clips below.
In the last clip, “Whiteness is Default”, Leah brings up the tropes of Mammy and Sapphire. These characters were introduced in film as a way to paint black women as a “one size fits all” trope rather than actual people with depth. Patricia Hill Collins speaks about these tropes in “Towards a New Vision”. She writes, “Black women encounter controlling images such as the mammy, the matriarch, the mule and the whore, that encourage others to reject us as fully human people” (Collins 79). Black women are controlled by stereotypes because it makes it easier for white people to ignore the fact that they are people with individual stories. The oppressors want to have a simple idea of the black woman so that they do not have to work hard to understand the oppressed. Recognizing that black women do not have to fall into one single category would, in some way, take away from the entertainment because it would be too foreign for the glorified white, male viewer. Leah describes this perfectly when explaining why these tropes were created. She says,
“There’s a way in which white people have an expectation based on the construct which whiteness forged…When it comes at them as something other than that they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t trust it, suspicious of it, or its not entertaining to them”.
The white creators of these shows and films depict black people for a white audience, not for a black one. So, for them, it does not matter if these stereotypes are true, as long as they are entertaining. Leah explains that white people have to be comfortable with these images of black people so that they will “invite (black people) into their home every week”. This is another way in which the oppressed has to cater to the wants and needs of the oppressor.
Although Leah recognizes that tropes and stereotypes come from a negative place, she does not believe that they should be completely removed from film. In the clip below she explains her affinity for the Sapphires and Mammys of film.
What Leah touches on in this clip is the self-recognition that some black women may experience when seeing tropes on the screen. In “The Oppositional Gaze”, bell hooks describes these women who actually relate to the characters of Sapphire and Mammy. She writes, “Grown black women had a different response to Sapphire; they identified with her frustrations and her woes. They resented the way she was mocked. They resented the way these screen images could assault black womanhood, could name us bitches, nags” (hooks 120). The representation of black women in early cinema surely did not create itself. These characters were representative of the actual struggles that black women faced in their everyday lives due to gender, class, and racial oppression. What became worrisome was the fact that black men and white people made a mockery of this onscreen representation of black women. Therefore, black women were meant to feel shame for seeing themselves in the Sapphire character. Leah rejects this feeling of shame. This was new to me. I will admit that before this, I felt embarrassed to see black women in film and television who acted like Sapphire. Leah led me to realize that it was the internalized self-hatred, rooting from my oppressors views, that led me to hate the black woman in film. Recognizing that Sapphire is relatable to some black woman, but not all of them is an extremely important part of rejecting these stereotypes.
So, the tropes themselves are not what is completely damaging to black womanhood. What is damaging is when these become the only ways of which black women are represented because black women who do not behave like Sapphire or Mammy will lack a true representation of themselves. bell hooks writes about Anne Friedberg’s essay called “A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification” where she writes, “identification can only be made through recognition, and all recognition is itself an implicit confirmation of the ideology of the status quo” (hooks 119). It is crucial for black women to be represented on film as multi-dimensional people because that is how black women, who exist in reality, come to terms with who they are. However, when black women are only being shown as caricatures, this becomes how everyone views black women, even themselves. If there is no media coverage on African-American women who get a college education and go on to work in the film industry, then black girls will assume that that is not something that they can do. Continuing to depict black women as Sapphires and Mammys gives black girls the idea that that is all they are allowed to be. Though there are African American women who do relate to Sapphire and Mammy, it would be foolish to believe that this is the only representation of African American women. Leah does not want to get rid of these tropes but rather add to them. Yes, Sapphire can exist, as long as Viola Davis and Oprah Winfrey can also exist.
A Black Woman in America:
Leah grew up in Chicago in a time were racial segregation was very obvious (though it is still quite apparent now). She speaks on how this segregation affected her views towards white people in the clip below.
Interestingly, bell hooks almost describes this word for word in “The Oppositional Gaze”. Though bell hooks grew up in the south of the United States, her experiences with segregation were not much different. She writes, “within my family’s southern black working-class home, located in a racially segregated neighborhood, watching television was one way to develop critical spectatorship. Unless you went to work in the white world, across the tracks, you learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen” (hooks 117). Both Leah and hooks only saw white people in two places: on the television screen or in the professional world. In Leah’s case, growing up in Chicago during the 70s, she was constantly surrounded by black people. The only white people she saw who were not on her television, where people of power like priests and nuns. This structure of power is implanted by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. When the oppressed is only allowed to view their oppressor in positions of power, there can be no real discourse which promotes and perpetuates segregation. Patricia Hill Collins writes about this disconnect between the races when she writes, “Even if we never have any contact with members of other race, class and gender groups, we all encounter images of these groups and are exposed to the symbolic meanings attached to those images” (Collins 79). When races are segregated to a point where black people only live with other black people and white people only live with other white people there becomes a disconnect in the way that races interact. Perhaps this is one of the greatest reasons as to why racial stereotypes exist. When the races do not interact in their everyday lives, they must base their perception of other race on what they are exposed to in cinema and the media.
In Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”, she discusses how being a black women in America affects her everyday life. She writes,
“But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us” (Lorde 4).
For a black woman living in America, the struggles that one goes through are never ending. Whether it be the micro-aggressions that they face on an everyday bases or the fundamental oppression that is engrained in our society, the black woman must be resilient in order to survive. As we approached the end of the interview, I asked Leah the question “How did the women in your family inspire you to succeed?” Leah believes that being resilient is one of the most influential aspects of women of color, especially the women that raised her. In the two clips below, she explains this further.
Through our discussion of Leah’s upbringing, I learned a lot about the trials and tribulations that Leah had to go through in order to be in the position that she is in now. Resilience is necessary for an African American woman when it seems as though all odds are against her. Leah’s proudest accomplishment has been her daughter. This did not come as a surprise to me, although Leah has accomplished so many things in her professional career. It is the simple things that keep her motivated. When I asked Leah why she felt that her daughter was her best accomplishment, she answered with the simplest answer that she had given in the entire interview.
Leah’s oral history is a great representation of a black woman’s multi-dimensionality. Yes, she can be angry and strong when necessary, but she also shows the importance of being vulnerable and candid. This view of black women is extremely important, and it needs to be represented more often in American culture.