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.
I agree with Pinkett-Smith that the editors of specialized magazines like Essence could set a great example by sharing the pages of their magazines with white and non-black celebrities. After all, it has often been the progressive minds of those who have been overlooked who shatter the antiquated, harmful beliefs of those doing the overlooking. The problem that this doesn’t solve it that for some people, it doesn’t matter what kind of inclusive example you set because they won’t follow. I’m all for leading by example, but what do we do when our efforts to integrate are met with the same old elitist, racist behavior? People need to be held accountable for their shit. In this instance it is up to other white people, especially those who don’t buy into corporate media’s exclusion of people of color, to demand fair representation. It’s not enough for specialized magazines to integrate their pages; the responsibility has to be shared and maybe then we’ll start seeing some culture shift around media representation and a shared belief in the common good.
Read more from Shanelle Matthews at ShanelleMatthews.com.