“Why Are All the Characters Black?”
How Black representation by a Black creator triggered a white commenter
A while back one of my fellow Black anti-racism activists, Ronide Comeau (@anxiousblackgirlcomics), posted a body positivity drawing on her Instagram profile.
She actually did two - one with women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes, and the other with men’s bodies in all shapes and sizes.
They had a Christmas theme, and were humorous bits of art with a serious message about loving your body.
While she got a lot of positive comments, she also got some negativity, and one comment stood out: “great message, but why are all the characters Black?” I was astounded, as was Ronide.
First of all, there was the arrant disrespect of anyone telling another creator what to post on her own profile. Provided they don’t break any laws, or stir up hate, that’s where creators can express themselves freely (though we reserve the right to call out egregious examples of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia).
But more serious were the underlying racial politics.
For this white commenter, the art couldn’t be valid unless it also included white people, never mind that white people have had the lion’s share of representation in art, media and life for CENTURIES!
And of course, she felt that her opinion about this Black creator’s work should supersede Ronide’s desire - and her right - to support the community she’s a part of with her art.
Let’s face it; there are a lot of white celebrities and creators promoting body positivity, and in the main they focus on their own communities, which means the images they show are of white people. While Black people may often feel left out of these discourses, that omission is natural for us - it’s how the world is - and most of us rarely comment on it.
I guess it’s different for white people, because the world teaches white people that they are the center of everything. When they’re not, it must be weird. As Ronide herself observed, if she had drawn artwork with everyone white, it wouldn’t have stood out, even though she herself is a Black creator.
Let that sit with you for a moment.
There is some hope, though. A white commenter, Rachael Bellis (@raeraelefay) shared similar situation where she, too, had initially felt aggrieved. She talked about her need to process her hurt feelings when she didn’t see herself represented in a Black creator’s artwork.
But as she pointed out, if her Black friends could watch Gossip Girl with her, then she could also relate to art that didn’t center the white image. She says: “Deciding I can’t relate to a character who is Black is just anti-Blackness rearing its head.”
She’s right. And the incident with Ronide’s artwork was anti-Blackness in action. It was underlining the fact that Black people aren’t the norm or the default, even though we are people of the global majority. And as mentioned in my article on the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, for some white people Black representation will always raise a red flag.
So how do we solve this? As I’ve said before, let’s normalize seeing images of Black people doing ordinary things. (I’ve noticed a few more people illustrating their blogs with relevant images of Black people, and that’s fabulous.)
More than that, as active anti-racists, it’s important to learn more about the Black community. That sometimes means consuming media for which you are not the primary audience.
I’m not talking about documentaries about Black people surviving (or not) erroneous incarceration, though of course, those are important, too. And I’m not talking about TV programs perpetuating stereotypes of Black people as poor, needy, uneducated, violent — you get the picture.
Instead, look at films where most of the characters are Black and which are told from a Black perspective. Search for the ones that have a well-rounded cast and that move beyond common Black stereotypes. By all means watch 13th, but also watch Waiting to Exhale. Read books with Black protagonists, too.
And if not seeing a bunch of people like you makes you feel uncomfortable, sit with why that is for a minute. Then consider how your Black friends, acquaintances, and colleagues feel almost every time they watch a movie or read a book.
Thanks for reading my perspective on this issue. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.
Heads-up: If you want to hear more of my experiences face to face, check out the anti-racism workshop I’m leading on January 23rd.