Empire, Sorority Sisters and Black Humanity Under the White Gaze

 

Black representation is a precarious thing. As a people, we’ve had to fight for the right to be recognized as human beings since we set foot on American soil and our humanity still isn’t fully recognized. In addition to physically torturing us, white supremacy has been on a 400 year old image smearing campaign. It isn’t enough to beat, kill, rape and jail us. We’ve been taught to hate Blackness and so has the rest of society. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to tell which group hates Blackness the most, us or non-Black people. As a result of this treatment, we’ve tried our best to assimilate and prove to white supremacy that we’re worth a damn. If we fight the kinks in our hair, put on our best outfit and use “articulate” language, we can get a seat at the table. For many Black folks that will keep you off Dwight Folks’ bad side even though it hasn’t worked since we were supposedly emancipated. Stereotypical images like the coon, Mandingo, sapphire and Jezebel have contemporaries in the welfare queen, independent woman and criminal. White supremacy created and promoted these images to justify our marginalization and we use these same images to police other Black folks that don’t care what white supremacy thinks of them.

I see this in people who make the “Black people vs. niggas” distinction even though white people don’t see a difference. I’ve seen it when people look disapprovingly when someone speaks too loudly or uses too much AAVE (ebonics). I see the policing when it comes to Black television shows and movies. Anything that doesn’t pass the Bougie Negro litmus test is attacked and slandered in a barrage of think pieces. We’re not taught to truly look at media with a critical and nuanced eye. We’re trained to shoot anything that isn’t Huxtable-lized because it might make us look bad to white people. Two of the most recent examples of this behavior has been the controversy surrounding Sorority Sisters and Empire. For those that don’t know, Sorority Sisters was a short-lived reality show that followed a group of Black women who were members of the predominately Black sororities in the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho. Months before the show’s existence was confirmed, the Bougie Negro Drop Squad assembled to make sure the show didn’t see the light of day and the controversy reached a fever pitch when the show actually premiered. The show was cancelled before the last four episodes aired and several cast members have been suspended or expelled from their respective sororities.

The ladies of Sorority Sisters

Empire is a scripted series that follows a fictional record company of the same name that was started by Lucious Lyons  and his ex-wife, Cookie. The hood to Hollywood couple is portrayed by Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson aka D-jay and Shug from Hustle and Flow. That alone is enough to send Bougie negroes into a fit. On top of the casting, Cookie and Lucious have a pretty dysfunctional relationship that includes the former’s rivalry with Boo Boo Kitty Anika, Lucious’ current squeeze. Cookie is a hood rich convict that did a bid for Lucious and Terrance is playing the same raggedy light skinned negro he always plays. They’re no Cliff and Clair Huxtable so they definitely don’t pass the test.

D-jay and Shug done came up.

D-jay and Shug done came up.

I acknowledge the shows have their problematic aspects but still, I liked them. For the sake of transparency, I also like Love and Hip-Hop and Real Housewives of Atlanta. I like a lot of ratchet and problematic shit but I own it and unless something glaringly wrong happens, I feel no shame in liking this type of media. I believe in the fullness of Black humanity and that means while we can be great and exude excellence, we can be dysfunctional too. To deny of this is to demand we give up what makes us human beings. White people are allowed to succeed and make mistakes without the burden of their race being on their shoulders. White people are allowed to just be people. Watching these shows used to be empty entertainment for me but now, there have been times watching feels like a form of resistance against respectability and caring about the white gaze. You won’t see me having a fit about a new reality show and call for it to be taken off the air. Rather, I’d rather fight for more diverse imagery and Black content creators to be put on. If we dedicated half as much energy to advocating for underdog shows and movies, I think we’d be better off. What if we mobilized around other Black projects like we have done with Selma? We can change the landscape of media but it takes an effort.

In addition, we have to stop being motivated by the white gaze. If your only reason for not liking something is because you’re scared of what white people will think of you, you’ve already lost. We’re losing by pandering to the white gaze. As Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) said in Mr. Nigga, They say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful/You start keepin’ pace, they start changin’ up the tempo. They’ve been changing the tempo for ages yet y’all still try to dance to their song. No matter what you do, they’re going to find a way to trip you.

Trying to set yourself apart from the “bad” Black people doesn’t make you look good to them because, to quote another rapper, “even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop.”

If we really want diverse imagery, let’s put more “good” on television so we can have more to choose from. Let’s raise our kids to be critical consumers of media so they can watch shows like Real Housewives and be able to point out problematic aspects of that show as well as any other piece of media, Black or otherwise.

I ain’t worried about appeasing whitey and you shouldn’t be either.

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6 thoughts on “Empire, Sorority Sisters and Black Humanity Under the White Gaze

  1. ModernDayKay says:

    I have the same sentiments when it comes to the “ratchet” television. There’s nothing wrong with watching them, but why can’t the way people represent themselves on television represent what they stand for, not an entire race. Every time there’s a series questionable of black morality it’s attached with a petition. For instance, I don’t hear near as much hoopla over shows like “My Big Fat (American) Gypsy Wedding” and that show is a hot mess. I don’t understand when “Empire” is considered bougie because bougie to me means to some extent you want to be “other.” Let “Empire” be. Watch it if you like it and leave it alone if you don’t. Great post (as always).

  2. Ashley says:

    Hey Ashleigh. My names Ashley! I read a bit of your article and I kinda agree and kinda don’t. I understand where you’re coming from when you talk about the Bougie Negro police squad, but I wouldn’t condemn this squad either. Just because certain black people want the image to be seen in a better light does not make it wrong and it doesn’t make them bougie. Nor does it mean that they are trying pander to white expectation (negative to positive). Nor do they want to represent the entire black community. There are well meaning black people who just want self-determination, separate from the pervasive image of them in the media. And there is so much negative stuff. Thats why I really can’t get down when you say Love and hip hop is okay to represent our dysfunction. They don’t. And If I’m going to be represented as dysfunctional I’d like it to be represented in my own unique light thankyouverymuch. Like being a black feminist and losing my cool around other black folks who aren’t progressive. Thats a persona dysfunction for me.
    And in the same vein I’d like to contribute and see more diverse representation of black people in a positive light too. We dont have to be superstars or welfare queens. We can be regular folk; who work for the newspaper and like to garden. No skin colour included. Unfortunately because there is such a manic attempt to make us look either really bad or really good in the media, it gives our young ones (and not so young ones) a very mixed message about who they can be and what they can do. That’s problem for me. I’d like to teach people (all people but especially black people duh) that they dont have to fight to prove themselves. That they can flow through life, and that they can BE without impressing no one. Good article. Thank you

  3. Rachel says:

    I understand your point, and halfheartedly agree. The issue is in lack of representation. While there might be white shows just as tacky as RHOA or Love & Hip Hop, as a whole their community is being represented in full. There are so many different elements of white culture being visualized on television. On the other hand black americans are being marginalized by how we are represented. you can ONLY be the loud, tough black woman, or another other racially charged stereotype. So my issue is not the shows, but the common theme that continues to be repeated and being claimed as our only black truth at large. this limits us, and becomes the only thing that the white producers believe we want to see and that will sell to advertisers(I know, i’m in the business). If there were more distinctions being put up to fight this solitary narrative i would have a lot less issue with watching RHOA and other shows being catered to our AA demos.

  4. Celeste V. Ratcliffe says:

    I certainly do not agree that African Americans should excuse the petty categories that dangle above our consciousness. So much of our community has exceeded beyond their expectations. We do it every day, by not taking that puff of pot or walking out of the store empty handed because we decided not to shoplift after all. The contradictions that burden all people of all creeds and ethnicities face, only isolate us from secular cultures because, we believe we are not unique and not valued. This is why T.V. shows like Empire are pertinent to buffering the realities of our culture. We all of a purpose, and some go without praise. Sub genres are more than good or bad they give us an identity.

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