For a 16-year-old, Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi knows more about entertainment’s role in racism than perhaps most of white-male-dominated Hollywood.
In June, Shahidi spoke at the Points of Light 2016 Conference on Volunteering and Service where she received an honor for her philanthropy. Before receiving her award, she delivered a speech to the likes of Jesse Williams’ at the BET Awards, stabbing white Hollywood players in the heart.
Shahidi spoke about the importance of the diversity of diverse characters on the television screen. It’s nice to see people who look like us on the big screen, but it’s deeper than just being seen.
A video of a woman in Oakland, California voicing her concerns to police officers during a #BlackLivesMatter protest came across my timeline last week. As she locked elbows with her fellow protesters, she screamed, “why is our skin color a weapon? what did I do to y’all?”
Guess what? We have done it all. Black skin is a weapon, black skin is dangerous and blackness is only be feared.
So the question stands: what will it take for white people trust that melanin comes without harm?
A white person will tell you that they’re not racist, right before screaming #AllLivesMatter. They seem to believe that they have no part in racism because they aren’t prancing around in white hoods or slinging nooses around black necks, but racism doesn’t come served on a platter. It’s like poison slipped into an unsuspecting drink.
I watched the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile dying next to his girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds. According to her, when they were pulled over, Castile disclosed to the officer that there was a gun in the vehicle and that he had a permit to carry. He also told the officer that he was taking out his wallet.
As the officer stood next to Castile’s car, with his gun still pointed after having shot five bullets into Castile’s body, the little girl in the back seat watched as he kept repeating: “I told him not to do it.”
Why was he scared? Why didn’t he believe him? He couldn’t. He’s a product of the poison that is our media industry.
This poison is Denzel Washington in Training Day, playing a dirty cop who attempts to destroy an unsuspecting white trainee. This poison is a news editor digging up the criminal background of a man whose child found his way into a gorilla exhibit. This poison is slave movie after slave movie after slave movie.
Those who control these images have immense power.
But with more diverse characters, we can combat this poison.
Yara also touched upon her Black-ish character, Zoey, and how playing Zoey is her way of using art for activism. If you watch Black-ish, you know that Zoey is much more dynamic than the one-dimensional black girl TV regularly gives us. She realizes her power, as do the Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernays and Jesse Williams of the world. Still, it is not only our responsibility as black people to realize this power.
The all-white writers room of Orange is the New Black understood this power when they tackled #BlackLivesMatter in the fourth season. I wrote about how Poussey’s death was necessary. Her character had to be sacrificed for the greater good of making non-black viewers understand #BlackLivesMatter. Some called it “trauma porn” — white people capitalizing on black death for both entertainment and financial gain. Others simply understood that it wasn’t for our community, it was for others to learn.
Many roads can be taken to combat the norm of blackness on television and in movies, as long as diversity in diversity is the focus. This alone has the power to dismantle systemic racism because the lack of it, is what helps racism thrive.