Celebrities dissociation from racial identity
The latest media frenzy has been sparked by none other than Clueless breakout star Stacey Dash. Her recent comments on the elimination of Black History Month, networks like BET, and the BET and NAACP Image Awards have led to many discussions on the actress’s views and identity. Dash is not alone in making these controversial statements, however, as we can almost always expect the same from celebrities such as Raven Symone and Don Lemon.
With all the jokes and memes about who to trade in the Racial Draft, these celebrities’ dissociation from their blackness and the black community indicate a larger issue. One’s cultural identity is rooted in both self-perception and a sense of belonging to a distinct cultural group, whether race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Black people are most certainly not a monolith, but many of the experiences, narratives, and cultural hallmarks have been historically shared. Commonalities have been circulated through film, television, music, literature, and other art forms. Thus, the history, imagery, accomplishments, failures, and issues of the African-American population have been produced and consumed in mass culture and society.
Everyone has and is a different definition of blackness, but when one chooses to actually dissociate, he or she is severing the connection to a cultural group. This is particularly problematic in America where race, a social construct built on perception and antiquated laws meant for a socio-economic hierarchy, plays such a major role in one’s life. Being able to not only identify, but bond and stand with one’s cultural group has been a source of empowerment for African-Americans for centuries.
As it pertains to entertainment, there has been an ongoing struggle for dignified, widespread representation for African-Americans. Artists like Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson were some of the earliest proponents of equal representation and rights, and aimed to use their celebrity platforms to advance the community. Fredi Washington, who starred in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, and Langston Hughes were quoted as follows:
“You see I’m a mighty proud gal and I can’t for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.” – Fredi Washington, The Chicago Defender
“I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.” – Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
Given the nature of their comments, it is almost laughable that Dash and Symone have built their careers on black roles and audiences. Dash, as Roland Martin also eloquently explains, has been on BET’s revival of The Game, Paper Soldiers, Gang of Roses, Ride or Die, Nora’s Hair Salon 2, and an assortment of black magazines. Raven Symone first graced the small screen as a child star on The Cosby Show and Alex Haley’s Queen . After a long career with Disney, in 2015 Symone appeared in episodes of Empire and, ironically, black-ish.
Dash and Symone certainly identify as black when attending casting calls and receiving their paychecks. It is also unsurprisingly convenient that once Dash and Symone began expressing these opinions, they were added to the cast of television personalities on talk shows Fox & Friends and The View. As television relies on ratings and advertisers, these women are literally paid to share controversial comments on air.
Some want to allow the people in question a pass to be different, which, by all means, we are entitled to be as free citizens. However, the problem lies in that their perspectives and opinions are not simply different. They’re uneducated, misinformed, and narrow-minded. They contribute nothing to the campaigns for diversity, equality, or uplift. Their views are an embarrassment no matter which political party or ideological standpoint they claim, all for the sake of good television.
The NAACP Image and BET Awards exist because the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys historically and presently exclude talented people of color and their work. Black History Month exists because African-American history is often only a chapter in a U.S. history book, if not relegated to an elective course altogether. The argument for eliminating any of these can only be supported if black history is included in history curriculums year-round, or if the voting membership of award shows becomes diverse enough to reflect the American population.
Perhaps this is an attempt to gain more crossover appeal for their careers, or perhaps it is how these people truly view and feel about African-Americans and American society. The only thing certain is that this isn’t the first time we’ve heard commentary like this, and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last.