The future is color.
When the dominant visual media paradigm is one of hegemonic whiteness, there are a limited number of choices for women of color. Submit yourself to the hegemony and take whatever scraps casting agents, directors, producers throw at you even if they might be problematic. Or, smash that shit and begin carving out your own space. More and more black and brown women are choosing the latter, and it is glorious.
One of the queens of the breakthrough is Issa Rae, whose YouTube web series Awkward Black Girl got picked up by HBO in a stunning debut season renamed Insecure that was quickly renewed. Other than Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, this was one of the first times I’d ever experienced visual media that was specifically tailored to a woman of color’s gaze. And what a gaze it is that has been missing from visual media.
While Mindy and Issa’s backgrounds and experiences of America (and American-ness) are completely different, where they intersect as women of color through their own presentations of self is in their inherent messiness. Both women are highly capable and intelligent, often socially awkward and straight-up off-putting, but they are still unapologetically themselves. They are whole women with real flaws and all. What sets Mindy’s and Issa’s work apart, though, is that while Mindy makes space for the white gaze in her project, Issa’s Insecure is staunchly produced for gazes of color. It’s not to say that you can’t watch Insecure as a white person, it’s just to say that, for once, a show wasn’t made with white people in mind really at all.
Both Issa and Mindy’s work is groundbreaking, and even revolutionary, in that neither women allow themselves to be subsumed by the stereotypes that shape her community, race, ethnicity, and where gender intersects it all. Because it’s not just more diversity in representation we need in visual media, it’s also more three-dimensional characters of color we are sorely lacking.
In another huge coup for brown and black women visual media creators, the web series Brown Girls has also been picked up by HBO for its star treatment. Written by Fatimah Asghar and produced and directed by Sam Bailey, Brown Girls explores the lives of two best friends, one of whom is a South Asian American and the other African American. Where Brown Girls will deepen the experiences of brown and black women on television is through these women’s active explorations of their queer identities and how they fit into (or don’t) with the expectations of the South Asian and black communities. Again, trailblazing stuff right here that will hopefully lay tread for more like it and especially on huge platforms like HBO.
Fatimah Asghar recently told Elle:
“Representation is so complicated. I don’t want us to be one single voice on these issues. It’s hard to be one of the only folks of color or queer folks of color because there are so many stories. It’s so important to get those stories out there to show a wide myriad of experience.”
And both Asghar and Sam Bailey credit Queen Issa Rae with paving the way for their stories, their gaze, and their art to catapult into the big leagues.
Just last month, I had the opportunity to chat with Desi-founded and women-helmed production company Luminoustudios about the work they are doing to promote marginalized voices as a direct response to Hollywood’s overwhelming whiteness and maleness.
The sisterhood is real and growing stronger every day. And on its tails, the visual media industry is finally starting to understand that there is more to the American experience than whiteness and not only people of color are interested in experiencing those stories. Is this a reaction to the regressive politics of the Trump regime? Maybe. Are people tired of the same old white narratives? Most definitely.
And here’s why representation is important from a personal perspective: It wasn’t until I began writing for Wear Your Voice — a magazine that specifically promotes black and brown perspectives — that I realized my voice as a Sri Lankan American woman even mattered. Until then, I had been whitewashing myself to better survive as a brown woman in predominantly white spaces. And even with all that effort in self-whitewashing — like not bringing up “touchy” issues of race or my lifelong experiences of racism because I could see it made white folks uncomfortable — I was still regularly Othered. Simultaneously hyper-visible and totally erased.
Through Wear Your Voice’s policy of elevating voices like mine I finally let go and gave myself permission for the totality of my lived experience the opportunity to thrive through words. As a result, I began to connect with brown and black women who related with my essays since they were going through similar dilemmas, identity crises, and growing pains as me. My community began to blossom in a way where I could finally stop self-censoring to better serve white fragility.
And synchronicitously, nuanced and non-stereotypical representation of people of color in visual media was suddenly also on fire, with Sense8, Master of None, Homecoming King, Emerald City, American Crime, Quantico, Chewing Gum, Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish and many others hitting the airstreams that kept reminding me that I am not alone in my experience as an Other American Woman. Having the opportunity to represent myself as a complete brown person, and seeing other three-dimensional brown and black people on screen, helped me finally get good and comfortable in my own brown skin.
The more representation we get the less patience I have for the master narrative of whiteness. I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was from bending myself into bridges and pretzels to see some aspect of my experience reflected in visual media until I didn’t have to do it anymore.
It’s about time that black and brown and all the marginalized sisters begin doing visual media for ourselves.
The future is color.
Here are some projects you can check out to tide you over until the new seasons of Insecure and Brown Girls hit the prestige airwaves:
Brittani Nichols’s SuicideKale
Lena Waithe’s The Chi
Luann Algoso’s Nonprofit
Nefertite Nguvu’s In the Morning
Alanna Airitam’s The Golden Age
Art by Saba Taj