By Arielle Julia Brown
As a Black woman who is significantly aware and even tired of talking about Black female media representation, I do my part to keep my front lawn clean. That is to say, that I (do not) x (do not) x (do not) create work that perpetuates negative depictions of women of color. Bitchy/hyper sexual/subservient woman of color tropes have no place in my mouth/on the pages I write/in the theatre I make/on my Facebook newsfeed.
So when we were in rehearsal the other day, and Alex asked all of us in development to think about the kind of crazy that women of color make, I had a really hard time. First I felt like I the “crazy” we make is not something I want to blast to the world. Love and Hip Hop on VH1 does a fabulous job of that already.
But this question got me thinking about the fine line between promoting positive representations of women of color and boxing in the experiences of women of color in support of respectability politics.
According to Wikipedia “Respectability Politics” is a term first coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. The term is used to explain how “marginalized groups police their own members to show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its inability to accept difference.”
While I am not interested in perpetuating the use of respectability politics in our performance or development work, I do think there is something to investigating the things that trigger our individual respectability politics. Below are a few crowdsourced triggers from our development team:
The performance of coonery + the performance of femininity by men of color – i.e. men of color playing women of color in yellowface/blackface/brownface/redface – Please Tyler Perry, it’s played.)
Women of color fighting with each other in public (love and hip hop. #icant)
Women of color who do things that fulfill stereotypes. i.e. (Black women nannies/Latina maids/Asian women who drive poorly – Why can’t we just make a living and drive home from work without representing “our people”)
When women of color do not code switch when it could be seemingly helpful – in public/in meetings/in front of white people (Cookie vs. Anika – Which side are you on…in real life?)
Verbally affirming white people and men in their use of stereotypes of people of color and women of color (Kendrick Lamar – were looking at that interview with Billboard Magazine about #blacklivesmatter vs your assessment of Black people not loving themselves… Kendrick, we love you but go sit somewhere. please.)
We have yet to figure out how we are going to stage women of color and crazy making/and-or/respectability politics. However, I am confident that whatever it is it will make one or all of us uncomfortable and that is most often a step in the direction toward greater honesty onstage.