For many people, reality shows Basketball Wives, Miami and Real Housewives of Atlanta have metastasized in America’s psyche as a poisonous stereotype of African-American women.
Cloaked as entertainment, our marginalization as angry Sapphires and promiscuous Jezebels is encapsulated in each and every episode. At times, both juvenile and superficial — with a painfully obvious need for fame and external validity — these women have yet to realize that every cat-fight and backstabbing antic solidifies their pioneering role in a new Blackface era, where strong, successful women are reduced to mere caricatures of themselves.
Which is why it is so intriguing that the shiniest star in the BBW orbit is Evelyn Lozada.
You wouldn’t guess it by the petition spreading like wild-fire across the black wide web, but Lozada, a proud Puerto-Rican from the Bronx, is not African-American. Whether she considers herself to be black or not is a topic tackling race vs. ethnicity that is tangential to this article. Still, without fanfare or warning, she has become a symbol of many of the stereotypical depictions that have plagued African-American women since the dawn of time and all she needed to do was act like a damn fool.
How exactly did this happen? How was our distorted media image transferred so seamlessly to Lozada?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and author of the book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, said in a discussion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that many black women feel shamed by stereotypical images – many which have come to life in the contemporary narratives of Basketball Wives and RHOA – because we are still grappling with our identity in this country and asserting our right to shed the stigma of being black in America. With powerful honesty, she told the audience that seeing ourselves portrayed in a positive light instinctively “means something to us.” With this in mind, it would make sense that when we see these historical stereotypes weekly in high definition, the “color” of the person embodying them ceases to be important.
Not surprisingly, the topic of “race” is approached with extreme caution and vagueness on both shows. Leading many viewers, perhaps subconsciously, into believing that both Evelyn and Kim Zolciak of RHOA — the token white woman who tries so painfully hard be a stereotypical “sista” — are anomalies in a world where they are not representatives of their respective cultures. Rather, they are viewed as “honorary members” of our own – at least the mischaracterization of it that is spoon-fed to the world. Unlike the inescapable “otherness” of black skin in this country, their racial identity is safely tucked between the folds of what is stereotypically considered an African-American woman’s existence. Simultaneously, a fun-house mirror reflection of Black culture is being broadcast all over the world, then boomeranging back to polarize our communities.
In a previous Clutch article, I hypothesized that to feel disrespect, one must feel that a characterization is abusive, and to experience that abuse on a visceral level, one must feel that even if it’s not true of them as individuals, it is often true of their kindred in the collective. This is amplified on BBW and RHOA, where critics continue to cast judgment on what blurs into an all-Black cast and many of us will continue to shoulder the “shame” of two small groups of women because how we are represented “means something to us.”
While this concern is admirable, and at times necessary, the idea that black women must always be perfectly well-behaved — or risk shaming the community-at-large – is both unrealistic and unfair. We are fighting a battle that is unique to women of color in this country, and that is the duality of asserting our individual identities separate from stereotypical imagery, while fighting for the elevation of our communities as a whole. This places us in the precarious position of not being able to ignore the pervasive effects of reality television, while still recognizing that every, single one of these women has the right to present themselves to the world as they choose – whether anyone agrees or not.
At some point, the debate must be expanded to encompass not only how our narrow representations in media are affecting our communities, but to also address the more nuanced ground of individual identity – something to which black women seem not to be entitled.
Dialogue is essential.
And a good place to begin would be to examine why black women have been elected as torch-bearers for the entire African-American community at-large – trapped in a cycle of stereotypes that refuse to disappear.