The Black *Insert White Name Here*

by Alisha Tillery

Joyce BryantA couple of weeks ago, I came across a story about Joyce Bryant, a curvaceous entertainer in the 1950s and 60s who was known as “the Black Marilyn Monroe.” I researched her further, and Bryant was beautiful and talented in her own right, oozing sex appeal and class simultaneously, but instead she was compared to the Blond Bombshell. There’s also an intriguing story about Greenwood, a small town in Oklahoma, which became known as “the black Wall Street” because of its thriving community before a race riot destroyed it in 1921.

I thought about how many times I’ve heard someone or something referred to as “the black” whatever” and why that is. Understandably, for so long, we’ve only had whites to look to as the standard of beauty, intellect and talent. We looked to those figures when our heroes were few, far and in between. Honestly, even when there were counterparts of African descent who were comparable or even better–Lena Horne or Jackie Robinson—the Frank Sinatras and Marilyn Monroes were still the mold.

In present day, it’s still happening. The list of African-Americans who compare themselves to white icons is endless, especially in pop culture and entertainment. Back in the Bad Boy era, Lil’ Kim often referred to herself as the “black Erica Kane,” the infamous and stylish diva on All My Children and Notorious B.I.G. dubbed himself the “black Frank White” after a fictitious drug lord in the film, King of New York.

Then there’s my favorite, which has been adopted by countless fashionistas/writers—“the black Carrie Bradshaw,” after Candace Bushnell’s golden girl in Sex and the City. Even one of the most prestigious HBCUs, Howard University, which has a laundry list of bragging rights, including graduating some of the most notable African-Americans of our time, is unofficially coined the “black Harvard” by some alumni.

I don’t like it. It gives the impression that we want to be someone or something else.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a white woman refer to herself as “the white Oprah,” or the “white Beyonce’.” In fact, they’re doing just the opposite. Take Miley Cyrus, who’s been in the media lately for her “ratchet” antics, as an example. As Clutch recently reported, Miley rejected a Billboard critic’s moniker as “the white Nicki Minaj” after twerking her way back into relevancy. She responded, “A lot of people wanted to try to make me the white Nicki Minaj. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I love ‘hood’ music, but my talent is as a singer.” Umm, okay, Miley. I’m sure she was thinking “why be the white Nicki when I can just be the white me? I’m enough.”

There’s a popular joke from Chris Rock’s classic standup, Bigger and Blacker, where he says a poor white man wouldn’t trade places with him because he’s African-American, even though he’s wealthy. “There’s a one-legged busboy in here right now that’s going, ‘I don’t want to change. I’m gonna ride this white thing out and see where it takes me.’”

Rock was jokingly referring to “white privilege,” the latest discussion topic for thought leaders and social media intellects. This concept suggests that a person gets points just for being whoever they are, a particular gender and/or race.

Regardless of these so-called privileges, it’s time out for us to focus more on what we do, rather than look to others as the blueprint. We are no longer in the shadows of others. Referring to ourselves as the black anything only devalues our own accomplishments and worth. Sure, it’s easy to tack black onto the front a well-known name because that person may be the mainstream point of reference, but we have skills, experience and expertise strong enough to stand alone. We can be our own brand without having to lean on what others have achieved.

  • MimiLuvs

    I thought that I was the only person who found that habit to be annoying.
    I understand that people use the “the black…” as a way to describe someone/something. But, there’s something about comparing an object/a person to a white person that bugs me.

  • MLI

    Inferiority is inherent in the statement. It’s like they are saying that the White person is the standard of excellence, and whatever black person you are comparing hasn’t quite achieved that standard yet, but you’re the closest that blacks have.

  • beejcee

    I thought Erica Kane is the character played by Susan Lucci on All My Children.

  • Clutch

    Fixed – thanks!

  • Rue

    Thank you!!!
    It was his vitriolic lashing out against this term in his Autobiography that made me fall head-over-heels in love with Malcolm X.
    And I’m sick to my stomach of black women undergoing various crap to be compared to Marilyn Munroe. It’s not a popular opinion, but I don’t think she’s all that and a flask of rum. Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker were much better.

  • BeanBean

    Inferiority complex in blacks runs so deep. I can’t stand seeing/hearing this person is the *white name.* Perhaps one day we will get past this. I’ve noticed everything we do in this country is compared to whites: test scores, income, education, marriage, jobs, birthrates. Why do we have to use whites as the standard???

  • The Other Jess

    Never do this. It’s insulting to yourself – and ascribing to white supremacy – (whether you know it or not) when you do this. Especially when you know that white people would never say things like that, for example calling someone “the white Dorothy Dandrige”, (even though they precisely should). Dorothy Dandrige predated people like Marilyn Monroe and my grandparents told me Monroe copied a lot of her style from Dandridge.

  • Treece

    “all that and a flask of rum”

    Love it! LOl, when “a bag of chips” just doesn’t cut it…..

  • The Comment

    sidenote; I’d rock that cover on a T-Shirt.

    @BeanBean & The Other Jess

    Excellent points that should be taught in every 1st grade class. I haven’t read the entire board but I do believe if we focus on self-esteem and setting our own standards like we did 50 yrs ago; We be headed in the right direction.


  • KnottyNatural

    Those who make the rules, also make the standard. The unfortunate part is that most aspire to fit the standard.

  • KnottyNatural

    Unfortunately for a lot of young black people, the standard is to reach ‘ratchet’…hopefully this will die and quick death.

  • Truthbetold

    “We can be our own brand without having to lean on what others have achieved.” Love this statement, we need to live it!

  • ETC

    This is something that irks me as well. It can be found throughout Africa as well. They advertise schools like “like American schools”, “Abuja is just like a European city”. It really does speak to a collective low self-esteem among Afro-descending people. People of color here and throughout the world need to set their own standard for beauty,education,entrepreneurship, etc. The only validation we should need is from our own people and leaders!

  • Joan

    To Alisha Tillery’s essay, AMEN! ;)

  • Fossilizedrelic

    Ok in that case be your own beauty standard.

  • Trisha

    It all equates to that belief “white is right”. If you see or hear anything long enough, you will begin to believe it. The black women of the 1950’s and 1960’s were admired more b/c we celebrated them more. My blueprint for beauty is and has always been the beautiful black women of that era. I love everything about them.

    While I don’t discount a woman’s beauty based on her ethnicity, beauty is beauty.

    But I cannot remember a time that a black woman couldn’t stand on her own beauty; it just becomes distorted as time passes. It’s almost as if we don’t suppose to recognize our own beauty b/c no one else or (not as many) do anymore. Not only that, we don’t suppose to love being black or embrace it. The more you do, the more it is shunned by society. I sincerely think this is why we see more of the leaning.

    Also, I think once we embrace ourselves again [in everything], we won’t have to by into that old belief that “white is right”. We didn’t then and we sure don’t have to now — especially with access to more of our own resources.

    sidenote: it’s sad. we are the only race of people who can’t love themselves. This is the main reason why we use inserts..

  • t

    meant buy

  • GlowBelle

    Great thought. I remember reading a piece about Dorothy Dandridge’s role as a teacher in the film ‘Bright Road’ (great film, everyone should check it out!) and she said she took the role because she wanted not just Black girls but White girls to say I can be a teacher like her. I thought that was a pretty good response and it’s one of the many reasons why I admire Dandridge.

    I agree, the “Black…whatever” label is hella out of date as in the time era of Joyce Bryant the ‘crossover’ era was in its early stages. Few Black entertainers back then were able to latch a White audience as most weren’t all the way accepting to Black talent. Black audiences also weren’t allowed into venues where a lot of White entertainers performed. We had to have our own “versions” in that case. So I don’t think it was all because we wanted to be or compared to someone White, it was because segregation in the arts was real. Now the act of “crossing over” to a White audience in entertainment is pretty much dead. I never hear about how Beyonce or Rihanna having to cross over to get their careers started. So at least we’re getting somewhere…

  • binks

    Great article, personally I never understood people who said that like why can’t you be just you. I agree that it is a backhanded compliment on yourself because you are still looking at yourself as if you are not on equal footing as the thing/person you are comparing yourself too.

  • LMO85

    True. Waited for someone to bring this up as I read the comments, ON POINT. Thank you.

  • J.Nicole

    That has always annoyed me. As if simply being who you are isn’t enough. I appreciated when talk came of making Idris Elba the next James Bond he mentioned he didn’t want to be known as the “Black James Bond”. It really does downplay all of our many achievements as if a white person first came and broke the mold.

  • Gina Wild

    Angelina Jolie is the white Angela Bassett.

  • Gina Wild

    I once saw several pictures of Abuja, Nigeria I thought to myself and told people around me that it looks like Switzerland. So I’m guilty of that…

  • Kisha

    I would definitely wear this on a t shirt too. It’s a silent peeve of mine when I see black women wearing Marilyn Monroe shirts. Personally, I choose not to wear any items with a white womans face pictured on it. Why when I could have Dorothy, Lena or Joyce? Just my personal opinion.

  • WhatIThink

    I think this article is missing the point.

    If this woman did not want to reflect or identify with a white standard of beauty then why on earth did she dye her hair platinum blonde and straighten it? The fact is that black entertainers have been walking billboards for white beauty standards since black folks finally started getting accepted in entertainment. And lets not forget that in the era of when this magazine cover was current, very light skinned black celebrities was the norm, because this is what white society liked and expected. I mean if you are going to “research” the beauty standards and racism in entertainment as found on the covers of old jet magazines, then you should actually cover some of the issues as seen in those magazines….

    And they are all on line for anyone to see if they want to “research”……

    The point being that the Beyonce wanna be white fake straight blonde hair look is not even new among black entertainers…..

    And sorry, it all has its roots in the white dominated beauty and fashion industry.

  • MLI

    Like hell she is

  • MommieDearest

    YAS!!!! This has ALWAYS been a pet peeve of mine. It’s like white is the default for everything that is good, and all the rest of us can hope for is to do a decent imitation of the standard.

    White people are not the end all, be all. Black people are great in or OWN right and we do not need to be compared to anyone else for validation. Kudos to the author for putting it out there.

  • Pearlsrevealed

    Here is the link to the documentary website about Joyce Bryant. The site has video of her in recent years. As the saying goes “Black don’t crack” and there is no white version of that. LOL!__intro

  • http://aol David

    In fact, I have heard a number of White women such as Ricki Lake) and a few others refer to themselves as wanting to be the White Oprah.

  • Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt (@JenebaSpeaks)

    Stats are not compared to whites, they are just compared to all races. When they appear inferior, it looks as if they are being compared to white. However, when you pull back and look at test scores, internationally, in particular, you will not that WHITE is not always at the top. Whites are not the standard. Excellence, Wealth, High education, high income are NOT White standards or factors but are independent variables irrespective and without regards to race.

    As to this article, I agree to a point, but I think it may be helpful to say “he is the Next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates” for example v. the Black Bill Gates bc it takes race out of the picture and focuses on the individual accomplished person who one is trying to emulate. I too have heard of Bethenny Frankel, Ricki Lake etc saying they want to be the “next Oprah”. Maybe that is the way to go.

  • WhatIThink

    Unfortunately a whole lot of black artists from the 50s nightclub circuit have been “forgotten”. People look at these images and clips and forget that the society they lived in was still extremely racist. And this is a large part of the reason why they have been forgotten. Looking through those old Jet mags you see a lot of names that you never heard of that were fairly popular for their time. But more than anything this tells me we shouldn’t let the mirage become our vision of reality. A lot of black entertainers have justified their “act” by thinking if they let me sing or let me dance or let me show them how good I am, things will change….. No they didn’t. You just tried to imitate them and pretend not to be mad as hell in order to get by or get along and never really gained any power, which in reality should be what this is all about. Black folks are the genius behind many facets of entertainment in America but are still primarily penniless and in many ways powerless, even though some individuals have gotten a lot of money and a lot of popularity. But the black image in entertainment has not changed. It is still the same old coon and thug routine or black folks trying to pretend to be non threatening or imitation whites to get along and get some money.

  • ThisGurl (@ThisGurlWrites)

    If i had a son i’d want him to be the next Neil deGrasse Tyson. Heck if i had a daughter i’d want the same thing. Being a trailblazer is far more exciting than being the black copy of whatever.

  • thebayarean

    Great article! You’ve made some very valid points here. Even in our self acceptance and so-called Black pride, there is still an age-old tendency to compare ourselves against a White standard, as if our own standards of beauty and talent aren’t enough. Unfortunately, this occurs amongst all types of Black people. This type of self-deprecating speech MUST be eliminated from our vocabulary in order for us to move forward and truly accept ourselves as we are.

  • Pingback: The Problem With ‘the Black Whatever’ |

  • Ali

    I enjoyed reading this and totally agree. It’s something that I’ve scratched my head about too. I don’t think anyone’s called me the white fill-in-the-blank, but if it ever happened, it would annoy me to no end.

  • Amber Nefertari

    I never liked those types of terms. Why would anyone would want to be called “The Black Carrie Bradshaw” or “The Black Marilyn Monroe”? There are so many beautiful, talented, and legendary Black Hollywood actresses for Black women to nick-name themselves after.

  • OnFire

    Hmmm… call me crazy, but I’ve never actually interpreted the phrase that way. It’s very difficult to find old Hollywood actors of color. What if someone is genuinely more like Elizabeth Taylor in their acting style/persona than they are Eartha Kitt? Or more Brigitte Bardot than Dihann Carrol? When there are only a handful of well known people of color to compare a young entertainer with, I’d rather they get an accurate comparison- regardless of race- than one to just any person of the same race. Hopefully one day, there will be more people of color to make those comparisons to, but right now there really aren’t.

    When an ex called me “the black Kate Moss” (clearly lifting the reference from Yeezy), I didn’t think of it as him saying that I transcended my blackness to be as chic as Kate Moss; I took it as him finding me more comparable to Kate Moss than Jourdan Dunn, Naomi Campbell, Joan Smalls, etc in terms of style and attitude.

  • rkahendi

    I think that you’re right – in some cases. And I think the article writer is right – in some cases. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why people make such comparisons.

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