March 8, 2015
Mirror Essay: Black Female College Student
Being a Black woman as well as a college student I hardly see myself represented in the various forms of popular culture. Moreover, when I do see a black woman represented on television for example, they are usually on reality shows, throwing drinks in each other’s faces, gossip driven, angry, hypersexual and territorial. They are not usually depicted in a positive light. I hardly ever see Black women who are like me; a student pursuing higher education, and living a life not full of drama. However, after doing some research and talking to people, I discovered a few media sources that somewhat represented myself and those included a film Dear White People (Justin Simien 2014), and television series A Different World (Bill Cosby 1987) a spinoff of the then popular sitcom, The Cosby Show as well as a secondary source, Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives by Gail Elizabeth Wyatt. I chose to write about this because I feel it directly connects to who I am as not only a college student but also as a Black woman. I was curious as to what I would find when it came to mirroring my identity within popular culture media.
In the semi-recent film, Dear White People (Justin Simien 2014) I found some characters who represented Black female college students and the complexity of their identities. This movie takes places on a college campus at Winchester University. Dear White People deals with identity crises, racism, family issues and social injustices. There are two characters in particular that I want to focus on. First being Samantha (Sam) White who is a bi-racial female who has fully embraced her Black side but has neglected her white side in the process. Sam is what one would consider a pro Black intellect who wears her heart on her sleeve. She is always stating unfiltered facts about the systematic oppression that happens on campus and beyond. She is the editor of the controversial blog named “Dear White People” that focuses on Black culture. Her personality put her into the leadership position of the Black Student housing. This puts her in an awkward position because she is dating a white guy but is embarrassed to let her Black friends know. The second character is Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners. Coco is a Black female who struggles with embracing her Black identity and her class background. She has accepted the European standards of beauty by wearing long straight weaves and colored eye contacts. She only wants to be associated with white people of elite status because it makes her feel more important.
Sam and Coco represent a small fraction of Black female college students however; they do endure the struggles that many women of color face in today’s society. I felt I could personally relate to both of these characters because I have been in the position of feeling the need to be accepted by both my Black and white counterparts throughout my life. For example, I remember when I was in middle school I begged my mom to allow me to get a relaxer on my hair. A relaxer is a chemical product used to straighten hair. I hated my hair because it was kinky and hard to comb, I wanted to fit in with the other girls at school (black and white alike) who had straight hair. College is such a vital time of figuring out whom you truly are and what you value as person and not to mention how you want others to identify you as. Moreover, it was not until my college years that I came to fully accept who I am as Black woman and to embrace my identity. I realized I did not need straight hair to be considered beautiful and after almost ten years of getting my hair relaxed I started to let my natural hair grow and eventually cut off the remaining relaxed hair. I know embrace my naturally kinky hair and I have no desire to fit in with anyone. However, that was not an overnight process, it took years. It is for that very reason I wanted to focus on my identity as a Black female college student because Black women are so often misrepresented in the media. These misrepresentations do impact young girls like the 13 year old me and I think it is important that we are seen as more than just the stereotypical Black women in the media. Our backgrounds and lifestyles are much more diverse than what is shown on networks such as VH1 and Oxygen.
This brings me to the old television sitcom A Different World (Bill Cosby 1987). It was hard for me to find current shows that were primarily about Black female college students however, while researching, A Different World is one of the first examples that I came across. A Different World is a television show about a group of good friends, who all happen to be of African American descents that attend Hillman College which is a fictional historically black college (HBC) located in Virginia. The show is based around the various students’ life on campus and deals with race, class relations and the Equal Rights Amendment. The show also displays the Black Greek life of sororities and fraternities which is something I can relate directly to because I recently joined the first Black Greek letter sorority that was founded at Howard University which is also a HBCU.
This show is surrounded around the relationship of main characters, Dwayne and Whitley. Dwayne is from the inner city of Brooklyn, New York and considered smart mathematician and a cool guy who has all of the hippest clothing. Meanwhile Whitley is a Virginia native who is a on again, off again relationship with Dwayne. She is depicted as an intelligent academic student who is very involved in college extracurricular activities such as joining the fictional sorority Alpha Delta Rho, involved in an internship and is also a member of the Hillman College debate team. I feel as if this show does a pretty good job of accurately capturing student life at an HBCU. While I personally never did attend an HBCU I know plenty of people who have and it is similar. I appreciate the fact that this show is not fused around drama nor does it glorify disrespecting one another. While a lot of times on television it is depicted that Black people are always trying to one up another and put emphasize on the division of the Black community, this show displays the unity that can and does happen in a predominately Black setting.
Black women are constantly being depicted in stereotypical behavior in the media. Stereotypical being as I explained previously, loud, hypersexual and living drama filled lives. These stereotypes were explained in depth in the reading, Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives by Gail Elizabeth Wyatt. Wyatt discussed her own personal experience being a Black woman and the issues she has had to face in her life. She goes on to explain how the stereotypes of Black women started many years ago. She stated, “Stereotypes about black women that are rooted in slavery perpetuate myths about lack of sexual control and sexual irresponsibility, making it difficult for black women to express their sexuality without being defined by it.” Going more in depth by providing actual images of Black women during slavery and how their bodies were looked at as sexual objects and how there is a direct connection to how (Black) women’s bodies are looked at today in the 21st century. According to the reading Wyatt provided the reader with, “principles and knowledge that can help women take responsibility for their sexuality, regardless of past experiences or societal demands.” I believe that it is very important for us Black women to take control of our actions and how we choose to be depicted.
In conclusion both Dear White People (Justin Simien 2014) and A Different World (Bill Cosby 1987) show that there are very different types of college experiences for Black women that are students. In addition that they all do not have to be negative, which is why I appreciated those two visual media sources as well as Gail Elizabeth Wyatt’s personal view in, Stolen Women. Us Black women have the power to be respected and acknowledged as intelligent, powerful and strong women. We have the power to show the world that we are worth much more than just showing off our bodies, fighting/competing with other women, being aggressive and territorial. Our roots are very deep and very strong and it is up to us to change the way we are seen by the world. I hope that one day the negative stereotypes of Black women can be demolished and that we are seen as the strong willed, independent women we are!
Cosby, Bill , Marcy Carsey, and Tom Werner. A Different World. National Broadcasting Company. NBC, New York City. 24 Sept. 1987. Television.
Simien, Justin. Dear White People. Perf. Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell, Kyle Gallner, Brittany Curran, Dennis Haysbert, Marque Richardson. S.n. : Lionsgate (2014) (USA) (theatrical), 2014. Film.
Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth. Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives. New York: J. Wiley, 1997. Print.