Television has become the most provocative and influential medium in all societies, especially American societies, that has the power to impact a society and an individual in terms of growth and appreciation of self-concept, and awareness of a culture. This power that television has is abused by those individuals behind the cameras who voice their own misguided views about a culture through the often negative images of minorities, especially African Americans. Although debatable, the responsibility lies in the individuals in the television industry whose stereotypical and misinformed views about a culture and a people causes others including that culture to be misinformed also. The “self-feelings” and “self-evaluations” of the Black community are impacted by the media’s portrayal of them (Perkins, 1996).
Therefore, they internalize the negative images they view on television and accept them as truth. This paper will address racial identity among African Americans by focusing on television images of predominantly black television shows like A Different World and how these images influence the identity of African Americans, with a specific focus on African American women.
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The media has become the tool used by minority producers, directors, and filmmakers to somehow undo the damage that has been done by members of the dominant culture, who have influenced society’s opinions of minorities by the distorted images they portray on television (Steenland, 1989).
These African American filmmakers, producers, and directors realize the ability, power, and obligation they have to the African American community to break down those negative images of themselves and their race and build up positive ones.
The onset of black television sitcoms on prime time television such as the Jeffersons, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World, sparked a new era of television for black people; now they could watch a television show with more than one “token” black man or woman. I believe that black television sitcoms like A Different World were the catalyst of a new evolution of television that would breakdown those traditional stereotypical roles of black people like—the maid, the caregiver, the Jezebel, or the mammy—and provide positive realistic ones.
A Different World had a cast composed of eighty percent African American women and was said to be the only show that had more Black actresses than any show in the history of television (Hill, Raglin, & Johnson, 1990).
These women were seen regularly and had positive female roles. Set on the Black campus of Hillman College, A Different World dealt with college issues, political and personal issues such as date rape, physical abuse in relationships, slavery, war, adultery, love, teen pregnancy, racism, black cultural identity, and much more. It was a step above the rest because it targeted young Black women and also young Black men in the age range of approximately thirteen to twenty-four, because of its energy, its humour, and its non patronizing script. Many young people could relate to characters like Kim, Jaleesa, Whitley, Lina, and even Freddy, or they knew someone just like them. These women were not presented as sex objects or devalued for their race and gender.
Winifred Brooks was a product of an interracial marriage who grew up a Black nationalist and feminist in the desert of Arizona. She was determined to save the world from pollution while promoting black pride and racial homogeneity. She was oftentimes flaky, obnoxious, and unkempt. Although Freddie could be overbearing, she did provide viewers with a different side of the black woman. Whitley Gilbert was a spoiled rich princess. She was the daughter of a wealthy judge who was used to getting anything she wanted by simply purchasing it with her credit cards. Whitley was not very serious about school and her first intention was to find a husband to support her. Although she pretended to be simpleminded, she was a level-headed intelligent woman, but she thought that would not benefit her. Jaleesa Vincent was an efficient, self-absorbed, angry corporate employee. She consumed herself with her studies and her job and was serious about challenging herself as a Black woman. Kimberly Reese was one of the most studious characters. She was optimistic and set high goals for herself because her family told her she had to. Oftentimes, it appeared as if she was so focused on her schoolwork, and she had no time to enjoy her friends or her college experience. Lina James was the sassy freshman from the streets of New York, who entered college thinking that she knew it all, but ended up learning a lot more than she expected. She added a new kind of flavor to the cast that made it funnier and provided another side of the black woman.
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Racial identity is an issue among the Black community in terms of how one sees oneself, particularly how a black woman sees herself as a woman and as a Black woman. Black women are often constrained by the images society thrusts upon them as beautiful, desirable, and worthy. Unfortunately, these images are unrealistic to most Black women, especially those with dark skin and short, sometimes “nappy” hair who cannot reach towards the goal of the accepted beautiful image, which is oftentimes the white woman. Sharon Bowan expresses racial identity as, “…a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular group (p.4).”
In A Different World issues of racial identity are brought to the forefront with characters like Freddy and Whitley and with topics such as mixed relationships and the treatment of African American women on college campuses. How are these images from television having an impact on African American women in terms of self-identification? It is said that African American women hold a dual status, like having two strikes against them; they are Black and they are women (Bowman, 4).
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This dual status will inevitably play a vital role in a young woman’s self-perception based on her encounter with society, personally and vicariously—in person or through the images depicted on television. The time an individual spends watching television is enough time to cause them to develop into the lifeless, ignorant person the television industry wants them to be. A study found that in comparison to Whites, Blacks watch more television (Perkins, 1996).
Therefore, because of this fact, will constant television watching foster negative attitudes about a racial group powerful enough or long enough for it to be accepted by that racial group, which in this case is the Black community?
In terms of identifying with one’s racial identity, African American women are the one’s who have to face it as a challenge. A dilemma may arise which causes African American women to classify their identity by race or by gender (Bowman, 4).
Oftentimes, it is by one’s race. In this society, the African American woman is told by the dominant culture that she is not suitable or an example of femininity or beauty because of her dark skin or short hair. These types of African American women are shun or cast aside, yet Black women who are “light skinned” and have “good hair” (Akintunde, 161), are accepted into the mainstream and seen as more desirable by the White and the Black community. Unfortunately, industries like the television industry use their power to perpetuate negative, unrealistic images of Black women that directly and indirectly affect their self-perception and racial identity. As Karen Perkins stated in her article about the self-perception of African American women, “[w]e live in a society where enormous emphasis and value is placed on physical attractiveness (p.454).”
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Women become preoccupied with their beauty and their physical attractiveness to the point where they make themselves into something that they are not. African American women are given examples of how they should appear to society by looking at the models in television and magazines. Therefore, “…the near universal depiction of beauty based on White standards, which dominates media images, would seemingly have an adverse impact on Black females (Perkins, 465).” These images of White standards are goals that the majority of black women cannot reach and should not be aiming towards. The influence of physical attractiveness on a woman’s self-image is a “determining factor” in how they view themselves as women, as intelligent, and as attractive (Perkins, 1996).
According to Perkins, “Black females have been deeply and profoundly affected by the politics of skin colour, hair texture, and facial features. Black women’s central feelings related to their self-worth, intelligence, success, and attractiveness are determined by what appears to be benign and arbitrary physical traits (p.458).” A Different World provided that difference for female African American viewers. The images of the Black female characters were diverse, but appreciated and respected. Each woman had a significant role which was critical to maintaining the entire cast of the show. The characters were dark skinned, light skinned, had long hair and short hair, were fat and skinny. Moreover, A Different World attempted to “mitigate the socializing effect of television” (Perkins, 466), images from the past by showing these characters in a new light without the cloud of common character types for black actresses like the mammy, the angry Black woman, or the tragic mulatto, hanging over their heads. Many Black women could identify with each of the characters on A Different World without feeling incomparable to them in terms of physical appearance.
A Different World dealt with issues relative to African American women and Black cultural identity that made African American viewers proud of watching this type of show (Steenland, 1989).
Topics like the Los Angeles riots and the importance of voting were discussed in an episode where Dwayne and Whitley talk about their honeymoon; Kim goes through a personal crisis when she realizes she might have to quite school because she might be pregnant on an episode that explores the dangers of unprotected sex and single motherhood; Whitley deals with racism on an episode where a store clerk assumed she had to put the jewelry she was purchasing on layaway because she probably could not afford it and would not let her view the watches in the display case because she would get her “black” fingerprints on it; Freddy’s mother reveals to her the hate and racism she faced bearing a child for a Black man on an episode that addressed Black cultural identity. The majority of the episodes on A Different World targeted the major political issues taking place within society and especially the Black community that oftentimes get ignored. This was a major part of the reason why A Different World became so popular because it was funny, yet it still dealt with serious social issues. Some experts may argue that in the time span of twenty-five minutes, Black sitcoms like A Different World appear too “humorous” and “light hearted” and therefore paint an unrealistic, utopian view of the Black community (Steenland, 29).
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However, in her article, Sally Steenland states that, “[m]any viewers, as well as social experts, would argue that such a harmonious picture of Black life is important, that seeing people strive and succeed unhampered by racial barriers paints the world the way it should be. At the very least, it offers relief from the way the world really is (p. 29).”
Granting that the Black television industry has gone to great measures to do right by the Black community by presenting Black actors and actresses in positive roles instead of stereotypical ones, there is also a flip side to the coin –one that still unconsciously or consciously perpetuates those stereotypical role of Black people, especially Black women. Black television sitcoms attempt to portray positive images of Black family life, Black cultural identity, and the African American woman and they have been commended for it. Nonetheless, the sitcoms like A Different World, that seem to be the deviations from the norm also play into these negative, stereotypical images of women. The character Whitley Gilbert would be considered an African American woman with “light skin and good hair” (Akintunde, 1997).
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Whitley was always the center of attention and everyone else played off of her character. She was rich and classy and she always was the best dressed. She was admired by the women on the campus and of course desired by all the men because she was so “beautiful”. The image that she portrayed to young African American female viewers was that she was the accepted character because of her looks; she was the ‘star of the show’ while the others followed. Characters like Kim, Freddy, Jaleesa, Lina, and others were looked at as the undesirable one all because they did not look like Whitley Gilbert. Freddy was ignored and seen as a flake for her radical beliefs about society. Kim was seen as the studious medical student who never had anything interesting going on in her life. Jaleesa was the angry black woman consumed with her job and had no time for anyone. Lina was the ghetto princess that added a lot of spice to the show, but her character was not taken as seriously. Whitley was seen as the bourgeois, air-headed princess who could never do anything right except shop. However, Whitley was the desirable character; she was the one everyone loved to hate and desired to be like. If placed into a category of common character types for Black actresses Whitley would be the tragic mulatto—the one who has all the riches, but is not happy with who she is or satisfied with her life.
Whitley’s light skin and good hair made her the desire of the African American male characters on A Different World. She was pursued by Dwayne and admired by others like Ron Johnson. This, however, was dehumanizing for Whitley because she was not valued for her mind. While the other characters like Kim, Jaleesa, Freddy, and Lina had a lot to offer viewers in terms of intelligence which signified their value, yet they were not seen as desirable or acceptable female representations of the norm among the African American community and the White community. What kind of message is being sent to young African American women about their physical appearance and cultural identity through these characters? Perhaps one of self-hatred and displeasure with one’s appearance (Akintunde, 1997).
It is subtly and blatantly thrusted upon Black women that in order to be more desirable their skin must be “closer to white and hair closer to white (Akintunde, 160).” It implies to black women that their features—dark skin, dark eyes, short hair—is not acceptable or attractive and the media perpetuates this implication through the unrealistic images on television. Due to this perpetuation, African American women may develop a “self-hatred” for their physical appearance (Akintunde, 160).
Within the African American community, having light skin and good hair is considered a blessed physical attribute and attractive and therefore African American women internalize these traits as the accepted.
“Given the preponderance of media images and racist dogma that continually portray the skin and hair of African Americans as ugly and unattractive it is no wonder that African Americans have such a low perception of themselves (Akintunde, 161).” African American women may see having light skin colour as a means to an end or the more acceptable route without realizing the pivotal role it plays in their self-perception and the way they live in a society that perpetuates that image as the norm. Omowale Akintunde elaborates on this when he states, “[m]ost African Americans deny or are at least unaware on a conscious level of the impact of their perceptions of these phenomena on the formulation of their self-image (p. 161).” Television should not be the only medium or tool used as a way to identify with one’s cultural identity or feel confident about their self-perception. A Different World may have played a significant role, both negative and positive, in the way African American women view themselves. Rather, I would like to think of A Different World as a show targeted at young people, especially young African Americans, in order to encourage a positive image of African Americans.