TV + Movies

What It Means To Be ‘The Acceptable Black Woman’ In Pop Culture

I want to preface this by saying I’m a mixed kid. Half black, half white, to be more specific. And I say this because I know a lot of people will try to undermine what I’m about to write by looking for any faults in my argument. And if men aren’t trying to guess my ethnicity as a form of flirting, then they are using it against me to tell me how little say I should have in either conversations as a person in the black or white communities. So, let’s just put it out here that I am a mixed kid.

Growing up mixed-race was, to be completely honest, pretty awful. I was the only non-white student in my suburban school systems up until the eighth grade. And even then, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to just embrace the elephant in the room—a term I actually hate, because my race isn’t a secret or an awkward conversation to have.

So, for much of my childhood, I lied about my ethnicity. I’m not sure about other mixed-race kids out there, but for me it was surprisingly easy to confuse other people who were desperately trying to pin down “what I was.” I would interchange what country my absentee father was from. I made up whole cities. I was a racial enigma. And it was depressingly exhausting.

It wasn’t until college that I got more comfortable with discussing not just my racial identity, but the identity of blackness in modern America, too. And that time of self-reflection was also the time I discovered that, to many people I encountered, I was what they considered “the acceptable black woman” and how that image was rooted in the perception of young black figures in pop culture.

Okay, let’s break down what I mean by this. If I were to ask you to name young black women in the media, I’m sure a few, if not all of these names are the first go to: Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Amandla Stenberg, Zoë Kravitz. Funny enough, all mixed-race. These women are incredibly well known, because not only are they are insanely talented, but because they are also beauty icons in their own rights. Each woman has risen in fame from film or television, and while becoming an “It Girl” they were consequently in the spotlight to represent young black women. This typically doesn’t happen to white “It Girls,” like Taylor Swift and Blake Lively back in their day. They weren’t asked to be a voice for their race, just a voice for their young audience.

But black women go under a spot light that highlights not just their talent, but their culture. So, when Zendaya wore Locs to the Oscars in 2015, it was a big step for black girls who also had the same hairstyle. Well, a huge moment up until it was overshadowed by Giulianna Rancic’s comments that the actress looked like she smelled of “weed” and “patchuouli.” So, not only are black women asked to represent their culture, they are also criticized into adhering to an acceptable level of doing so.

What I would also like to point out is, the four names I listed above are all fairly light skinned black women and, like me, are repeatedly reminded of that. If we take a look back at the press tour of Black Panther, you might remember some controversy with Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg had recalled to Variety magazine that she turned the role of Shuri down, which ultimately went to Letitia Wright. The problem that many people had with the interview were the comments made about why she refused the role, as she expressed, “That was not a space that I should have taken up,” referring to playing an all-black woman from the fictional world of Wakanda. Many people protested that she was discrediting the talent of Letitia Wright, but here’s what people might not realize. Mixed-raced women are consistently brought up in conversations because of their accessibility. Then it is their job to turn down roles or step away, which is conflicting on a moral standpoint and a business one.

If we want to look at another example, take the hit musical The Greatest Showman. Within the larger plotline, there is the smaller story of Anne Wheeler and Phillip Carlyle, a love story between a wealthy white man and a poor black woman (is if that hasn’t happened before). What I have issue with is the fact that Anne Wheeler, played by Zendaya, is the movie’s emblem for persevering past the racial climate of the 1850-1860s. But as a mixed-race woman, she is hardly the physical representation of black women during the time, especially in comparison to her brother, played by the dark-skinned Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The stark contrast between the two just goes to show that in a family-friendly movie, we still need to see the acceptable black woman in order to watch. Even in discussions of racism, comfort is prioritized.

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t dark-skinned black women dominating their fields and maintaining a level of stardom. But I do want to point out that there are very few black women who represent the other side of the pop culture spectrum (meaning, not the lighter, young, ambiguous looking image). People love to bring up Oprah, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lupita Nyongo’o. It’s as if they name drop popular black women we will then concede and say there isn’t a problem, or at least a disparity between what is realistic and what is acceptable. Those are names of infamously famous women who worked tirelessly to create a brand for themselves. Not all black women have the space to do so.

So, some of us have to try to work within the box of “could we be racially ambiguous?” And the answer is, unfortunately, we have to. The appeal of Karrueche Tran, Chrissy Teigen, and other social media and pop culture celebrities has been attributed at times to the inability to guess their race. It is as if our social world prefers the mystery, because the straightforward answer is just not a big enough turn on. So, raise your hand if you’ve ever let someone go on guessing your parentage! It’s the sad truth no one willingly wants to be subjected to, but to be wanted in this age of streaming and digital media, it’s how we survive.

There are several digital communities in which younger and older generations of black women are celebrated and supporting one another, just check out any YA twitter thread. The problem stems from pop culture lagging so far behind. Audiences and producers alike can bask in the success of media like Black Panther, Blackish, Hamilton, and others, but those accomplished platforms are not concessions to the outcry for more representation. They are small starts to abolishing the need for the “acceptable black woman.” TC mark

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Part-time human, full-time writer, professional picky eater Follow Emily on Instagram or read more articles from Emily on Thought Catalog.