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Issa Rae and The Power of Social Representation

Guest Contributor

Issa Rae, Creator of "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" 

Some prophets are like the false prophets in the Old Testament. They run about in strange outfits and funny hair, screaming and cutting themselves, desperate for attention, childishly reactive, easily excitable. They are usually good for one thing: directing our attention to something important. But they, like false prophets, are usually not good at other things: getting rain to fall, fire to strike, or demonstrating what actual cultural change looks like. They begin conversations dramatically, but often vanish soon after, leave listeners wanting when it comes to the grittier elements of cultural transformation. 

This dramatic attitude has shaped, to a certain extent, the discussion around racial representation in Hollywood. Last January, shortly after the Academy released the list of nominations for this year’s Oscars, Twitter went electric with outcry, organized loosely under the “Oscars So White,” hashtag. The movement quickly moved beyond the virtual world. Sylvester Stallone,  Laurence Fishburne, and George Clooney spoke out. Spike Lee and Jada Smith boycotted the Oscars. Those present heard a mouthful from Chris Rock: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist? But not the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is ‘sorority racist.’” 

The Twitter storm reminded us that racial representation within cultural institutions is important. But it also reminded us how easy it is to fall into the trap of virality: just because something becomes “hot” in the virtual world does not mean we’re any closer to investing the time, reflection, or debate necessary to generate long-lasting cultural transformation. As a result, the solutions that stem from these viral movements tend to be one-dimensional and one-sided. Worse, they tend to encourage solutions that might later be considered hasty and counter-productive. For example, consider that the Academy announced plans to double the presence of blacks and women in film by 2020 and to reduce the voting rights of lifetime members. Similarly, the Screen Actors Guild released diversity rules demanding that fifty percent of all speaking roles go to members of “four protected groups,” including African Americans. 

There have been other voices calling for caution. Steven Spielberg questioned the claim that the Academy is racist, pointing to the 2014 nomination (and award) for Lupita Nyong’o as counterproof. He suggested that greater accountability in hiring practices would do more good than taking votes away from lifetime Academy members.  “Sometimes it takes a long period of time for cultural changes to be reflected in the Academy,” explained producer and director Lionel Chetwynd. “The people who built the Academy were largely white, which reflected the time, and they’re going to be replaced by a new generation of artists. But that doesn’t happen overnight. And it shouldn’t.”Others questioned the claim that blacks are underrepresented at all. Pointed out Adam Baldwin in a Twitter debate with Don Cheadle

“Black actors/actresses at the Oscars in the last 20 years: 10% of best supporting actors winners were black, 20% of best supporting actresses were black, 15% of best leading actors were black and 5% of best leading actresses were black. When you count an average percentage (10+20+15+5):4 you get 12.5%. So black people are almost perfectly represented in winners considering their share in the population is 12.8%!” 

Only time will tell to what extent these efforts will meaningfully diversify the Academy and the Oscars. In the meantime, some artists are showing a less reactive, more proactive path to institutional reform. Comedian Issa Rae is one of them. She’s the 31 year-old creative behind “Awkward Black Girl,” a smash-hit YouTube series that launched in 2011. The show started as a rugged, low budget series that follows “J,” (played by Rae) as she navigates work, relationships, and a new boyfriend as a self-proclaimed “awkward” black girl. By awkward she means someone who likes to read about nerdy topics, someone who wears her hair natural and someone who likes sushi. Basically: A black woman who doesn’t fit the typical stereotypical black women portrayed on television. 

The show went viral shortly after it launched. Rae fueled the first season from her own budget, running out of money so desperately at one point that she couldn’t buy a cup of coffee. In 2011, she launched a Kickstarter for support and $44,000 to produce a second season. Since then, she’s ventured into different ventures including a miniseries called “Firsts,” a podcast, and the Issa Rae Network where she showcases the work of other ethnic comedians and artists. Recently, she released her book, Misadventures of a Black Girl and is collaborating on a TV show with HBO. She’s also collaborated with Pharrell Williams and Tracey Edmonds.  

As a multiracial woman who likes to read and who cut her hair natural shortly after high school, who has been called white by her black peers, and dated white boys, I appreciate Rae’s narrative angle. She talks about issues that lots of black women experience but few hardly represent in film. More than that, she is doing exactly what some argue needs to be done in order to effectuate change in the entertainment industry: offering access to opportunity for black artists and telling underrepresented stories. Rae represents a new way of addressing racial imbalances in the arts. She looks at the lack of diversity in entertainment and gets busy creating an alternative on her own terms, as explained by The New York Times

Rae learned that she had a knack for portraying everyday black life — not made special by its otherness or defined in contrast to whiteness, but treated as a subject worthy of exploration all of its own. ‘‘It was a light bulb, my epiphany moment,’’ she says.  

Andy Crouch writes in his book, Culture Making that changing culture has very little to do with critiquing or complaining. He says cultural change comes as a result of creating better alternatives. If Crouch is right, then cultural change demands more than furious Tweeting. It requires patience, contemplation, and creativity. Rae so far, demonstrates all three. She has jackhammered her way into the industry using the Internet, her own money, friends, and grit. She’s responding to the lack of representation, not by screaming and flailing, not by creating a hashtag, but by descending into the trenches of cultural creation and doing the hard work of telling a better story. 

 

Tiffany Owens is a writer and Journalist living and working in New York City.

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