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The Missing Black Woman Formation

Missing Black Woman

Apropos of Monday’s political post, I wanted to point out some interesting blog posts. A few weeks ago, author and friend Scott Westerfeld posted this excerpt from his novel So Yesterday:

A focus group of cool-hunters has just been shown a new sneaker advertisement, and they all seem to agree that it’s awesome. That is, until Jen says:

“I was kind of bugged by the missing-black-woman formation.”

Mandy blinked. “The what?”

Jen shrugged uncomfortably, feeling the eyes on her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, even though I didn’t.

Jen took a slow breath, collecting her thoughts. “You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.”

It was quiet for another moment. But gears were spinning. Tina Catalina let out a long sigh of recognition.

“Like the Mod Squad!” she said.

“Yeah,” Hiro chimed in, “or the three main characters in . . . ” He named a certain trilogy of movies about cyber-reality and frozen kung-fu, whose title ends in an X, counts as a brand, and therefore will not grace these pages.

The floodgates broke. More comic books, movies, and TV shows tumbled off everyone’s lips, a dozen stuffed-full pop-cultural memory banks rifled for examples of missing-black-woman formations, until Mandy looked ready to cry.

She smacked the clipboard down.

“Is this something I should have KNOWN ABOUT?” she said sharply, sweeping her eyes around the table.

An unhappy silence fell over the conference room. I felt like an evil genius’s henchman when something goes wrong in a certain series of secret agent films—as if Mandy might push a button on the control panel and we would be ejected, chairs and all, out the roof and into some lake in Central Park.

His post was prompted, in part, by the Gloria Steinem piece Nora posted about last week. “We have a way of becoming the stories we tell ourselves.” Scott said, and provided some pictorial evidence. Travel on over to his blog to see.

Not long after, author and friend Claire Light posted a response:

Not to be down on Scott Westerfeld, [...] but his recent blog post [...] needs some complications added to it.
[...]
The black man inserted into a white couple says, “Our brand is diverse!” whatever that means. The missing black woman, if she were to appear, would say, “We’re selling to blacks and whites equally!” which is not what most commercials want to say. Most want to say, “Hey, liberal white guilt dollars! Flow this way!”
[...]
There’s a fuck of a lot more missing than a black woman. In commercials, one black man is shorthand for all color (i.e. the black woman is not so much missing as unnecessary, since the black man is standing in for her … and the Asian man, and the Asian woman, and the Latin@, and the …)
[...]
the MBWF, a white fantasy scenario, is leaving out a much more complicated, and truly diverse, group of people because that would complicate and diversify the white audience’s social scene, rather than placating them for having a mostly white peer group. So it’s a bit more complicated than just a missing black woman. If we’re going to look at negative space, let’s really look at it.

There is also a very, very interesting discussion of bi-and mixed-raciality and how both white and POC perception of that affects how we see/code/react to folks like Keanu Reeves and Barack Obama.

To Claire’s point about the fact that it’s not just a black woman missing in most of these scenarios, but that the black man is standing in for all minorities everywhere–I definitely get that impression. Just thinking of the Clinton/Obama/Edwards formation, it wouldn’t have surprised me if, in the early days, a black woman had made a bid for president and she was shut out because we already had the minority candidate.

It’s reminiscent of the idea that there’s one slot for minorities, and once it’s filled all other minorities are unnecessary. Whether it be in a company, on a TV show, in a community (who’s the next Octavia Butler, anyone? There can be only one!), or in a group of “friends”. It’s some kind of warped version of Affirmative Action that’s neither Affirmative nor Action. Discuss.

32 comments to The Missing Black Woman Formation

  • [ "It’s reminiscent of the idea that there’s one slot for minorities, and once it’s filled all other minorities are unnecessary. Whether it be in a company, on a TV show, in a community (who’s the next Octavia Butler, anyone? There can be only one!), or in a group of “friends”. It’s some kind of warped version of Affirmative Action that’s neither Affirmative nor Action. Discuss." ]

    It seems from over here that you’ve nailed it down definitively. At least as things are now.

    There is one exception to this, at least on television, and that is The Wire.

    Love, C.

  • Ico

    “To Claire’s point about the fact that it’s not just a black woman missing in most of these scenarios, but that the black man is standing in for all minorities everywhere–I definitely get that impression.”

    Me, too. I find myself noticing it a lot in movies, television, and commercials. It is very irritating. Something like “The Incredibles” is typical of this scenario. It’s a white family, and there’s a black superhero in there that I guess shows that diversity exists in the superhero community. Sort of. But the movie is about a bunch of white heroes and a white villain. It’s like a nod in the direction of affirmative action so that they can’t be accused of being racist (because look! A black guy!). It’s in so many shows and movies. Think of the Simpsons. The PoC in that show — the black doctor, the Indian Kwik-E-Mart guy, etc.

    I suspect it is sort of an afterthought on the part of the creators of these various shows/movies/etc. Because after all, they are frequently white writers themselves. They write characters whose experiences parallel their own. Then they think, “maybe I should have a person of color in there somewhere, because I’m not racist,” so they make one of the side characters black. Problem solved — the whole world is no longer white (just, you know, the main characters).

    And of course, there’s the question of audience. Because as everybody knows (but people only really admit in private), audiences of color will go to watch films that star white heroes, but white audiences won’t go to see “urban” flicks or movies about PoC. Those are never mainstream. And of course studios also know that women will go to movies starring male heroes, but men will not go to “chick flicks” (i.e. any film starring a woman). So you have big name actors who can open a film, but actresses cannot.

    Writers know this. They want to appeal to the biggest possible audience, so they create a white male MC, throw in a black man for diversity, and make the show/movie/whatever knowing how the demographics work.

    Which puts WoC in a terrible intersection of prejudices and just erases them from existence. Have I mentioned yet that I loathe Hollywood? And most of television, too.

  • Kay

    It’s because Hollywood is controlled by white men that mainly produce thoughtless crap. Even the news media is bullshit and not as good as it was before Regan when the corporations bought up the media. Its the dumbing down of America.
    I guess I’m going with Obama next Tuesday and at least Edwards is still going to fight for the poor even if he is not in the race.

  • Kay

    What about the 1960′s show Get Christie Love? She was a tough black woman hero and she fought crime. It was on in the late 1960s or early 1970′s. Anyway I supported the black woman that ran in 2004 and she dropped out early, because she had character.

  • ABW said
    “who’s the next Octavia Butler, anyone? There can be only one!”

    Does that mean all of us aspiring/emerging nonwhite SF/F writers get to chase each other through the centuries having awesome katana duels?

    Cuz, y’know that would at least be something….

  • Veronica

    I think the MBWF is still significant, though, because it’s not just about who’s always absent; it’s also about who’s present. When “black man” becomes the stand-in for all PoC, it’s drawing not only on white privilege and blindness to the mulitiplicity of people out there, but also on the “man means everyone tradition.” If it were just a matter of having a black person stand in for all PoC everywhere, you’d see some variation: white man, white woman, black woman, with no black man, and the black woman representing all non-whites. But you rarely see that. It’s a way of making sure that dominant characteristics are never outnumbered: when you have a white man, a white woman, and a black man, there are still more whites than blacks and more men than women.

  • Nora

    You’re reading my fricking mind, ABW. I listen to the news as I get ready for work in the morning, and remember a mention that Michelle Obama is going to be doing some fundraising in NY and CT today. And it struck me that this is the first time I’ve heard anything about her in the past few weeks. I tried to pinpoint when I’d last heard anything about her, and it was… wait for it… when Oprah started stumping for Barack.

    I could almost see it in my head: Barack’s campaign managers/handlers sitting in a dark room somewhere, worrying because God help them, two black women around Barack is too many. Hell, one is dangerous enough as it is. So the message goes out: tell Michelle to lay low.

    (And now Toni Morrison’s on board too. Will we ever see Michelle again?)

    I can’t help but wonder.

    I’ve been too busy and stressed lately to articulate my thoughts on stuff like this, so I’m so glad you’re doing it. =)

  • Nora

    Saladin,

    Suddenly I think the next KGB event is going to be a lot more interesting. =P

  • Nalo Hopkinson is writing good science fiction, and she uses elements drawn from Caribbean culture to modify stereotypical figures like vampires and aliens.

  • You are so right about this … and it is also occurring in other industries.

    Black cartoonists are planning, on February 10, 2008 to initiate a comics-page action, to protest the ‘ghetto’ that they have been consigned to – that of the ‘black strip’. According to what I read in StereoHyped, many newspapers feel that ‘black strips’ are interchangeable, even though the strips have topics are as varied as those drawn by white cartoonists.

    Which brings to mind the whole ‘if you write a book, and you’re black then it’s black literature and goes in the black section of the bookstore’ thing.

    Stupidity sucks. Especially when someone else’s stupidity makes your life more challenging.

  • Ico

    LaVeda, can you link me to some black cartoonists’ webpages? I don’t read the newspaper much anymore, and when I did it was generally just, y’know, the comics with talking animals… (what? They are funny…)

    But it occurs to me that just about every comic character I ever saw was white. I can’t actually think of ANY that aren’t off the top of my head. Wow.

    And yeah, absolutely true, about literature. It is really, really frustrating and lame. Especially the way in the literary canon, white male authors are enshrined as the standard, and all other authors are basically just shifted off to the side in these subcategories, because writing about, say, a black experience isn’t “universal” the way the white man’s experience is.

  • Veronica

    But it occurs to me that just about every comic character I ever saw was white. I can’t actually think of ANY that aren’t off the top of my head. Wow.

    Alison Bechdel is white, but Dykes to Watch Out For has always had several central black characters (Ginger, Clarice, Jezanna and Audrey who don’t show up much these days, unfortunately, Jasmine) and several other non-white characters.

    Especially the way in the literary canon, white male authors are enshrined as the standard, and all other authors are basically just shifted off to the side in these subcategories, because writing about, say, a black experience isn’t “universal” the way the white man’s experience is.

    My God, YES. My grandfather, while a good man in other ways, is constantly saying that he prefers plays with more “universal” themes, such as, I suppose, an ambitious soldier murdering his king out of ambition, rather than plays that are about “specific” experiences, such as a Muslim woman negotiating her culture and her sexuality.

  • transgressingengineer

    Great discussion post! I am dealing with the issue of white folks seeing a Black man as the representation of diversity in the work I am doing. I am investigating the racial climate of a research university’s college of engineering amongst white male engineering faculty. When I interview these men and get into discussions about the (lack of) racial diversity among the faculty, most of my participants have remarked that they know (or do not know) Prof. X (the *only* Black male faculty member of a little less than 200 engineering faculty). In doing so, they totally overlook the other racial diversity that we do have in faculty- Asian, Latino, and yes, white. Even more disturbing is the lack of recognition by my participants that there are only three women of color amongst the engineering faculty (all Asian women). It comes down to these white men seeing diversity only in Black. White is not even acknowledged as part of diversity when talking about racial climate.

    You know, I’ve been working on issues of racial diversity for several years now, but it the rampant white priviledge in the US still leaves me speechless and shaking my head everyday. When are white folks in the US going to see racial issues beyond the tired Black/white dicotomy?

  • KharBevNor

    This is kind of interesting when you think about it because, surely, tokenism should lead people to cast more black women because, hey, you can dispose of two demographics at once!* I suppose it’s got something to do with the fact that the MBWF allows you to have a three person team/group that looks diverse, and appeals to both the female and black demographic, but is still mostly composed of white folks.

    Also, it’s interesting to think of the Matrix as an offender, because I’ve always thought of the Matrix as being quite unusual in the fact that it’s a sci-fi film where more than one person is non-white. Though Keanu is mixed race, I must admit I didn’t actually realise this until I read his wikipedia page, so I suppose it counts. I wonder if they were consciously rying to rectify this in the sequels with the character of Niobe?

    *I am reminded of a joke from the British political comedy series Yes, Minister, about the ideal appointee to a government committee being a black, welsh, lesbian, disabled trades unionist.

  • Ico

    “When are white folks in the US going to see racial issues beyond the tired Black/white dicotomy?”

    My guess would be that we won’t as long as it’s socially “acceptable” to discriminate against certain races, without being called racist, by using such issues as, say, immigration, or The War on Terror.

    Of course I can’t really use that logic to explain why American Indians get so completely ignored…. I suppose white America likes to pretend they’re just a part of history, and only exist anymore as school mascots. That’s a lot easier than acknowledging that they’re still around, continuing to be f*cked over by the white race.

    And as long as we’re on tokenism, to continue Veronica’s point about the token person usually being the next rung down the hierarchy… I think that applies to LGBT people, too. If there’s someone gay in a show, it’s generally a white male. Hardly ever a lesbian* or queer person of color (the exception to this being when it’s two hot lesbians making out to appeal to the straight male audience).

    You get the token nice gay white male to stand in for ALL LGBT people. Very diverse.

  • Barbara Lee speaks for me! U.S. House of Representatives.

  • Evie

    ‘Just thinking of the Clinton/Obama/Edwards formation, it wouldn’t have surprised me if, in the early days, a black woman had made a bid for president and she was shut out because we already had the minority candidate.”

    I just wanted to make the point that the first woman candidate for US President was a black woman, and a majority party candidate – Shirley Chisholm.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Chisholm

    Totally a side-point, but I thought it deserved to be mentioned. Her candidacy was made a huge impression on me while I was young and impressionable. :-)

    ~Evie

  • “Of course I can’t really use that logic to explain why American Indians get so completely ignored…. I suppose white America likes to pretend they’re just a part of history, and only exist anymore as school mascots.”

    To be honest, this is perpetuated as much by other PoC as by whites. You have no idea the number of stupid comments I have received from PoC about this. In many of their minds we no longer exist, they don’t see anything wrong with the use of our names/derogatory terms against us as mascots (try having the conversation “how would you feel if the team was named ‘the Zulus’ or ‘the Darkies’ or ‘the Wetbacks’”and see how quickly they tell you “that’s different! And you’re a racist for even suggesting it!” Uh, no, I’m telling you that’s how it feels for me too!) and when they are forced to deal with us they either see us a backwards or as part of the white establishment.

    In regards to the dicotomy, I agree pretty much with what everyone said here. Except that in the case of Scott Westerfeld, I don’t think it’s fair to pick apart one excerpt from his book and say it isn’t “enough”. I mean, it’s one excerpt; it can only do so much. Just because he didn’t explore farther right there shouldn’t negate the effort he made (and his conclusion could be shocking for enough people that after recovering from it they can be drawn deeper into the discussion). And it’s an assumption that he left it there anyway. Maybe he does further explore and expose elsewhere.

    At the same time, we have to be real that people write what they know. So while I am just as offended by the lack of color in Hollywood etc, we need to realize that the reason we aren’t represented on-screen is because we aren’t properly represented off-screen to begin with. And when “urban” films or other books etc. are done by people of color, they rarely showcase any diversity either. Latino films feature only Latinos (and usually only one kind – depending on who it is made by or aimed at). Black films rarely have a respected white character, only have a Latino character if it’s either the “rival gang member” or the “Salsa hot chick everyone wants”, and even rarer is there an Asian, Arab, Persian, etc. In the same way, my writing, while relatively diverse, still, if I’m writing about my people, that’s who is in the book, or at least most prominent. I hate it too that books by Black people get automatically hidden in the Black section, etc. (i.e. I mean not just black, but Arab, Latino, etc. all get separated out this way) but if there aren’t characters in them that speak to other people it’s the same thing we are complaining about whites doing. The significant difference of course being that whites pretty much run things so they have the majority of work out there and act like we’re supposed to lick their boots when they “allow” us to be published or get a film produced or whatever.

    Part of this goes back to the reality that we don’t have diverse enough engagements to begin with. We tend to “stick with our own kind” and PoC do this just as much as whites do in alot of cases. So naturally our art is going to reflect only ourselves and those we choose to surround ourselves with. The use of other characters tends to be stereotyped because we haven’t enough experience with them to view them as real people and to write/portray/act them as such. The cure for this is that in real life we need to diversify our friendships.

  • Ico

    Aaminah, good point about “sticking with our own kind” and diversifying friendships. I think you’re absolutely right about that. And certainly, about writing what we know. I doubt I’d feel comfortable trying to write a story from the point of view of a character from a culture I’m not very familiar with — it would be too easy to get it wrong, to stereotype.

    But I do think that the “write what you know” rationale gets weak outside of, say, fiction-in-a-modern-setting. Authors who write fantasy or sci-fi are making up their own worlds; they can easily diversify. Star Wars could have been about brown people.

    (Though that makes me think of another film with a story written by Lucas… Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That one had some “diversity” in it. Uh… yeah… this goes back to your point about having friendships with people of diverse backgrounds… )

    Re: Keanu. OMG! I totally did not know he was mixed-race. And I’m half-Asian! But then, paradoxically, I’ve never been able to see mixed-Asian blood very well.

  • Josh Jasper

    Republicans were talking about running Condoleeza Rice. I’m not sure why that never happened. I’m guessing that, if we have a Democratic victory in 2008, she’ll be a contender in 2012.

  • Lmary

    To Aaminah maybe it’s because of clueless,arrogant,self-serving snotrags like you that ‘other’ POC don’t give a shit about you or your damn ‘struggle’ and newsflash asshole there ALREADY ARE NEGATIVE IMAGES OF BLACK PEOPLE!! But because people like you are so fucking busy playing ‘oppression olympics’ you don’t want to acknowledge it or are so quick to trivialize and minimize what blacks have gone through by saying ‘if’ WTF?!! In case you have noticed black HAVE suffered a lot of very heinous shit country most of the time with NO HELP from other non/white races so if you have an issue with ANY images that offend you then that’s your goddamn problem and yours alone. What are black people your fucking mother?!! I have to take on YOUR issues and complaints as well as my own don’t think so selfish,hypocrite asshole and in case you ALSO haven’t bothered to notice many other races are so damn prejudice towards blacks they make white people look like the Boy Scouts. So don’t hold your breath expecting me to ‘fight the good fight’ with whatever is pissing YOU off and keep playing your divide and conquer games while you’re at it!

  • Um, Lmary, what the hell crawled up your ass and died? I don’t see anything in her comment that merits your response. I don’t see her playing oppression olympics, I don’t see her minimizing what blacks have gone through, I don’t see her asking you to take on her complaints. Seriously, chill out.

  • Ico

    Whoa… um, seriously Lmary, I think you just proved the point Aaminah was making when she said that frequently the plight of American Indians is dismissed. It’s not “divide and conquer”; she’s acknowledging an unfortunate reality and pointing it out. The school where I grew up had an Indian (complete with feather headdress) as its mascot. This goes on continually — part of a legacy of racism, assimilation, and the utter eradication of cultures. The invisibility of living American Indians is real; it’s not an attack to criticize the role other PoC play in this. It doesn’t trivialize the struggles of blacks or anyone else.

    I think her point was that it’s easy to be blind to any struggles but our own, especially if we keep secluded in our own communities, never reaching out for real understanding of other peoples. She is right.

  • All I am going to say (for the moment) is this:

    http://heavyarmor.blogspot.com/2007/07/black-women-unsafe-in-any-medium.html

    And apologize in an advance for the anger and slight demagoguery at the link.

  • Lmary

    But I feel it is trivializing as well as insulting when others of color say ‘if’ that word just gets on my nerves that’s like saying what do WE have to complain about. And I have enough racial problems of my own to deal with maybe not Aaminah but a number of non/white folks treat blacks as inferior then have the nerve to drag us into their argument. So if they want to be selfish I can too.

  • Hi there! Nice to meet you. Very nice blog you have here! What an awesome post!

  • There’s more than enough victimization and ignorance and cruelty carried out against women on the planet for all of us. Yet, despite all that, women’s suffering of whatever color remains mostly invisible. Which might be related to why poc are still treated as mostly invisible in the media too. Though I don’t know enough to say whether that is definitively true.

    Rape Cases on Indian Lands Go Uninvestigated

    Rape and the reservation: a legal maze allows sexual predators to attack American Indian women with impunity

    Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Questioning Issues

    Rape for Profit

  • Lara

    First I would love to say that this is such a great post. And so many of the responses here are right on point. I too have noticed this white-man, black man, white woman trio that permeates any media venue that is trying to give an image of “diversity.” It’s really annoying, racist, and sexist.
    But something that I don’t think any others mentioned here: the historical debasement of black WOMEN in particular, the idea that they are not feminine enough, not “real women” is such a part of our national dialogue. Everything from adverts that show black women in animal prints (they are animalistic in their sexuality, sub-human) to the exclusion of women of color in the oft-used phrase “women and minorities”, women of color are virtually, and literally, rendered non-existent in our media. When black women finally ARE present, they are unfortunately fit into versions of mammy roles, as a loud-mouthed “bitch” with a chip on her shoulder, as a slut or video ho. It’s disgusting really. The idea that “all women are white and all blacks are men” is so prevalent in our culture because Patriarchy and White Supremacy are interconnected and cannot exist without each other. So you have the white man as the racial and sexual standard for “everyone” (privilege works in mysterious ways : / ), the Black man as the stand-in for all minorities no matter what race AND/OR gender, and the white woman (because only white women, with their supposed daintiness and class, are “real women”).
    Just my two cents. Kudos to this post!

  • Lmary, what “if” are you even referring to??? I think you are a crazy jackass who is a) misquoting me to begin with, and b) totally going off into left field.

    I NEVER said that Blacks don’t get the shaft in media. Anyone who has read anything by me knows how I feel about that. You don’t know me and are making ridiculous assumptions. By the sounds of your rantings, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve done more productive work in solidarity with Blacks than you have. But you wouldn’t know since you are stuck in your insular self-serving world. Hmm, you have proven my point: some PoC – like you – are as bad as the white people at trivializing MY life. It sounds to me like you are the one playing the “oppression olympics”.

  • Lmary

    My point was when I hear other people of color say ‘if’ it’s like your questioning are legitimacy to be pissed off or as IF we would know what discrimination and prejudice feels like. And there was even a Native American female on the Alternet message board who said black peoples issues and anger seem ‘trite’ compared to what Native people have endured. And also had the nerve to say as far as blacks are concerned what we’ve suffered PALES in comparison now that sounds like someone who’s very self-insulated. Which I don’t consider myself but just because other races of color have endured brutality and bigotry by white people doesn’t mean you’re my ally especially when I know for a FACT people,including Native Americans, of different races have a lot of hatred for black people. So if I’m self-insulated maybe THAT’S why.

  • Lmary, I NEVER said “if” or in any way made such an implication, so you are completely misquoting me. And you know what, I don’t care what someone else said somewhere else. I answer only for my own statements, not those of anyone else. Yes, some NA’s have issues with Blacks, and some Blacks have issues with NA’s, and some Blacks have issues with Arabs, and with Latinos and vice versa. It’s wrong, it’s always wrong. But do not dare to paint me like another, nor think that she speaks for me, nor that all my people think like her. I don’t expect you to answer for every dumb-ass statement made by a Black person, just for your own, and frankly, that’s a big enough burden for you.

  • Lmary

    Ok then I apologize for being hostile but it just bugs me when people say ‘if this were the blacks’ or how black people lull themselves into a false sense of solidarity with people they have no business doing so with. Like the Clintons but if those views are not your views I apologize for painting you with such a broad brush I guess I need to work on my trust issues. And the last comment was funny even though I know it was a dig at me, good one!