Chiller Than Chill: Finding Pride in my Blackness Through Fabulous Representation
When I was a kid, Susie Carmichael from Rugrats was my hero.
Not least because she was responsible, steady and kind; not least because her raspy voice was tart honey to my ears; not least because she wasn’t afraid of Angelica (who, incidentally, scared me to death).
No, it was because I saw myself in her: more precisely, because she looked like me.
This analogy is easily made in an era when calls for representation of marginalized groups are finally being taken into account. But when I was much younger, my reasoning didn’t go that far: at the time, I was all about instant gratification, and connecting with someone, anyone. I loved stories, was fascinated by people — still am —, and craved any flash of recognition that would make me feel a little less alone. The voice of the majority was so loud that it never occurred to me, an impressionable young girl, that I could find my own by looking elsewhere.
With hindsight, I realize that she was one of the best examples of representation on television, so much so that it still baffles me: Susie’s awesomeness wasn’t conditional. She wasn’t poor, she wasn’t struggling at school, she wasn’t troubled and/or abrasive, she wasn’t the butt of every joke, which seemed to be some of the many attenuating circumstances surrounding minorities in television, at the time.
Television in the 90’s arguably did a better job with this issue than it had in previous decades, but these instances were so few and far in between, when compared to the more regularly disparaging ones, that without my realizing it, I quietly gave up. I felt the tacit understanding passed along to me, listened to the unstated agreement that there was no place in popular culture for black girls who were not, in some way or another, a stereotype.
Again, not that I even knew I was looking for this type of validation, but it certainly did the trick.
With this ingrained sense of resignation, I went looking for comfort in the next best thing. I, along with many of my peers, fell in love with the charming Lizzie McGuire and the voracious Ren Stevens; with the sweet nature of Topanga, the precocious Tanner girls, the eccentric Sabrina: all had in common the fact that week after week, they presented preteen girl angst with striking accuracy and candidness.
In truth, it was like witnessing a tender moment — better yet, a hilarious one — between a very good friend of yours and their family: you are there, your presence is acknowledged, you might even partake in the joke. But deep inside you know that it doesn’t really include you. I was invested in these girls’ stories, but with the inherent knowledge that they weren’t really directed at me, a black girl whose international heritage had given her a different worldview.
There were exceptions, of course. Angela Moore from Boy Meets World was gorgeous, well-adjusted, and an all-around badass. She was allowed depth, and a righteous romantic arc (with my baby Shawn, no less): the interracial nature of their relationship was absolutely mind-blowing, because I hadn't seen positive examples of this very often. There were also the Mowry twins who lit up every screen they were on, as well as the entire female cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Truly, there were exceptions. But to me, they were unicorns. For one, they weren’t commonplace, outside the framework of the Disney/Nickelodeon twosome; furthermore, they didn’t stack up against the myriad of wide-ranging stories of their aforementioned white counterparts. Not for children, at least.
Was it too much to ask for a little variety? I wanted the Susie Carmichaels and Angela Moores to be just as celebrated as those who were maybe not so perfect — because Heaven knows that neither was I. If I couldn’t live up to them, even if they looked like me, then I would take the next best thing.
I said earlier that growing up, the concept of representation was lost on me. This isn’t, in retrospect, because I was unable to comprehend its importance, but rather because its lack thereof had already worked on me.
I didn’t want the black Barbie; I prayed that my dark eyes would magically turn green or grey overnight; I braided my hair with clumsy, chubby fingers, hoping to make it closer to straight. I remember asking my Dad why I wasn’t white, as if it were the most natural question in the world.
I don’t think it was self-loathing, as was my initial belief; rather, I think I just wanted to blend in, to belong with people who knew and understood the stories I could tell. Black people, and black women in particular, fit certain narratives when they were on mainstream television (I won’t even mention films, which are a different story altogether): they were not allowed to be problematic manic-pixie-dream-girls who generally infuriated but fascinated, like Peyton Sawyer; they were not allowed to be privileged, selfish girls who were forgiven for their mistakes like Rory Gilmore; they were certainly not allowed to be well-rounded ass-kickers with a tinge of emotional unavailability, like Buffy Summers. They were never truly multidimensional, mean, strange: I would have welcomed the less favorable depictions if they came along with the other variables. White teenage pregnancy and drug addiction depictions sat alongside those of star athletes and overachievers. Where were ours?
Later, much later, I watched as #blackgirlmagic and #melaninpoppin burst forth in our cultural conversation, with the skeptical attitude of a twenty-something who had been seasoned by the world: as if it would make a difference. As if our self-validation could actually have an impact.
I have never been happier to be proven wrong.
As soon as I looked at the pictures of my fellow men, women and non-binary folks, aglow with the pride in their own skin, in their own ancestry, it stopped mattering to me whether or not this would mean something, on a wide-scale: it was already happening. I was so happy for everyone who'd realized, much sooner than me, that what had marginalized them in almost every mainstream industry (fashion, beauty, film) was actually their strength. It took me a few years to reassess what I had let myself believe: namely, that my voice did not matter.
It meant resetting my relationship with my hair by taking active control in embracing and caring for it.
It meant bringing together all the sides of my ancestry and heritage, instead of trying to balance them apart.
It meant reveling in the richness of my skin color, and all its beautiful perks (black don't crack, anyone?).
As if by serendipity, this monumental revolution occurring inside of me happened at the intersection of another one, this time on television: shows celebrating the luxuriance of the black experience began to crop up on the periphery, in all their offbeat glory.
Orange is the New Black gave me an aching, stunning panorama of WOC of all shapes, all sizes, all walks of life; Issa Rae spoke to my soul with her Awkward Black Girl web series and later, with the outstanding Insecure. Jessica Williams, Franchesca Ramsey and all the incredible women on The Nightly Show voiced my general done-ness with patriarchal nonsense. All these examples were elbow nudges, bringing me closer to the epiphany I’d been waiting on all along.
The final shove happened in 2015, when I took a chance on an obscure show on Netflix.
In “Sex and Violence”, the very first episode of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, her character Tracey has an unbelievably blundering romantic encounter with her love interest Connor. It is a divine mess that involves nosebleeds, ears and eyes getting aggressively licked, breasts being vibrated (yes, vibrated), and Tracey sitting, fully clothed, on Connor’s face as she awkwardly confesses to the camera “I don’t know if I’m supposed to wear clothes for this bit or not…”. I was laughing so hard that I nearly toppled my laptop — and it would not be the last time.
Chewing Gum has gone on to change my life in unforeseen ways: in addition to being one of the best, most hilarious shows I have ever watched in my life, it is also one that portrayed irreverent, off-kilter WOC being unapologetically weird. I related deeply not only to Tracey, but to Coel herself, not least because of her African descent. She was just an everyday girl whose blackness was important, but it was not the only thing of note about her: she was also an artist, a poet, a girl who wanted to be heard. I was in awe of the fearlessness with which Coel decided to carve out her own space, since it would certainly not be given to her by the mainstream media.
And she was not the only one. Susie Wokoma, of Crazyhead fame, has blown into the cultural conversation with her riveting performances in cult television shows and other outstanding projects. She, too, wears her blackness like a badge of honor, her sharp wit like a weapon, and her pride in her own beauty like a crown she has rightfully earned.
What has always struck me about all these women is that none of them are acting like television is doing them a favor by letting them be seen: they have not been given, or allowed anything (there, you get the token “black friend” role in the show, will you be quiet now?). They carry themselves as if they have always been here, and it’s the world that is finally catching up. It is truly a sight to behold.
Before long, I, too, started to gently flip my thinking on the entire thing; it wasn’t even just for me, anymore. It was for those little girls like my sister who were also being inherently told that their accomplishments were conditional, that their visibility needed to be worked and pleaded and bargained for, that they had to settle for the sidelines, that their stories were not interesting enough to be properly, respectfully told. The stirring response by small black girls to the Hidden Figures film was enough to dissipate any remaining doubt I may have harbored.
We are not yet there, we still have a long way to go; but I like to think that we are entering a golden age of representation, where minorities (social, racial, you name it) are finally taking control back over their own narratives and/or finding their own territories to flourish, as they have every right to. Black Radiance, IMAN Cosmetics, Fenty Beauty and the like have been hailed as the long-overdue alternatives for dark complexion-ed makeup addicts; Shea Moisture and Carol’s Daughter have breathed new life into the options given for natural hair-ed gals and guys; West African prints and Senegalese braids are being more and more defiantly worn in challenge to the Euro-centric beauty standards: and I could not be more proud.
But in the smaller, more intimate scale, witnessing television slowly shift the gaze it has always turned to those more visible is what finally answered the protestations of that child within. I have finally realized that it matters to be seen. That I am no better, but no less deserving than my peers, and that someone could one day be invested in what I had to say.
I (and many POC) have been told that I would have to work harder to prove myself; and sometimes, faced with difficulties like an unsurmountable lack of self-confidence, it was easier to simply give up. But I have stopped comparing myself to Susie Carmichael; I have stopped wishing I could be as perfect as Angela Moore. They, along with the fabulous recent examples of black women on television, have underlined that we don’t come in two boxes:
And while yes, black women can be, and have been angry (for a good cause), we can also be sad, vulnerable; we can also be funny and a little crazy; we can also be cool as cucumbers, chiller than chill; we can also be weird and unappealing: but above all, we can simply be.