Dear My People: Black People Are Not Here For Our Entertainment

By ALEXIS LEVATO

Editor’s Note: This is an installment of a series in which the writer will reflect on themes in the show “Dear White People,” which she is analyzing in an independent study course.

In Volume II, Chapter X of “Dear White People,” Rikki Carters asks the question, “Do you know what’s historically been America’s most popular form of entertainment besides porn?”

Do you?

Sam, of course, answers right away: it’s minstrelsy.

Rikki quickly follows up and says that this form of entertainment continues today.

Minstrelsy has evolved over time but was originally a practice where white people would don themselves with blackface to mock slaves. It soon began to include black people themselves, forced to perform caricatured, distorted and egregious white interpretations of blackness.

Minstrelsy still exists in many art forms and literature because white people have predominantly dictated what black people must do in order to become famous, or how they should shape themselves to fit our mold. This is an abuse of power in a racist system, which is used to reinforce stereotypes—stereotypes that continue to benefit the people in power.

The problem with our thinking is this: if a black character on a TV show or movie is “too black” or doesn’t fit what we deem is “appropriate” for them, they are heavily criticized not for their ability, but because they are acting in ways that we don’t like. We are quick to shake our heads in disgust at a character that we deem “reverse-racist” or “ghetto.” Instead, we choose to only support “good” black people who conform to our belief systems. 

Colin Kaepernick was widely accepted and celebrated until he kneeled during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter, thereby protesting against police brutality. Beyoncé was the “perfect” black artist until she replicated the outfits of the Black Panther Party (this was unacceptable to white audiences because it reminded us that black people are powerful).

Minstrelsy is something that white people still do today. It is the presentation of distorted blackness, consumed simply for white pleasure, which simultaneously reinforces problematic prejudice against black people. It’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jim Crow and Tyler Perry movies.

Minstrelsy in the past was a much more clearly distinguished art form because it was specifically named as such. Today, however, it is a little more complicated. Some might argue that certain representations of black experiences in this country are minstrelsy because of the way they reinforce negative stereotypes.

However, I think it is predominantly white consumption of such that makes it minstrelsy. It is when the white audience listens to songs about drug use, for example, written, produced and performed by a black artist as a source of entertainment that reinforces their racial prejudice and systems of power. It is our blind consumption of these performances, like sports, which reinforce a racist system of entertainment, that we need to take a closer look at.

There is an Atlantic article, titled “If Miley Cyrus’s Twerking is Racist, Isn’t Janis Joplin’s Singing Also Racist?,” that clearly demonstrates what modern minstrelsy looks like. It can be white women using black women for attention and cultural capital and as objects to provoke an audience under the pretense of being “edgy.” The article points out that Cyrus’s objectification and use of black culture is modern minstrelsy.

So how do you stop it? Call it out. Calling it out is helpful because it means recognition of an abuse of power and ability. 

Another way to subvert minstrelsy is to take the time to read texts about the black experience. Watch shows or films that are produced by someone with real experience as a member of that community. However, do NOT think that it is representative of all black people. Recognize the relationship between racist systems and power. Do NOT think that you know what black people experience in this country because you have seen “Get Out,” for example. Instead, recognize that these voices have a complex relationship with systems of power. Rejecting and fighting minstrelsy is an effort to reject and fight stereotypes that negatively affect marginalized communities. So, try to identify the relationship with power, and question why those negative stereotypes exist and how this influences your interactions with black people.

Finally, in supporting black artists, or artists who are representing their own experience, we are supporting a community for what it is, as it is lived by those individuals, not for what we think about those communities.

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Dear My People: Black People Are Not Here For Our Entertainment