With broadsheet opinion pieces unveiling the groundbreaking news that slavery was “not very nice”, it seems that mainstream cinema’s representation of people of colour remains tied to narratives of noble suffering.
I think of James McBride’s open letter on Spike Lee’s ‘40 Acres and a Mule’ website begging the question of whether a black woman can get an Oscar nomination without playing maid to white ladies. Make no mistake, representations of white brutality matter and I’m both excited and curious to watch 12 Years a Slave. But when these stories are mainstream media’s only understanding of people of colour we run into problems. Well meaning white liberals shaking their head at plantations and wiping tears for Mandela can be just as limiting as that creepy woman at the bus stop who kept asking my mother if she could speak English.
This is what the author Chimamanda Adichie describes as the “single story”, a pre-set narrative designed to limit people of colour, holding them in a crude A to B storyline. It’s all getting rather repetitive. So when I want my fix of screen culture I have found myself looking outside of mainstream cinema (because no one needs to watch The Help more than once) and onto YouTube.
The Internet is no post-racial paradise but I am very grateful for a collection of rad vloggers and directors who are sharing their work with us and killing the single story one upload at a time. The following are a handful of highlights. They are not big or dramatic or sad. They just are. And that is more than enough for me.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
You can’t really talk about people doing cool stuff on YouTube and not mention Issae Rae’s web series ‘Awkward Black Girl’. I don’t know why, you just can’t. I didn’t make the rules okay? Whilst I don’t think Rae’s work is perfect (her non-apology after being called out for transphobia was wholly unimpressive) this is a genuinely funny and relatable show. It’s also proof that, hey, its not just white people who are anti-social, awkward weirdos, we all are! Or at least I am? I don’t know you guys…I guess anything that doesn’t fall under the tagline of ‘adorkable’ is cool with me.
Hey Fran Hey
If, like me, you are a mixed bb with kinky hair and an absent Daddy, hair care matters. It is history and heritage and that hairdresser who broke my lil ten-year-old heart when she told me that I had to go to a ‘special’ salon for ‘people like me’. (Gotta love those friendly neighbourhood racists!) But it’s also the simple act of looking cute, and no curly haired girl should be deprived of that. I learned to do my first twist out through online tutorials and I see that as a very small, yet very important, act of resistance. There are tons of awesome black hair and beauty vlogs on YouTube but ‘Hey Fran Hey’ is my favorite resource for dealing with natural hair.
When people say ‘South Asian pop culture’ and proceed to give a longwinded lecture about Madonna giving Malala Yousafzai a get well soon card (this actually happened to me!) you know something is seriously wrong. In this sense, I feel so blessed that vloggers like IISuperwomanII exist. Her videos tackle a wide range of interesting topics like the difference between brown girls and white girls, Punjabi families and just genuinely how to be a functional human being. Also I want to set up her ‘just get up’ speech as my alarm.
Chesca created ‘Shit White Girls say to Black Girls’, making her the greatest person in the history of the universe. But she’s done way more than that. Her uncompromising video pieces on topics such as slut shaming and the George Zimmerman verdict are truly powerful pieces.
YouTube isn’t exactly lacking for nerd culture. But black nerd culture is still a weirdly misunderstood area. It makes me think of this Junot Diaz quote: “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of colour in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”
So it’s great we have vloggers like Chris Sanders taking down weird belief systems surrounding ‘authentic’ blackness, like getting called out for ‘talking white’ or ‘acting white’ (what does that even mean?). He also makes videos about Pokemon. Therefore, he is awesome.