10 Tips on How to Include Black People
“Diversity” and “Inclusion“. Buzzwords for the 21st Century, especially in “post-racial” America. But for all the mumbling and fumbling, the empty rhetoric and symbolic gestures, white media creators (and others from non-black majority countries) seem catastrophically inept at understanding what these words mean, or how to put them into meaningful action, especially as they apply to Black people.
What I am about to say is nothing new, nothing original, nothing that hasn’t been said — probably better by countless others — but I felt inspired to join the chorus of voices holding media creators accountable for how they represent me and mine: on paper, on screen, and in every other medium.
So here are my ten tips for white media creators seeking to be “include” Black people. It is by no means an exhaustive list.
The Black experience involves real people and real struggles, not to be “sanitized” or reduced to symbolic representation, as in the “Civil Rights” struggle of the X-Men or slavery in Dragon Age. If you’re going to “borrow” (read: appropriate) our struggle, then at least include our likenesses from time to time.
Merely palette-swapping racially or culturally “neutral” (read: vacuous) characters from #F6DACD to #7E3617 does not count as “inclusion”. Blackness involves a vast, diverse, historically grounded, continuously lived experience all but inexorable from skin tone. Do some research, or better yet, hire some black creators.
This may seem obvious, but…ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT THE SAME. See the above point about “vast and diverse”. We come in many skin tones, have thousands of different ethnicities, and countless different experiences along multiple axes of gender, class, sexuality, ability, religion, and…just being different people because that’s how people work. Even an egregious stereotype might be excusable if it doesn’t exist in isolation. Still probably better to avoid those.
TLDR: Feature different kinds of black people.
It is inconceivable to me, outside the context of pure malice, that I even need to bring up such an established trope. If you’re going to include black characters, maybe don’t kill them off first, or even second, unless you’ve heeded Point #3, and have plenty more to spare. Even then, maybe just don’t, at least not until they’ve had time to develop? Or, you know, unless your the majority of your cast is black. Including your hero.
The “Sassy Black Woman”. The “Mammy”. The “Smooth Pimp”. The “Bad Mother Fucker”. These and others have all been deployed at different times for the amusement of white audiences. There is nothing inherently wrong with these archetypes, provided that they are given some breadth, depth, and nuance. See Point #3 about blackness not being monolithic. Just as all black people aren’t the same, no black person is only one thing. Can we be funny? Absolutely. Humor for black people has been essential to our survival. Exploring why that is and has been might help with your character development.
Black people have struggled. Continue to struggle. We also endure. Our endurance is one of the foundations of our pride. But we also laugh (see Point #5), learn, love, contemplate, question, explore, create, eat, sleep, shit, and fuck just like everyone else. Which is to say, we contain multitudes. Also, our struggle and our endurance don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather they are informed and shaped by the prevailing context of white supremacy. I know those are two words you probably hate seeing adjacent to one another, but the shit is real. Choose to address it head on, because at least you have that choice.
Though black people’s lives and experiences have historically and continue to be beset with violence, it is not inherent to our condition. See Points #2, #3, and #5. And despite the narrative of “black on black” violence, the simple truth is that violence most often occurs between members of the same group — any group — if only because there is a larger set of interactions of any kind between members of the same group. We do not present some unique and ever-present danger. We are no more prone to perpetrating violence than any other group. Which, frankly, is kind of amazing, given that we have been and remain the disproportionate victims of violence, by the state and its proxies.
There are over a billion black people in the world — one-sixth of the world’s population. And that’s just by “official” counts, which may exclude any number of people who do or don’t identify as such. Which in itself speaks to Point #3, about how blackness is not monolithic, even in how it is defined. Black people make up anywhere from 11-13 percent of the United States, and yet you’ll hardly ever see either of these proportions (11-13 percent or one-sixth) reflected in the populations of most media properties.
In spite of the huge set of everyday dangers that pretty much ensure these percentages seldom increase, black people are not in short supply. There is, nor has there ever been, any paucity of black resources to draw upon when building that imaginary world which looks suspiciously a lot like this world. For the record (and yes, there are records), we’ve always been around. In spite of white/European historians’ relentless attempts to erase us, or decouple us from our own history. Dwayne McDuffie’s Rule of Three can actually be broken with a shift in consciousness.
Black music. Black art of any and every kind. Black language. Black aesthetic. Black culture more broadly. The Black Experience (See Point #1). Each and all of these things have been and continue to be stolen, appropriated, decontextualized, remixed, and whitewashed for mainstream consumption. Which is to say they are stripped of their most fundamental element — black people ourselves — for the sake of white palatability. Or perceived white palatability. To be clear, brown skin fixed to a black aesthetic — clothing, voice, music, etc. — does not a black person make. See Points #2 and #3.
More importantly, if the blackness in your properties, however it may manifest, does not promote, uplift, or enhance the lives of black people in some way – and positive representation has a greater impact than you might realize — then your property is not inclusive. It is appropriative for the sake of drawing in black dollars (or maybe white liberal dollars) or creating some sort of “feel good” image for the company — currency that can also be traded for…yes, dollars. This is the very definition of commodification.
Taken literally, this is obvious. But perhaps what isn’t so obvious is that all the shades and nuances of the Black Experience are not accessible to you. No matter how many books you read, albums you listen to, films you watch, plays you attend, black friends you make (though by all means, yes, tap that resource if you have it, without demand or expectation), there are things about being black that you simply cannot comprehend—intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually.
This leaves you with one—also obvious—recourse. Recruit black people to work beside you. By which I mean hire them, because that work-for-free shit is over. Or, if you’re feeling particularly “magnanimous”, hand black people the reins and see where they lead you. I hear some guy named Ta-nehisi Coates is killing it on that Black Panther comic. And every other thing he touches, for that matter. Incidentally, he is not the only smart black person in the world. See Point #8.
In closing, it needs to be said that including diverse representations of black people in media has nothing to do with “political correctness”. It has little to do with fairness, either. This is not a zero-sum game by which black gain equals white loss.
What it concerns, most significantly, is the acceptance of this proposal that Black Lives Matter. That Black People Matter. Black representations are a matter of survival. Of casting us as fully-realized human beings with thoughts, feelings, dreams, aspirations, complexity, agency — against a backdrop that explicitly shows and tells us (everyone) that the opposite is true.
If we don’t matter, if we are seldom seen or heard, reduced to caricatures, or otherwise rendered less than fully human, it creates a void. Not just of our bodies or our voices, but of empathy and compassion toward us.
The cost of this void, engraved in history and playing out in real time, is our very lives.