There are some things in media that I believed would never change. If I’m watching TV and I check out the Knicks game, it is likely they’ll lose. They’ve been losing my entire life. But what things in the media sphere can we change?
While not always on display, my natural hair is a beautiful fluffy mass that grows upward, toward the sun. I enjoy switching things up, so I wear it curly one day and straight the next. But I wasn’t always so bold.
As a youth with a lot of melanin in my skin, I quickly learned that the media didn’t show images of people who looked like me. When I watched movies, looked at magazines, or saw ads on TV, the women who were celebrated had light skin and straighter hair. If I did see a darker-skinned woman, she was often in a role that was immaterial to the script.
By the time I got to college, the media I consumed made it even clearer that mass media saw Jamaican women as a monolith. We were allowed to be nurses, nannies, overwhelmed moms—even raucous sidekicks, but not elegant, triumphant main figures in television, film, or magazines. Then there were the images of black men. I came to view the steady parade of brown faces in mugshots splashed across papers and nightly news shows as a form of programming aimed at making people believe black men were inhuman and inhumane. I hated it all.
Despite creating internal mental distance from such shallow media images, some of my collegiate peers really expected me to perform in accordance with stereotypes they had seen on TV. Media played a powerful part in shaping their perceptions, and it showed. Frustrated, I set about finding a way to divest myself from media that stripped all nuance from images of black life.
Frustrated, I set about finding a way to divest myself from media that stripped all nuance from images of black life.
“Stop feeding the beast,” I thought. I quit purchasing certain magazines, got rid of my television, and refused to see films with all-white casts. This made for a few lonely weekends, but I stuck with it and began to make new friends of a similar mindset. After graduation, a friend heard about my new media standards and said, “That’s great Chevon, but you can’t just boycott things. You have to support what you do like!”
That advice changed my approach. I sought out and paid to see independent black films, bringing friends along with me to boost ticket sales. I saw black plays, bought black art, I even took the cash I’d earmarked for big-ticket rock concerts and spent it on passes to local hip-hop shows.
I went from passively complaining to actively boycotting stereotypes to wholeheartedly supporting media that I identified with. Still, I wanted to increase my impact. I was thinking about how to do this when I saw an email from a business owner who had taken time to mentor me. She wanted me to join the board of a group called Women, Action, & the Media. I am so happy I said yes.
Now, I’m a board member serving the community and amplifying the message about independent media and balanced representation. And on those rare days where I wonder if any of this work is necessary—there is always someone there to remind me.
When my friend made the cover of Black Enterprise magazine, I helped to organize a party to celebrate her achievement. At the end of the night, I asked her what was the most awesome thing about making the cover. I was surprised by her answer. It wasn’t the new clients who’d see her, or the prestige. Instead, she was elated to see her natural hair in full-effect on the cover of a major magazine. “I’m proud that I can be that visual for other women and girls,” she said.
Representation in media matters, and though I may never be able to jump into the TV and figure out how to make the Knicks win, there are a range of impactful things I (and you) can do to change the media landscape every day. From making our own videos and websites to supporting independent artists, we can all be the change. Believe that.