Recently the New York Times posted their picks for Best TV Shows of 2016. The list included Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. The article’s accompanying photography included images of Waller-Bridge and Glover but peculiarly instead of a picture of Coel, the creator and star of the show, the newspaper’s photo editor instead chose a picture of Danielle Walters- Coel’s lighter skinned co-star. At first glance, to some, this might seem like a simple oversight, until you realise the other accompanying imagery features lead acts from the shows (bar one) lucky enough to make it on the New York Time’s end of year list. In my humble opinion you’d have to go out of your way to select a picture of Danielle Walters, regardless of her obvious beauty and talent, when it is two time BAFTA award winning Coel who heads the Netflix show.
Why would the New York Times photo editor choose a photograph of Danielle Walters instead of a photograph of Michaela Coel to represent Chewing Gum? Only they can answer that. Is it a simple case that they were only provided with a picture of Danielle Walters? If so, why is that the case? For dark skinned black women, often ignored and maligned because of both our gender and complexion, this is yet another form of erasure, an act that further disenfranchises Coel, and us, based on our lack of proximity to whiteness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a person of colour who possesses characteristics that allow one to be aligned with whiteness, the problem arises when darker skinned black people are not granted the same visibility. To others, unaffected by this and other subtle micro-aggressions, addressing this oversight might seem petty but it is the insidious nature of these acts that most affects dark skinned black women. The pervasiveness means that these ills go unchecked and are allowed to continue. “Oh, but what’s the problem? She got a mention in the New York Times for heaven’s sake!” My question to you is if her name and that of her lead co-star Susan Wokoma are good enough to feature on the list, why not their images? To simply ignore this would be to say that it’s acceptable and it is not.
For the Guardian Kele Okereke asserts the prevalence of the acceptable face of black women in media being those with lighter skin is due to colourism which is not just a “theoretical issue” but one that “disadvantages dark-skinned people, and privileges those with lighter skin.” I’m tired of talking about this, but not so tired I’ll let even the smallest offence slip by. I doubt the choice of Danielle Walters ‘ picture was malicious; a wilful attempt to perpetuate colourism against Coel on the part of the New York Times but it must be addressed. It is now time, during this cultural renaissance, this age of diversity in representation, to call out the ways in which the media disseminates images of black women and demand that you put some respect on our names.
My support of Coel is based on her singularity in representing dark skinned black women in British TV simultaneously behind the scenes and in front of the camera on an international scale. The success of Chewing Gum lies in its ability to represent black women in all our glory and with all our flaws. The New York Times failed Michaela Coel in their inability to include her picture in their article. For so long black women’s representation has been dictated to us. But now? We are reclaiming our images and telling our own stories, should you decide to include us in your narratives or listicles, we will no longer be happy to see you show only the parts of us you deem “palatable.” Take us all, with our dark skin, big lips and broad noses or take none of us. The time for paying lip service alone is over. Get in formation or get gone.
Fellow pop culture writer, Nichole Perkins made one of the writers from the New York Times aware of this post in this thread on Twitter. James Poniewozik wasn't sure why this had happened but listened to Perkins' concerns and had the photo changed. The physical edition had already gone to print. This is a small victory but the war continues and for this simple reason. In the exchange between Perkins and Poniewozik once the change had been made, Perkins expressed gratitude to Poniewozik for his effort in rectifying the issue- his response? "de nada" ...
The rest of this is misplaced righteous indignation further exemplifying how a simple google coulda saved me time and distress. LOL. As Marta kindly points out in the comments below "de nada" does not mean "it's nothing" it means "you're welcome." Read on if you must but the point below is moot. Thanks for setting me straight Marta! Correction is love x
...it's nothing. It costs his team nothing to disenfranchise Michaela Coel and just as little to re-enfranchise her. But to Coel, dark skinned black women and our allies it means a hell of a lot. If de nada, apologise to Michaela, take responsibility and express regret. That would take actual effort acknowledging why it was wrong having Danielle Walters' photo instead of Coel's so it's easier to change the photo on the quiet. *sigh* Only when those with the ability to make a difference understand and care about the cost and consequences of their actions will we stop seeing these kinds of "oversights" cos de nada, innit?
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