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Posts in: Culture

Travelogue -Part II

AirplaneI’m writing this post over what is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. I’m now several weeks into my trip to Asia and I’m feeling overwhelmingly grateful for the experience. So many people would love to be in my shoes – to have an opportunity to experience different cultures, to get on a plane and within hours be in a new time zone, to change their world view.

Some people will never have a chance to leave their country, let alone their city or even the ten block radius of their home, while I get to visit several places on a different continent. It’s easy to take world travel for granted, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to it. Boarding a plane, staying in a hotel – after a while it can seem mundane, even commonplace. On this trip, I’ve tried to remember how I felt the first time I travelled – the sheen of glamour in packing a suitcase, the trepidation during take-off and landing, even the alertness I exhibited decades ago during the flight attendants’ safety demonstration.

So, amongst all of the other things for which I’m grateful, this opportunity, this month in Asia is certainly high on the list. So too is the great hotel bed – there’s nothing like a good night sleep when one is on the road!

Signing off,

Y.

Travelogue – Part I

AirplaneAlthough we’re no longer in the heyday of glamorous international air travel – given increased security concerns and the tightened belts of nearly all airlines – I still get excited about the prospect of packing my luggage and boarding a plane to visit a far flung location somewhere in the world. I look forward to seeing and learning new things, to having my perspective challenged and perhaps altered, and to change the mode in which I live my day to day life. Mixed in with this excitement too is a bit of trepidation, as I always wonder how I will be received, especially when visiting a place in the world where I will clearly be the “other”.

I recall visiting Asia as a teenager with my mother and brothers at a time when my dad was working and living in Asia – dividing his time between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia while my family stayed behind in Canada. It was a big trip for us as we had never really vacationed per se as a family. Summer vacations between new and old school years mostly consisted of seemingly eternal days outdoors with neighbourhood friends or long day trips in the car where my brothers and I would make up backseat games to while the time away. But this year was special and different and it was a vacation extravaganza: first a stopover in California to go to Disneyland and Universal Studios and to tour Los Angeles a bit and finally the long plane ride to our first of three stopovers: Jakarta, Indonesia – a place I’d had only heard of on the news.

Our “otherness” – so obvious to each of us both on the plane and in the airport – was again made “known” to us by individuals working in the airport who asked us where we were from as we made our way to claim our luggage. The questions, the looks, the stares – perhaps a better description of their gazes – were never malicious, but came from sheer curiosity. Our difference was unique. We weren’t white foreigners – they had seen those often before. We were African, black, and clearly far from home.

Some of the clearest memories I have from this several week tour of Asia are the various instances where people just looked at me. They looked at the braids in my hair – one couple came and stood directly behind me to stare intently  – fascinated by the intricacy of and multitude of braids in my hair. Were they wondering how I did it? Were they comparing me to black people they had seen in movies or on television? I’ll never know because they didn’t speak to me directly. The gaze was usually distant. Sometimes a hint of a smile crept up on a face; sometimes a finger raised to point. I remember that we were never invisible or inconspicuous there. There was no hiding or blending in. We were a five member troop of “others” marching to a different beat.

As I make my way to Asia again, seated in a plane a mere hours away from my destination, I wonder: what will await me this time?

Signing off,

Y.

Cover Girls

This post can also be found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yaahemaa-obiriyeboah/cover-girls_b_3562660.html

This past week there has been a fair amount of coverage regarding the appearance of women of colour in high fashion print ads, as well as on magazine covers. For the first time in 19 years, Prada is using a black woman in its ad campaign, Malaika Firth, a Kenyan-born, U.K.-raised model. And in recent days, Vanity Fair unveiled its cover, featuring Scandal and Django Unchained (and African-American) actress Kerry Washington, to much fanfare.

Some might ask why so much attention is being paid to these latest events and why they’re considered to be so culturally significant. The reality is that it’s rare to see many people of colour in print ads or on the cover of magazines. In fact, it seems as though the use of ethnic models on the runways or catwalk shows of high and haute couture fashion houses is even declining as more and more designers have become less interested in models with personality, or whose appearance may ‘detract’ from the clothing. Instead, they have been favouring the generic (read: white) models, so that the focus is purely on the clothing. In my view it’s a specious argument, but logic doesn’t always seem to prevail in fashion.

Today, it is still a big deal to have a person of colour on the front page of a mainstream magazine. Of course, you’ll see ethnics on the covers of niche magazines or in targeted advertising — those directed to a particular ethnic community — but it is infrequent in high fashion magazines, such as Vogue.

The lack of diversity is a problem that plagues all ethnicities. Blacks and hispanics in North America seem to fare better than other ethnic groups, but overall ethnics lack prominence in fashion campaigns and entertainment culture.

While in the grand scheme most of our attention should be focused on issues of greater importance — such as literacy among ethnic minority school children, high school and university graduation rates, and ethnic representation in institutions such as the judiciary and government — we can’t disregard the fact that fashion and entertainment are multibillion dollar industries, and industries that often play significant roles in our day-to-day lives. They determine what products we buy, which movies we see, how we dress and come to create our personal style, and they also influence how we see ourselves.

For a model or actress to be featured on the cover of a magazine suggests that they’ve achieved cultural importance and popularity; and, perhaps, more significantly, that they wield economic power and are highly influential. The elegantly dressed actress or model informs our concepts of beauty and elegance and shapes what we covet or desire to be. Magazines (i.e. the editors behind the covers), whether they’re absolutely right or not, are authorities and arbiters of popular culture. They tell us what, or who is beautiful and iconic. They tell us who we should emulate and to whom we should aspire to be. They inform our conventional ideas. So often if something is not explicitly stated or shown, it’s as though it doesn’t exist. And if particular groups of people are not visible for all to see, in arenas that embody our cultural standards, it suggests that they are seen as inferior, unimportant, or, dare I say, not attractive enough.

Recently, Kerry Washington stated that she hoped to soon live in a “post-racist world”- and perhaps it would be a world where diversity in the media was the norm because it reflects actual society. Here’s hoping that Malaika and Kerry’s moments are not blips on the radar, but that we will see them, and other minorities, on a regular basis as cover girls.

Signing off,

Y.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl

awkwardblackgirlSo I’m a bit late in the game as I’ve only recently discovered Issa Rae’s fabulous web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. As has been said by others, her show is unique and fills a void in the cultural media landscape. Awkward Black Girl, or ABG as it has come to be called, offers a unique, hilarious and honest perspective on relatable everyday circumstances – from frustrating co-workers, office drama and dating (within and outside of one’s ethnicity) to race and the subtleties of day-to-day prejudice. In my humble opinion it is as funny – if not funnier – than much of what you would watch on network television.

While the show borrows from themes common in film and situational comedies, Issa Rae’s internet phenomenon has garnered attention and a loyal following not only due to the quality of the culturally and socially spot-on writing, but because, through ABG, she manages to change the narrative and to illuminate an aspect of black female life that mainstream media either isn’t interested in, or fails to believe exists.

In an interview with another internet maven, Amanda de Cadenet of The Conversation, both Rae and de Cadenet discuss, amongst other things, the lack of diverse voices in studio-driven TV productions. As Rae points out, studio producers often make assumptions about what ethnic audiences want to view on their screens and often their first consideration is how a show will affect advertising dollars. Anyone who has watched television with an observant eye will know – aside from a few exceptions – that more often than not ethnic does not sell.

What often isn’t promoted on network TV is alternative storytelling, i.e. stories that don’t fit the (mis)conceptions and assumptions people have about ethnics. What is wonderful about Issa Rae’s show is that,  wrapped within the humour and sarcasm, she somehow manages to show a more complex version of female blackness. Her character is black AND quirky; she’s erudite AND loves gangsta rap; she’s introspective AND sensitive  AND tough without being a stereotypical, emasculating, over the top black woman. Executives seem to prefer the latter – it’s easy to sell – but so often it rings false for those of us who aren’t THAT way.

Because Issa is at the helm of the show, writing and producing ABG, she’s able to craft a legit and unique experience. It is refreshing to see a multifaceted – and nerdy and awkward!- black female and one that so many of us can relate to!

A series like ABG can exist mostly because it doesn’t ‘air’ on a network television channel. It was born and bred on the internet and supported by internet users.The show survived its first online season due to crowd funding via Kickstarter and season two was supported by music producer Pharell Williams, who loved the idea of a character that represented all the black nerds out there. And there are many of us!

There is great democratic power in the internet – for those watching and those producing shows. And the internet allows one to take control and do innovative and different things. It’s hard, for example, to see an Issa-type being cast as the lead on a network show. Don’t get me wrong, Issa is gorgeous, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dark-skinned leading lady with a TWA on television. Those ladies are usually the side-kicks.  (For those not in the know, a TWA is a teeny weeny afro).

Rae’s  success is now being recognized by mainstream players. Aside from Williams, Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, is now knocking on Rae’s door.  Rae is also reportedly slated to play Nina Simone in an upcoming film and will soon form part of a panel for a The View-type show with other black females called Exhale.

Rae’s success is much deserved. She was daring, ambitious and saw a gap and filled it and then some. Rather than waiting for the door to be opened, Rae opened it herself and what an amazing adventure she chose.

Signing off,

Y.

You Must Be Olivia Pope

I’ve noticed a few discernible differences in season two of Shonda Rhimes’ television show Scandal. For those who have not been watching the drama, Scandal features, as its main protagonist, a woman named Olivia Pope who works as a ‘fixer’ in Washington, D.C. When the big names are in trouble (be they elected officials or CEOs of companies) they run to Olivia to sort out their problems and to handle the media and publicity machine. In addition to being a ‘fixer’, Olivia is also involved in a sordid romantic relationship with the president of the United States, who she helped -through fairly nefarious means – to win the presidential election.

942656195_7eb2b77d2e_oWhile the wheeling and dealing and fast-talking and fast-walking that are the staples of the show are fascinating in and of themselves, what’s most striking about the show is how race is simultaneously discussed and not discussed at all.

Olivia Pope – based on a real life figure, Judy Smith, a former press aide in the George Bush administration- has managed to reach, interact with, and influence individuals at the highest echelons of power. She manages to do this not only as a woman, and sartorially elegant in designer wear, but also as a person of colour. To be a woman of colour and to have achieved the success necessary to play with and push the big wigs, she must be good – extremely, terrifically exceptional that is. While season one made no direct mentions of Olivia’s race (although it should be said, given the visual medium that is television, her race is obvious for all to see), season two has dipped its toes in the bucket of American colour politics on a few occasions.

In “Happy Birthday, Mister President” a flashback episode, we witness the complexities of being ‘the other woman’, particularly complex when Olivia Pope, ‘the other woman’, or mistress, is black and her partner in matrimonial crime is the Republican president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant, who happens to be white. Olivia, in a fit of frustration with their act of creeping around, declares to Fitz that she’s” feeling a little Sally Hemmings-Thomas Jefferson” about their situation. It’s a seemingly one-off line, but there is so much richness, history, and truth behind her comments. As the mistress – even one who is described as the love of Fitz’s life – she cannot occupy the main stage of her lover’s life. Her name will never be found indelibly etched beside his in the history books when the president’s life is accounted for – his wife will hold that spot. Unlike Sally, Olivia is not legislatively or socially enslaved – she lives in a different historical context. But, while she may have significant economic and political power, at the end of the day she’s not so different from Sally. She’s just one in a long series of black women in the tangled history of the United States, involved with a white man who holds most of the power and who can never really be hers.

The fact that Fitz is a white Republican makes the Olivia-Fitz relationship especially captivating and serves as a ripe foundation from which to build storylines for the show. Fitz, in the aftermath of surviving an assassination attempt, seems to ‘see the light’ and feels invincible and declares that he wants to divorce his (white), pregnant wife, in order to pursue his relationship with Olivia. In response, his chief of staff, Cyrus Beene, states, “‘Liv is a lovely, smart woman… but she’s not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.” Hmmm. Le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

The latest episode “Top of the Hour”, deals deftly with the topic of race without so much as a word. It touches on the judgments and assumptions many of us make about who we see as naturally filling powerful roles. Olivia comes to the rescue of a female CEO, arriving at this woman’s home with a few members of her entourage: Abby (a pretty redhead) and Harrison (the black male lawyer in Olivia’s company). The CEO has never heard of or seen Olivia Pope before. She immediately walks up to Abby and says, “You must be Olivia Pope”. Before she can shake Abby’s hand, however, the real Olivia interjects, shakes her hand and says, “I’m Olivia Pope”, while Abby and Harrison give each other knowing looks in the background.

No one dwells on the moment, because it’s time to get to the work at hand. But it is truly priceless.

Signing off.

Y.