Every week, there’s a new report on an instance of black people being excluded, overlooked, or discriminated in some shape or form. This week it was Acura and “The Bachelor,” a few weeks ago it was Vanity Fair and Kerry Washington, always its fashion magazines and runways and beauty campaigns. The thought that comes up most consistently after the outrage is why are we looking for white people’s approval, why are we seeking their validation, why don’t we spend time nurturing our own? And while I don’t agree that, by pointing out these instances of discrimination we are seeking white people’s approval (I think it’s holding them accountable and demonstrating evidence to the contrary of their melting pot, post-racial society, we love diversity claims), I do think that more time would be better spent not seeking or needing to be a part of what white people have going on—and have obviously shown through their actions they want to keep to themselves. But I’m curious if we really know what that would mean or how to even achieve it.
When I think of a time when black people had their “own” on a large scale in entertainment, I think of the Robert Johnson 1980 BET days, even Don Cornelius’ Soul Train days come to mind. These men had a vision to give black people something they could be proud of on TV and they made it happen. But the reality is Bob Johnson had to get John C. Malone to invest $500,000 in the project to get it off the ground, and once the network became a raving success it no longer remained a black-owned network because he sold it to Viacom for $3 billion in 2003, and ever since we’ve been left with the version of “black entertainment” we see now. When I thought about the wealthy rappers that were acknowledged by Forbes yesterday, I noticed a common thread. A lot of the men’s wealth came from selling companies and brands they’d built. Jay-Z sold Rocawear, 50 Cent sold his stake in Vitamin Water, and Dr. Dre gave up his majority ownership in Beats Electronics for a hefty price. It’s a common—and smart—business practice, but not one that allows us to have the ultimate say in the decisions that upset us, like who appears in which advertisements and how we’re portrayed on TV. That wealth also doesn’t trickle down into the community because we’re not selling these businesses off to other African Americans, they’re going to large corporations headed by white men who could care less about our representation, and the money remains in the hands of the black 1%.
I think about Oprah and the enormous opportunity to change the face of black programming if she would even just back a venture financially, aside from putting it on her network, but from what we’ve observed of her career that’s just not her thing. If we look at where the wealth is distributed in black America and the individuals who have the dollars to invest in independent black films or black clothing designers, the interest isn’t there. That doesn’t make these figures bad people. They’re businessmen. White people aren’t thinking about sharing the wealth when they embark on a new venture, they’re building their individual pockets. It’s just that there’s so many more of them and so few of us, and so when we run out of the few select black people who could open doors to come through, we’re left with relying on white people to at least acknowledge we exist in some way and to represent us fairly in the media. That’s why we get so upset when they fail: they really are our last resort in a lot of ways.
The idea of not having to look at programs and networks that weren’t created for us to begin with as the only source of quality programming is like the black community’s Nirvana but we don’t own much and when something isn’t yours, you don’t get much say in how it operates. There’s hope on the horizon with Diddy and Magic Johnson’s new cable channels that are in the works, but even those networks will be owned by Comcast. A few years ago, Quincy Jones announced plans to buy back Vibe, the magazine he started, I’m not sure if the web presence of the publication is evidence he kept his word or not. I hope that there are other black business minds out there with altruistic goals of putting black people on the map, and not just self, but I’m not too optimistic. I am completely behind the idea that we need to create our own and nurture it, my question is, how will we ever be able to do that without needing white people’s approval, at least from a financial backing standpoint, if we’re not even holding on to the things we’ve built or paving the way for others?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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