Sil Lai Abrams Dishes Out A Digital #RealityCheck To Change The Image Of Black Women On TV

October 23, 2013  |  

It’s no secret that negative images of black women on television run rampant.

Essence magazine just released a study surveying 1,200 women on their thoughts on black women in media. The respondents felt the images were “overwhelmingly negative.” Some of the stereotypical images highlighted by the women in the study include categories like: “Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies.”

What instantly comes to mind as the driver of these images are reality television shows like Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop, which dominate ratings. Millions of people tune in every week to these programs, but with a few clicks of your mouse, one woman, Sil Lai Abrams is hoping to change that. The award winning writer, inspirational speaker, and domestic violence awareness activist launched a nonprofit, “Truth In Reality,” whose mission is to “change the way women of color and violence are portrayed in the media, especially on reality television.”

Social media acts as a major amplifier for these “ratchet reality shows.” Fueling the conversation are women from all walks of life. Abrams noticed even smart, educated, successful women she knew were tweeting and watching these shows.

“It’s very disturbing to see women who call themselves Black feminists or womanists who gleefully support the degradation of their sister,” explains Abrams.  So, for the past six months Abrams has worked to meet these women where they are by hosting weekly twitter chats, #RealityTVCheck that reach anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000 people per night (according to her organization’s own analytics).

Every Monday, from 8pm to 9pm EST Abrams leads these discussions along with guest co-hosts on Twitter, at the same time many are watching or preparing to watch their “guilty pleasure” reality shows. We caught up with Abrams to get the scoop on her “#RealityTVCheck” twitter chats and how her personal experiences with domestic violence fuels her passion.

Madame Noire: Why are you so passionate about changing the narrative of black women on reality TV?

Sil Lai Abrams: “Ratchet” reality shows promote bullying and violence as an acceptable way to handle conflict. They also cause viewers to internalize negative stereotypes about women of color while simultaneously sending out the message that we deserve to be abused because we’re “bitches,” “violent babies mamas” or “gold diggers.”

MN: Do you remember the moment that first sparked your passion for this?

SLA: I’m a contributing writer to Ebony.com and TheGrio. My focus has been on domestic violence and relationships. Last summer I was reading through the comments online to an article I wrote about Evelyn Lozada being battered by her then husband, Chad Johnson. It was horrifying to see so many people justifying abusing women. What was even more disturbing was that the majority of commenters were Black women who were justifying or even denying that Evelyn had been abused despite evidence.  An earlier piece I had written on Chris Brown battering Rihanna got the same response.

As a survivor of domestic violence and adolescent bullying, I know what it’s like for people to not believe that you’re being abused just because you don’t fit the “profile” of a victim. For years no one believed that it was happening to me because I was a “diva” and my batterer was such a low-key, friendly guy – in public. There were people who said the same thing; I must’ve driven him to do it because I was so “mouthy.”  These articles reinforced why I had to do my part to try and shift the cultural narrative towards abuse of women.

Given that I’m a communicator by profession, I figured the way this could happen would be if I could educate folks on the damage of viewing reality show violence as “entertainment” and pushing for greater parity in the ways in which we’re being portrayed in the media.  Right now there is Olivia Pope and Michelle Obama on one end and the entire genre of ratchet reality shows on the other.  We need all facets of our humanity being shown-not just the violent and stereotypical ones that cause society to demonize us as “Jezebels,” “Sapphires” and “Crazy Black Reality Show Chicks”.

MN: What’s the impact of the negative images shown on reality shows?

SLA: Black women suffer from the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, intimate partner homicide and HIV infections in the United States. I’m not saying that cable networks have created these issues. However certain types of unscripted television shows are normalizing behaviors that contribute to the over-representation of Black women in these areas. Researchers have also found that young girls and women who watch reality shows tend to have greater acceptance of violence in their own lives. They also are more likely to believe that “mean girl” behavior like we see on shows like with NeNe Leakes on Real Housewives of Atlanta is okay and expected if you want to get ahead in the world.

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