Why Intersectionality Is A Key Aspect Of Black Representation

Why Intersectionality Is A Key Aspect Of Black Representation?

The fight for proper and adequate representation of Black people in the media is one that has long existed.  When considering the fact that Black people were once portrayed by means of blackface and minstrel shows, the emergence of Black-lead productions, and even current initiatives such as Strong Black Lead, are indicative of a large and much needed shift of the narrative. However, in a study done by the National Research Group (NRG) entitled “#RepresentationMatters”, it was found that two in three Black Americans feel as though the portrayal of their stories is inadequate. 

To truly represent the diversity and multifacetedness that exists within the Black experience, these portrayals must be more intentional in their incorporation of intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality, a term coined by lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, states that the various forms of discrimination and prejudice often overlap, working together to consolidate complex experiences with discrimination. Crenshaw coined this term as a way of addressing the marginalization that Black women face as both Black people and as women.

When applying this term within the context of representation, factors such as sexuality, disability, nationality and socio-economic status all influence the way that Black people experience life and their own blackness. 

Writers and producers such as Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Janet Mock and Patrik Ian-Polk are all notable for their work in providing audiences with profound reflections of the Black experience, offering characters that are both diverse and relatable. Their projects have certainly proven that nuanced, intersectional portrayals of blackness are both well-received and highly supported.

Yet, the encapsulation of diverse identities and experiences still remains lackluster in modern media projects, falling into problematic tropes or being densely developed upon – that is, if it is included at all. The Black gay best friend, for example, fulfills the tropes of the  “Token Black Friend” and “Gay Best Friend.” This character’s function is to offer a few witty lines with a bit of sass, but they rarely ever get a complete backstory, a multifaceted personality, or a love interest. Although the presence of a queer Black character can bring diversity and nuance to a cast, these characters should do more than fulfill a quota. Queer Black folks are real people with real emotions and interesting stories –  they can offer much more to a film or TV series than serving as a crutch for the main character. On the rare occasion that queer Black characters are a part of the main cast and get a love interest, their partner is usually an individual of another race, such as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder or Archie Coleman in Hollywood. While there is nothing wrong with interracial love, Moonlight should not be the only reference for queer Black love.

The emergence of Black characters with ranging sexualities has undeniably increased, but there are still few projects that include transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary characters, leaving a whole spectrum of the Black queer community off of the big screen. 

Nevertheless, there are still other aspects of the Black experience that are left almost completely out of Hollywood’s stories, such as disability.

In a report done by the CDC, it was found that one in four adults in the United States have some form of disability. Yet, the representation of these disabilities in the media falls at less than two percent. For the few projects that do include characters with disabilities, not only are they usually portrayed by non-disabled actors, but they are almost always white.

The erasure of Black individuals with disabilities is so rampant in the media that the disabilities of real-life figures are often left out of the stories that depict them. In the 2019 biographical film Harriet, for example, Harriet Tubman is shown to have visions, or “spells,” that come as a result of being struck in the head as a child; however, her dealings with narcolepsy are not explicitly referenced.

Lapses in intersectional representation occur because there tends to be a lack of diversity in writer’s rooms. Even in rooms that are full of Black writers, there still needs to be a high level of variance in their backgrounds. 

Black people and Black culture are far from monolithic, and the stories that attempt to incorporate Black characters and showcase their lives need to be reflective of such range.

With that in mind, the casting of these characters should correlate with how the character itself was written. Calling upon a cis-gendered actor to play a transgender character, for example, contributes to the false idea that transgender people are simply “wearing costumes,” while also taking opportunities away from talented transgender actors. 

The fact of the matter is, diversity itself is the bare minimum. The incorporation of intersectionality, along with more thoughtful storytelling and casting, will be the components that truly enhance the depiction of Black people in the media.


Cory Utsey is a freelance writer and blogger studying journalism at Howard University. With interests in social justice, entertainment and intersectionality, her aim is to promote equity and diversity through her writing.

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