It's hard to keep going sometimes. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous coming from a moderately successful, full-time comedian. Really, what do I have to complain about? I can travel earth working 20 to 40 minutes a night. For a long time I was the only black female doing stand up in Canada. Yes, the whole country. I did not fit in with my peers. The only thing that as kept me in this business is my passion for my job.
The truth is, I have always felt like an outsider in this industry -- and I am one. I often feel like that last person to fit on a packed subway car in a constant endeavour of trying to create space for myself. My career has often felt like it was the first set of footprints after a large snow fall.
I remember being asked by a comedy festival scout after a particularly strong set, "But what show do you think you would fit on?" Hmm... I don't know, maybe the urban show or a women's show? Actually, why don't you put me on the alien show? Diversity is just another word for "not a white man." Clearly this industry was not designed to accommodate people like me.
Do you think society would tolerate white women being spoken about in this way?
Earth has a special hatred reserved for black women. We are only beloved when we are playing the role of "Mammy." A constant source of love and nurturing for the more important people in society like men and white people. As soon as we step out of that role, we are "bitches" and "hos," an all-too-familiar topic for rappers inviting their white counterparts like Don Imus, Anthony Cumia and Artie Lange to join in on the public ridicule.
What is fascinating to me they never considered the repercussions; after all, rappers do this all the time with impunity. Do you think society would tolerate white women being spoken about in this way? I seriously doubt it. What is amazing to me was that these rappers with a clear hatred of women were in many cases raised by single mothers who often sacrificed everything to keep them safe and alive. Where is the disdain for their absent fathers?
Despite this, black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America today. That is not actually surprising to me. When you are at the bottom, the only way to go is up -- "freedom is just another word for there is nothing left to lose."
The media and popular entertainment is constantly telling black women that they are not beautiful or important, so we have to over-compensate in other ways. If you don't believe me, check out the doll test. I was in the toy department of a Pick'n'Pay in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I could only find one very light-skinned black doll. ONE, in a country with a black majority.
This brought me back to my own childhood which featured only one black doll, sent to me by my grandfather who had to import it from the America. Basically my doll took the underground railroad to get to me, like some sort of illegal migrant. It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized the damning effect this had on my self-esteem.
None of the women in the perfume, shampoo or cosmetic ads looked like me at the time. When you did see women like me, they were marginalized into the role of a big-mouthed, angry nuisance, or the ever-popular "no-nonsense sassy judge." I have come to despise the word "sassy," as it is often used to undermine you when you are in fact confident, direct and self-actualized.
(Time to find a new adjective, people.)
Nothing taught me this lesson more than acting. I always wanted to be an actor but soon realized it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I even remember at age 10 going to an open-call audition for the role of Anne of Green Gables. (Yes, for real -- I was that naive.)
When I did have an acting agent in Toronto, I was often asked in auditions,"Could you do that a little more urban for me?" Which really meant, "Can you portray the American stereotype I see on TV all the time?" I was also congratulated for taking my braids out because now I looked "less ethnic."
I remember being told I was a "decent person," not like at all like other black people at an agency Christmas party. If it was this bad in Canada, what hope did I have?
The industry is completely unaware of the over-qualified and overlooked people of colour that play an important role in it, often claiming that they don't exist.
As a black girl, you would never be the ingenue. If you are lucky to even get a part you will most likely be the villain, comic relief or sidekick. It took Disney until 2009 to finally have a black princess -- "The Frog Princess." I still felt ripped off. First of all, she had three jobs, was a frog for half of the movie and she basically had to rescue herself. I didn't actually mind that part. You might as well prepare these little girls for reality.
And now we live in a world where an orange, tax-evading man with no political experience, five kids by three women, multiple bankruptcies -- not to mention a penchant for calling Mexican's rapists, bragging about using fame to sexually assault women and planning a Muslim ban -- is an actual candidate for the highest position in the richest and powerful country on earth.
Why even bother? Why play a game that was designed for you to lose? I guess we can sit around awaiting a rare opportunity that probably arose because they needed to fill a quota to look less racist -- only to then feel like we only got the opportunity because of our colour or gender. The industry is completely unaware of the over-qualified and overlooked people of colour that play an important role in it, often claiming that they don't exist.
It is exhausting being under the "white gaze" and/or the "male gaze," constantly aware of the extra scrutiny you will receive as a minority. It is so devastating to see so many self-esteems reliant on the approval of the dominant group. And what for?
I think there comes a time when you realize that you will never be fully accepted in most societies, and it is the acceptance of ourselves that will truly free us. Which inevitably means creating our own opportunities.
God bless Oprah.
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