Deciphering Tyra Banks.
"Is Tyra Banks racist?" So asks the headline of J.E. Dahl's recent article on America's Next Top Model. The author suggests that Banks' hypercritical approach to the show's black American contestants—including this season's winner, Danielle—tries "to eradicate ethnic idiosyncrasies in their personality and appearance."
Many Fraysters write in to defend Banks by asserting the inherent inferiority of Southern black dialects. Tia76 illustrates such crypto-racism, declaring:
I do not believe that Tyra is being racist at all. [...] Tyra [is] being called out and called racist for doing what many more prominent and affluent black people should all do; acknowledge the fact that there is a huge dialect and appearance issue in the black community and second, do something about it. [...]
The dictionary exists for a reason. We all have common language uses for a reason--to help us understand each other a little bit better. [...] We should have acknowledged and tried to change this problem within the black community a long time ago. Instead of making concessions for those "poor black people" by excusing their dialect as just part of being black, or even worse, by developing a dictionary of ebonics for them, we should be encouraging them to learn to speak correctly and dress responsibly and conduct themselves with respect.
The ugliest display of these sentiments comes from zadi8, who observes "those girls are hood-rats."
Nobody seems particularly surprised by all of this. fozzy points out, "Language variation has long been a means by which people are segregated - be it by class or race." Roue rejects the contention that Banks is motivated by personal racism:
The fashion industry is still about pleasing White America. [...] She has to sell a product and who is going to understand that drawl? No this author has it all wrong. As an African-American many of us know how to play the game of Corporate America. I just don't think White America understand that's what we have to do. The USA is still a very racist Country and if you don't believe that then you are very aloof individual.
Is this "speaking truth to the powerless" its own manifestation of personal racism? dnice suggests it would be perverse to assume so:
When initiating the innocent into a culture and world that can and will chew them up and spit them out, yes sometimes you have to be extra tough. Any person of color who's parents prepared them to enter the world or upper class whites, from a lower socioeconomic status can recognize what Tyra is doing. From the outside, it looks like hurting, but from the inside, we know better...
But vox1 notes that not all responses to structural racism are free from blame:
It's true, as many have pointed out, that Tyra might have been trying to prepare Danielle for life in an industry that is quite racist. The problem, however, lies in how she was doing it; acting as if Danielle's accent was HER personal flaw, rather than making it clear that it was the prejudices of others who would make it a problem for her. [...] I don't ever recall Tyra stating flatly that the source of their judgment would be their racism and classism. Readers of Slate are making that argument for her. Tyra, unless I missed it, did not own up to the racism of the industry outright, because she would hurt her own career if she did. If readers are right about the source of her concern--the racism of the industry--in weighing the cost of being explicit about that, Tyra chose not to truly educate Danielle on this point; or at least not to do that before the American audience.
It would have made all the difference in the world had she said, "Danielle, your accent is a problem. When southern white women speak that way it's often considered charming, and when Russian and white Brazilian models speak, nobody pretends that they don't know what they are saying. But the fact is that we black girls can't get away with things the way white girls do in this industry, in any field."-- in other words to say out loud what people in this discussion have said. That would have been a teaching moment for Danielle and the rest of the country. Instead, it was "Danielle, I'm part of team that legitimately thinks there's really something wrong with you."
For a sophisticated discussion of race, class, and diction, check out the rest of the entries in our Culturebox Fray. GA … 9:05pm PDT
Friday, May 19, 2006
Adam Christian is co-editor of the Fray.