" Its so important to discuss and honor and express the diversity of our community."
Dr. Elisa White is professor of African American and African Studies at University of California, Davis. She has enjoyed an extensive career in acting, filmmaking, radio, and research.
We had the pleasure to sit down with Dr. White to find out about Black representation in media and important lessons regarding Black identity.
Tell us a little about your background and your upbringing.
I grew up for the most part in upstate New York. My father worked for IBM for many years as an environmental chemist. My mother has passed away, but she had several careers as a history teacher, paralegal, and a certified social worker. She worked with at-risk youth for many years.
As an only child, I grew up in an environment that was very integrated because I was there. I grew up in an upper middle-class, African American home—very much connected to various cultural aspects of what it is to be African American in society, but also very much in a middle-class context. My parents were active in community service. There was always this combination of social justice, but also knowing very much that in a society that often has its hierarchies which are very racialized and don't value Black people, there was no question that we were of worth. No question.
What happened after college?
When I finished my undergrad, I moved to New York City and lived in Manhattan. I started pursuing my career as an actor and waiting tables--kind of cliché—to make a living. And it was a difficult context, in terms of my career, because I graduated from undergrad in 1988. Going back to the late 80s/early 90s, what the acting profession looked like for people of color in particularly was difficult. However, in The Cosby Show there was this idea that you can represent an African American middle-class community of educated parents and kids who are involved with all kinds of activities. That was a reality I knew, and it was nice to see that happening on television. Representation matters.
I was in that era where there was a certain kind of openness, potentially for Black actors. You also had Spike Lee producing some of his early films. He did one in Atlanta called School Days, and you had A Different World—that situation comedy emerging. So, you had Black subject matter that showed African Americans in middle/upper-middle class context, or in the context of being educated, in university context, really for the first time. But overwhelmingly before that it was more about representing Black families as either single mother-headed with absentee fathers, usually in context of working-class environments, or in articulations of the “ghetto.” These different representations are a reality of Black poverty circumstances, undoubtedly, but it's not the totality of Black experiences. It reduced Black experiences to something that was comfortable for the perception of white consumers. And that was always problematic. So, when you got into the late 80s and into the 90s, you started to explode some of those myths of what Black representation happened to be. Falsely of course, some felt that that meant that African Americans were free in society…and that's not the reality, as we know here in 2020.
In a society that often has its hierarchies which are very racialized and don't value Black people, there was no question that we were of worth.
I remember auditioning for a laundry detergent commercial, and there was going to be an African American version of that commercial and a White commercial. I get to the audition—a white guy and I were there—but we couldn’t audition together. And I remember [in response to that experience] writing something called “Do interracial couples do laundry?”
Afterwards, I started to do social/political commentary on a local radio station in New York. I initially applied for an MFA in acting, but I didn't get into the programs I wanted. And I was also interested in filmmaking because I thought “there's more control, you can construct scripts, you can produce projects.” Eventually I found a media studies program at New School University in New York City. My thesis was on African American representations in situation comedies, and the pathology of racism and that intersection.
What happened next is I started to think about doing a PhD. And it had to be, for me, something that actually exposed the diversity of African diaspora and Black experience. I applied on the west coast to the new program in African Diaspora Studies (now it's over 20 years old) at UC Berkeley.
When I got to UC Berkeley, I started doing a lot more work on transnationalism and globalization, and what that meant in terms of cultural globalization and communities. That led me to think about contemporary migration from continental Africa to the contemporary spaces of Ireland itself; Ireland is this space of individuals who are previously negatively racialized on the back of the famine experienced under the British colonialism. How did they engage with African communities and people of African descent emerging and appearing in those spaces of a new Ireland at the time? That led me to doing contemporary work and fieldwork in Ireland, as my PhD, on new African communities that have migrated to spaces of contemporary Ireland.
It is very interesting how the varying distinctions of white American experiences are captured by the media but not the diversity of African American experiences.
I think that's the issue. There’s such a diversity of African American experiences out there. And if anything, these particular times that we're in certainly tell us overwhelmingly that to be racialized as Black in society is to be racialized as Black in a white supremacist society. So regardless of where you are hierarchically in the society as a person of African descent, there's still that navigation and the devaluing of the humanity of Black people across the board.
I always think it's so important to discuss and honor and express the diversity of our community—of communities of African descent—because if they are reduced to a monolith, then we are also feeding into white supremacist presumptions of who we are.
As somebody who does work in Black European studies, people in the United States context often reduce all Black experiences to being and living in the United States. I always remind my students that most Black people do not live in the United States. And I have to remind them of that again and again because Black experiences are reduced to one particularly narrow understanding of what it is to be African American and to think about global Blackness coming from a particular lens of experience.
It's so important to discuss and honor and express the diversity of our community—of communities of African descent—because if they are reduced to a monolith, then we are also feeding into white supremacist presumptions of who we are.
I work with Black people in France, Italy, Germany, England, in Spain. A lot of work that I'm doing now is around migration in Spain in particular—I’m looking at a diversity of experiences, generational experiences, linguistic distinctions, ethno-national distinctions and differences within Black communities broadly. What joins these communities together in various forms is that moment where individuals must engage with the negative racialization of people of African descent…racism. But that doesn't negate the immense diversity of experiences that not specific to the United States. And so, in my work and my research and teaching I always try to bring in a context of global blackness or global constructions of African diaspora communities so that we see that.
There are very negative shared experiences amongst African Diaspora communities, but do you think that there are positive experiences or commonalities amongst people of African descent?
Oh yes! Most certainly. When you think of African diaspora communities, there are so many ways in which individuals share cultural experiences, a long history of ways in which communities communicate—cultural commonalities of music, dance, culinary expression, sartorial expressions. There are commonalities, even as we might have linguistic differences.
But I completely understand you're saying. Can the only thread be because individuals are negatively racialized in white supremist society? And to answer your question, no. That is not the only thread. There's power in acknowledging that if we are to rise up in this society and know what's happening. But certainly, the richness and depth of our identities and experiences are so far beyond the constructs of the imaginary white supremacist structures…always, always, in all forms.
As a scholar, I try to teach students about those commonalities, because I think it helps us understand the power that we have. But I don't just mean us individuals racialized as Black but also in other communities and communities of color. I teach a wide variety of students—many of those students who may not be of African descent but of the Asian diaspora, or indigenous communities, or Latinx students. They also engage in these contexts of being negatively racialized and different mechanisms of oppression. And for them to understand those systemic inequalities, and then to see them in terms of what's happening to Black communities as well, is a very excellent point of liberation and knowledge that creates allies in new ways. I think we have a responsibility to do that, and we are seeing that on the ground today.
The richness and depth of our identities and experiences are so far beyond the constructs of the imaginary white supremacist structures…always, always, in all forms.
How have your experiences and opportunities to go to travel and study impacted your own identity?
It's a great question. I do I travel a lot. I've written about France, Spain, and Ireland. I'm part of a Black European studies groups, and we have conferences all over. Black communities are everywhere. So, I have a sense of my identity as being a part of a larger global community.
And in so many ways that as I'm looking at myself in the US context, I'm always pushing back against monolithic understandings of Black experiences. Part of it is because as a scholar, I have that privilege to go and travel the world and see the ways in which communities negotiate their identity via social and political and cultural context. I have experienced those communities and have experienced myself in them. Also, as a researcher, I've had different kinds of identities in various locations.
When I was doing the bulk of my fieldwork for my book, Freedom and the African Diaspora, I was always aware of that even as a researcher interviewing people, some researchers who were racialized as white might have been seen as external to the community. But as I did work in the Black community and interviewed individuals from Nigeria and Congo, I was a person of color, a person of African descent. And there's a way in which I had an “in” into the community; my identity and who I was an asset in that sense.
But also, I had to think about my identity in that context as someone with privilege. I was interviewing individuals who were seeking asylum in very precarious positions in the state of Ireland who would've come from detrimental circumstances—maybe a journalist facing persecution, a woman facing FGM [female genital mutilation]. So, I when somebody yelled a racial epithet at me on the streets of Dublin, I could always take my American passport and leave and go back to California. I had that privilege. But if I was seeking asylum as a journalist, I could be sent back to a current government that was not thrilled at my writing. Their lives, their families were in danger. That was a reality for subjects I was interviewing. I was always aware that my identity offered a level of mobility within the community, but also a mobility out of the community if I needed to. And that is a space of privilege that you cannot take lightly.
What is a gift of advice you would like to give to readers?
I would just say be true to yourself. That’s what I say to my students. And when I say that, it’s not a very simple process, because people will say, “Well, someone who looks like you doesn't do that” or “we don't study this” or “we don't listen to this kind of music” or “we don't wear this kind of clothing, we don't live in these particular spaces” or “you don't do this.” But look inside and know your worth, and know that you are worth everything.
Another gift—if I can give two gifts in the package—take care of yourself. As you’re being true to yourself, also take care of yourself. Be healthy. As people of African descent, particularly Black people, in the context of COVID, we have to take care of ourselves. Because if you don't—all the greatest plans, everything you want to do in the world, whatever that might mean—won’t happen. Then you can’t make change.
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