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Lena Waithe Is Proof That Representation By Itself Is Not Radical

Lena Waithe can claim all she wants that she gives a real fuck about Blackness and Black people, but her actions and her work continue to reflect otherwise.

Two years ago, when I was still a columnist for Into (RIP), I wrote about how Lena Waithe’s increased visibility in Hollywood and her Vanity Fair cover made my heart sing. And gave me hope that I, a queer Black woman, could one day make some giant leaps and changes in ol’ Tinseltown. And of course, two years ago, I had a right to feel like this. Waithe was just coming off of a fresh win for her work on Master of None and that critically-acclaimed “Thanksgiving” episode. She had made a cameo in This is Us, appeared in Ready Player One, and had just stepped into a producing capacity for The Chi.

Now? Seeing her face makes me want to puke up that clip of Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Porscha Williams saying “Bye Ashy!”

From her mouth to God’s ears.

I know what you’re thinking. Why the change of heart? Well, the interesting thing about life is that when people show you who they actually are (shout-out to Maya Angelou), you are totally allowed to change your mind about liking them or respecting them. But I’m not even talking “likability” here (because in the end, “likability” is extremely subjective and it don’t mean shit as long as you’re a good person/doing what you’re supposed to be doing). I’m talking about the fact that someone who I once thought was revolutionary merely for their existence accidentally taught me a very important lesson:

Media representation alone is not as radical as we were once led to believe.

People who are underrepresented (myself included) may have the urge to immediately rebuff this claim, but hear me out. The importance of representation in a world or a medium that simultaneously wants to render us, Black people (Black women in particular), hypervisible AND invisible cannot be overstated. However, the quality of that representation matters. As does the ethics of the project(s) and the ethics of the person behind said representation. The sheer amount of patriarchy embedded in Black Hollywood has long been a shining example of this phenomenon (I.e representation not meaning shit in the wrong hands… or worse, becoming straight-up harmful)—particularly with this “elite” group’s shitty portrayal of women, purposeful erasure of queer and disabled people, and its not-so-subtle colorist practices and politics. 

Recommended: Lena Waithe and the Obligations of Leadership

But Waithe presents an even more interesting case against hollow representation considering that she occupies more spaces when it comes to marginalized identities. And considering the fact that it was she—not even people like myself—who initially positioned herself as the radical, queer change-making creative who was gonna shift the paradigm of representation in Hollywood and for “young [queer] kids of color.”

Because if you check her work since then, the “changemaker” thing starts to look a little funny in the light.

The first time this proved to be the case was when it was revealed that disgraced actor Jason Mitchell had been sexually harassing The Chi co-star Tiffany Boone onset (who has since opened up about her fruitless conversations with HR), as well as the show’s second season showrunner. And that not only was Boone leaving because of this toxic workplace, but that Waithe, who served as the executive producer and knew the entire time and… just didn’t do anything. Left it to HR, apparently. This was very angering because Waithe made it a point to stress workplace safety and her involvement with Time’s Up when talking to The Hollywood Reporter in June 2018. She had so much to say about sending your characters into a hailstorm of bullets for a [season] finale if she so much as heard whispers about you, an actor, being inappropriate with an actress on set. And then when it came time to walk the walk, she lied initially about not knowing and then it was revealed by the showrunner that she knew the whole time and merely did not act with the swiftness or urgency that the situation deserved. 

But this would not be the last time Waithe challenged me to rethink this whole “media representation = radical action” thing. I had another moment when she asked why more Black stars weren’t funding Black work…and then cited a whole Denzel Washington and Will Smith as [very uncalled for] examples. But the third time around would be basically everything about Queen & Slim—and what I’m sure Waithe assumed would be her big, breakout Hollywood thing. Now, many were divided on what to think about Q&S and how they received the film. But speaking for a party of one (myself), I maintain that it was just more of the same BLM fan-fiction that emerged around the movement, giving us two beautiful darkskinned Black leads (which is still so RARE in movies and television) only to brutally murder them in front of us. This was worsened by the disgusting casting call that had been put out for “Queen” and made me question her motives behind dark-skinned people in the story to begin with. Additionally, Waithe showed us way more of herself and her motivations than I think she intended when she made those disgusting comments about Tamir Rice and how she thought it would be interesting to put a gun in his hand.

Since then, she has said and done even more questionable shit—the most recent of these being how her curiosity in Aaron Sorkin somehow set her apart from the rest of us average negroes who apparently had no access to TV growing up and the fact that it appears as if she blatantly stole the concept of upcoming show Girls Room from screenwriter/actor Nina Lee and director/producer Sienna Brown…and then insultingly gave all of these stolen characters Jim Crow era names. Why?

Recommended: HOW ‘QUEEN & SLIM’ MISTREATS FAT BLACK FOLKS

Because this is clearly all a game to her.

Waithe can claim all she wants that she gives a real fuck about Blackness and Black people, but her actions and her work continue to reflect otherwise. Firstly, because taking pieces of what she purports that Blackness is (and should be) and plugging them into her work—whether it makes sense or not—is apparently enough for her to say “Hey, I’m out here doing the real work!”… even though said work is shitty and/or harmful. Secondly, because it has become ultimately clear that she is not the changemaker she once hyped herself up as, considering that occupying a position of power where she could make such changes did not immediately compel her to come to the aid of not one, but TWO Black women when they were made to feel unsafe on the set of her own show; and considering the fact that she has allegedly used the power and clout that she has amassed to straight-up steal a promising project from lesser-known Black creatives because A) she can and B) everything she writes sounds like it was concocted in a Racism 101 class taught at the University of Chicago (or any other PWI for that matter) and purely designed for white film bros.

Moral of the story? None of us, not even Lena, can claim to be radical or producing radical change if it’s just reinforcing the status quo (and lining our pockets at the expense of someone more marginalized). And we damn sure cannot lay claim to any sort of “radicalness” in our work as it pertains to Blackness if it turns out we’re just using Blackness for brownie points or seasoning for work that could easily be mistaken as colonizer bullshit without it.

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