Five things author Sarah Olutola wants you to know about identity politics in pop culture

Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Portrait of Sarah Olutola

Most of us know from personal experience that role models are crucial for shaping identity. They influence how young people perceive themselves, their place in society and how they might imagine their future. But what happens when important archetypes are underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture?

This is something Sarah Olutola explores in her novels. A Gordon F. Henderson Post-Doctoral Fellow alumna and ongoing member of uOttawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, Olutola was named one of six Black Canadian Authors to Watch in 2019 by the CBC. 

Under the pen name Sarah Raughley, she has created a fantasy world meant to inspire and empower her young adult readers. One of her goals for these novels was to create complex female characters that real people can relate to, turning the patriarchal tropes of female strength on its head.

Olutola was back on campus to present a lecture inspired by her article, I Ain't Sorry: Beyoncé, Serena, and Hegemonic Hierarchies in Lemonade, which explores the neoliberal and biopolitical representations of blackness and black femininity in Beyoncé's Lemonade.

We asked her to share why she believes diversity is important in pop culture and what could be done to make art more inclusive. Here's what she had to say.

1. Representation in pop culture is crucial to shaping identity and self-worth.

I talk about underrepresentation of black women in pop culture all the time because I find it fascinating—yet sad—to look back on my childhood compared to now.

Consider the amount of black television we had during the 90s and early 2000s—Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, Family Matters, Girlfriends, Proud Family—and the multiplicity of black female singers that were front and center at that time—Brandy, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, TLC, Monica, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child.

But between 2005 and 2015, I saw a real decrease of black women taking centre stage in popular culture, which means a whole generation of young black girls missed out on seeing themselves represented in the mainstream.

Things have gotten better lately, but when black women are pushed to the margins in mass media, it sends a message to black girls, young and old, that they and their experiences don’t matter. And many can internalize that.

2. Art is always political.

Because we are products of culture – and culture is political – the art we create will always be both cultural and political, whether we realize it or not. And here, ‘political’ refers to social politics, rather than ‘capital-P’ Politics.

Social politics has to do with the relations of power within our society that impact people’s lived realities—how our formative culture teaches us to relate to each other and think about ourselves based on race, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

I can think of many examples of art, from movies and television, to theatre and literature, that reinforce racist stereotypes and have historically shaped the way certain minorities are perceived—works that engage in blackface or portray people of colour as unintelligent and aggressive, or primitive and savage, like The Birth of a Nation, Heart of Darkness, The Mr. Magoo Show or the minstrel show vaudeville posters, to name a few.

3. Discrimination and violence are not black and white.

Intersectionality is the idea that a person’s identity is composed of multiple social and political aspects—race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, etc.—that cannot be separated from each other and can lead to unique and compounding modes of discrimination.

In her essay entitled “The tie that Binds: Race, Gender, and U.S. Violence”, Theorist Patricia Hill Collins likens violence to a web of relationships involving multiple social hierarchies (p. 930).

Different power dynamics can lead to different forms of discrimination. For example, being a white female feminist doesn’t excuse racist, anti-black behaviour. Black men can also perform ideological, social violence against black women, the same way light-skinned black women can discriminate against darker-skinned black women. Members of the queer community who are cis gendered can also discriminate against the transgender community. Anglophones can have power and privilege over Francophones and yet Francophones can have power and privilege over Indigenous cultures and languages.

It means that violence can only be confronted if we understand the myriad of manifestations of power, and the interweaving of social relationships in a hierarchal society.

4. Those in a position of power need to help champion the cause.

Minorities are usually expected to champion progressive change in society. But if those with power choose to sit on the sidelines and allow those who are socioeconomically and politically vulnerable to bear the burden, the cause will only go so far.

A lot of progressive-minded thinkers can find themselves getting comfortable preaching to the choir. It’s a lot harder to preach to the hostile. And it’s also dangerous work. 

If real change is to happen, those with power and privilege must open their eyes to the relationships of power they benefit from—and do something about it.

Portrait of Sarah Olutola

5. If you’re going to write about someone else’s lived experience, do so responsibly.

There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in fiction since the novel American Dirt, by Jeanine Cumming, was chosen in Oprah’s Book Club. The book, which is written by a white woman, talks about the experiences of Mexican migrants.

It’s hard to stop people from writing outside of their experiences, especially if they are willing to do so responsibly and respectfully. But in the American publishing industry, Latinx writers make up around six percent of the authors published.

In an industry that gatekeeps and leaves out marginalized authors, it’s problematic for a white author to write about the experiences of a marginalized group, especially if there are inaccuracies, and be rewarded with $1 million dollars and a movie deal.

I don’t believe there should be a hard and fast rule banning people from writing about cultures that are not their own, because that also makes a lot of assumptions about the author’s identity and own cultural experiences.

However, writing must always be done with a level of sensitivity, a sense of responsibility, research and an understanding of the power relations involved.

Most importantly, there are so many competent writers out there who represent their own culture and cultural experiences with their own authentic voices. Publish them. Let them through the door.

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