The Problem With 'the Black Whatever'

Joyce Bryant (Jet magazine via Clutch magazine); Marilyn Monroe (Wikimedia Commons)
Joyce Bryant (Jet magazine via Clutch magazine); Marilyn Monroe (Wikimedia Commons)

Alisha Tillery speaks out against the tendency to compare black people to white icons in a piece for Clutch magazine. She says that it gives the impression we aren't satisfied being ourselves and that we look to white people for the standard of what's good.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a story about Joyce Bryant, a curvaceous entertainer in the 1950s and 60s who was known as “the Black Marilyn Monroe.” I researched her further, and Bryant was beautiful and talented in her own right, oozing sex appeal and class simultaneously, but instead she was compared to the Blond Bombshell …

I thought about how many times I've heard someone or something referred to as "the black whatever" and why that is. Understandably, for so long, we've only had whites to look to as the standard of beauty, intellect and talent. We looked to those figures when our heroes were few, far and in between. Honestly, even when there were counterparts of African descent who were comparable or even better — Lena Horne or Jackie Robinson — the Frank Sinatras and Marilyn Monroes were still the mold.

In present day, it's still happening. The list of African-Americans who compare themselves to white icons is endless, especially in pop culture and entertainment. Back in the Bad Boy era, Lil' Kim often referred to herself as the "black Erica Kane," the infamous and stylish diva on All My Children and Notorious B.I.G. dubbed himself the "black Frank White" after a fictitious drug lord in the film, King of New York.


Read Alisha Tillery's entire piece at Clutch magazine.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.