'Why I Refuse to Be Embarrassed Over a TV Show'

Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta

Admittedly, I’ve not seen a single episode of the much debated VH1 hit, Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta. Reality television, scripted or otherwise, isn’t really my thing. I did, however, get sucked into Basketball Wives: LA last year, so I understand how these shows can appeal to the human desire for the dramatic. Whether it’s Real Housewives of Wherever ​or some behind the scenes look at a famous family, it all reminds me of when I used to watching professional wrestling. They’re soap operas.

But Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, for whatever reasons, seems to have caused more consternation than usual. There have been calls for boycotts, for the show to be pulled, open letters written prophesying the demise of Black womanhood; some have referred to the show as 'embarrassing.'

This is where I have a problem.

I’ve watched Tyler Perry dress in drag and mangle the English language as a supposed “ode” to the Black women he loves. I read the news when Flavor Flav opened up a fried chicken restaurant. Via YouTube, I witnessed a young brother lick the bottom of a newly purchased Air Jordan in front of his local TV news cameras. I watched the BET Awards back when everyone hated them. Through all of that, and more, one thing I refuse to be is embarrassed over my people.

A lot of the embarrassment seems to be rooted in the false belief in a politics of respectability, in which we’re afraid of the white gaze and how we’ll be viewed by society-at-large. We’ve convinced ourselves that presenting an image of respectable Negroes will eliminate stereotypes and discrimination. I regret to inform everyone that it doesn’t work that way. Racism is a system invested in perpetuating itself. It doesn’t disappear when confronted by truth, it simply concocts a new lie. No matter how many Cosbys we get on primetime television, so long as someone benefits from racism, we can’t respectable our way out of oppression.

However, the argument could be made that the images are problematic beyond what they say to other people, that the behavior presented to us as entertainment is undesirable on its face. Is watching folks fight over pregnancy tests and cheating spouses and petty remarks made behind each others backs sending the wrong message to our kids? Will the Black boys and girls growing up with this version of “reality” emulate what they see on TV?

As if none of that happens in their real lives. Of course we can do better, but I need someone to explain the substantial difference between the violence and bickering that happens once a week on Vh1 and that which happens every single day in our communities. Which one carries the greater impact? Which one should demand our attention?

I understand the impulse to feel some type of shame, and will admit to having cringed at some of the scenes I’ve caught in passing, or at what’s relayed to me via Twitter and other social media. And I don’t wish to downplay the influence media has over us, because the whole purpose is to have an effect on the way we think. There just aren’t enough controlled variables to conclude Love & Hip-Hop or the set of shows similar to it have a disparate impact on the behavior or perceptions of Black people, Black women in particular. If anything, it’s a symptom, not the disease itself.

Still, I won’t succumb to embarrassment. The closest I come to being embarrassed by Black people is bearing witness to the sexist and homophobic rhetoric that flies freely in our daily interactions. Oh, and Chris Brown. Even then, it is more concern than shame, because I see the effects of that everywhere I go. What Joseline, Stevie J, or whomever else do on Monday nights may not reflect well on their character, but has it truly harmed the Black community? Maybe it’s too early to tell, but even if that were the case, labeling them 'embarrassing' and shaming them into 'acting right' doesn’t seem to be the most productive use of our time and resources. If we really care, we have to approach with care.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.