About two years ago the media platform VICE caught my attention. Their undercover and sometimes bizarre documentaries were fascinating, they covered topics that usually received a paucity of attention and it seemed to want to represent overlooked subcultures from different parts of the globe.
At the time it seemed truly unique, capturing the attention of millennials all over. From medicinal marijuana to sex dolls, a lot of us were interested. A few years later, when its music channel ‘Noisey’ emerged, I was even more impressed. From the ‘Don’t Call It Road Rap’ short film to the ‘Under the Influence’ R&B documentary I saw people that looked and sounded like me telling their stories in what seemed like a very unfettered manner.
But I soon became increasingly more critical.
It began with the the Jamaican bleaching documentary which was released 4 years ago but which I didn’t see till much later. VICE sent a cute, blonde white girl out to the beautiful island, home to my grandparents, to investigate why Jamaicans were obsessed with bleaching their skin. There were numerous issues with this documentary. It was clear that they had sent out a journalist who had NO understanding of the colonial, white supremacist history of Jamaica ; the colourism that is deep rooted and the European beauty standards that are continually upheld by a historical colonial structure and its contemporary remnant nature.
‘I just don’t understand why they do this’ the journalist said with pity. As an acceptable face of european beauty she walked around shocked at the system to which she is a beneficiary of. White people shared on Facebook and gawked. VICE sensationalised this aspect of colonial legacy which in actuality takes place all across the world and sought to portray a pathological inferiority pertaining to the self esteem of black people in Jamaica. It was patronising, missing so many layers and lacked depth and insight.
Then , came the Eating Clean is Useless article subtitled – “Clean eating? That’s some rich white people shit” , which although made to sound like it was said by someone overflowing in melanin it was probably quite the opposite. This is not a new narrative and I get it, I do.
Veganism in the West has been packaged as a white middle class endeavour. With meat substitutes and vegan chicken shops in gentrified Hackney being a vegan in the UK can sometimes be quite pricy. But let’s be clear -before white people were speaking about ‘veganism’ Africans were eating that good good fruit and veg.
My 85 year old Guyanese Grandfather has followed a plant based diet his whole life but has never called his diet ‘vegan’ . Growing up, that was his reality. His family ate a plant based diet because that’s just what they did .
Those across Africa and the diaspora are a people very familiar with plant based and herbalist methods of practise and ‘veganism’ is inextricably linked to such thinking. So again, the piece failed to look into the history and culture of black people and veganism.
And then came last week’s acid documentary. Sigh.
The sinister coloration of the clip, the dim estate in the background, the black brother with a balaclava, VICE knew what they were doing. The TL was shook. VICE had released a short clip giving an incite into the recent acid attacks that have been taking place in London. This young man had been involved in attacking someone with acid and was masked up speaking about his experience. He told the story of the attack and there was a sinister feel to the video from the cut, to the background and the visual effects. Seemingly, there is no issue here, they are trying to tell a story and using certain cinematic effects to convey that story.
But why the continual portrayal of black boys through this lens. It continues to feed a narrative of black, male violence. This narrative is nothing new. Hyper polarised, Islamophobic, Britain has seen acid attacks on a rise and many have been perpetrated by white racists onto brown people. Taking this into consideration I thought it was interesting they decided to choose this brother to be the spokesperson for those speaking on the matter. It was yet again disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong VICE has some sick documentaries about have been responsible for informing about things I wouldn’t have found out so easily otherwise. However, VICE claim to capture “ground-breaking stories.. to change the way people think about culture, crime, art” and more.
But do they ‘change the way people think about culture’ and other such things when they continue to reinforce the same narratives of a white supremacist, capitalist mass media. Do many of their portrayals of blackness radically differ from news outlets such as the Daily Mail ?
Documentaries that counter the popular narrative would be the narratives that change the way people think. The documentaries about black and brown entrepreneurs, activists, writers changing the game and creating history as we speak. When I look at contemporary culture that’s what i see around me and that’s not what i’m seeing come out of many of these platforms that claim to offer an alternative.
Truly, I shouldn’t expect much from the white spaces, we will only see the changes we want when we make our own shit. In saying this, I don’t attempt to dismiss the amazing work many are doing to offer real change – big up to the creatives and activists working to counteract these tired bars.
But that aside, it is important to reflect on the fact that representation in itself isn’t always positive representation. We have to continually hold these ‘liberal’ platforms to account when they misrepresent us and uphold a monolithic portrayal of blackness and unceasingly critique these platforms especially when they seek to falsely characterize seemingly progressive behaviour.
When white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist rhetoric goes unchallenged it is rendered unproblematic. We must continually strive for better images, because images and language are powerful and affect our lives often more profoundly than we know.