A petition was started to get Raven removed from The View; I immediately signed it. Raven-Symoné Christina Pearman, better known by just her first name, has been a staple in black culture for about 26 years. Her career has made her a longstanding role model for black women – especially the black women of my generation. Lately, Raven has made headlines for her comments on a multiplicity of black issues: the label of African-American, her nationality, stereotypical black names, and police brutality. Her comments have ranged from confusing to hurtful, offensive, and now, blood boiling.
During an interview for an episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now? Raven declared that she was not an African-American but rather, just an American. Many of the actress’ fans, myself included, empathized with her comment. I too feel uncomfortable having to qualify my citizenship as an American, simply because I am not white. The color of my skin means that there has to be something before the “American” part of my label, to explain that I’m a certain type of American—a less than, or not quite, American. I understand her to the extent that I have never heard anyone say they’re a white or European-American, as though whiteness is implied with the term American. At the same time however, a statement like this is problematic given our country’s current racial climate.
Raven’s current job as a host on The View is the ultimate platform for her to talk about these issues. Just a few weeks ago, Raven and her View co-hosts were discussing stereotypical black names. You know, the -esha’s, -iqua’s, and other non-Anglo names that hold important meanings in their own culture, but get lost in translation as “ghetto.” At this point, I’d like to make the claim that not only is Symoné one of these “ethnic names,” but her name is Raven-Symone—boasting a hyphen and an accent. Raven began calling the kettle black (pun intended) when she said on national television, “I’m not about to hire you, if your name is Watermelondrea.” But don’t worry, she says it’s not racist, it’s just “discriminatory because [she] think[s] that’s a better word.” On national television, she—as a black woman—condoned the real life issue of employers discriminating along racial lines. She told millions of little girls that their identity was wrong.
Most recently, the hosts of The View were discussing the viral video showing a female high school student being grabbed by her throat, pulled out of her desk and slammed to the ground during class by the campus police officer. People all over the nation have been reposting the video and talking about the incredible overuse of force, given that the student’s misbehavior was taking her cellphone out during class. Raven had a different stance: the student was at fault. Raven acknowledges that the officer had previous instances of overuse of force on his record, but then unbelievably tells the girl, “get off yo phone.” You cannot both use ebonics and condone the officer’s brutality. There’s not a single person reading this article that hasn’t pulled out their phone at a time when they weren’t supposed to; none of us have been dragged out of our seat and humiliated in front of our peers as a result.
It’s simply tragic that Raven is belittling the community that gave her everything she has now. She got her start on the iconic Cosby Show when she was three years old, playing the part of precocious Olivia, the sassy toddler. This show was paramount not only for the advancement of black people on network television, but it gave black families something they could relate to. Previous shows about black families typically took place in working class communities, excluding middle and upper-middle class black families. The Cosby’s were an upper-middle class family dealing with the issues of being black, despite their success. She got her start, and kept her career going with the support of the black community.
Soon though, we got to see a whole other side of Raven. We got the beautiful and confident Raven Baxter on That’s So Raven. She was unapologetically herself: a curvy black teen that refused to change her body, style, or personality for anyone. Her boyfriend was the incredibly good looking and sweet Devon. She got the boy despite her quirks, and he was black—not the white All American boy that these shows always featured. Interestingly, one of the most memorable episodes of That’s So Raven features Raven challenging a store manager who refuses to hire black people. And how many times did Raven Baxter do something crazy in class without getting manhandled by the campus police?
Her career didn’t end there; Raven went on to star as Galleria in the Cheetah Girls, which brought women of color to the frontlines of Disney stardom. Three out of the four “cheetah sisters” were women of color—two black and one Hispanic—and the fourth was from a lower socioeconomic status. Each brought something relatable to the millions of little girls watching them dance across the screen. The Cheetah Girls represented a hope that is often lost within communities of color. If the high school age Cheetah Girls could reach stardom without having traditionally beautiful Anglo features, then so could everyone watching.
The same black women that looked up to Raven for the strength of the characters she played are now shaking their heads. Raven taught me that as long as I was being myself, I would be a winner. She taught me that my blackness was no indication of my qualifications for anything. She taught me that no dream was too big, and no thought too insignificant. I wanted to be everything that Raven embodied—confident, beautiful, intelligent, proud, and black.
Raven’s words are still reaching young girls all around the globe, but her lessons are different now. Raven is teaching our young women—especially those of color—that the names they did not even choose for themselves are wrong. These names are hard enough to embrace, especially as a child; no one can ever say your name right, there are no celebrities that share this name with you, and you really just want to be like everyone else. You have enough things going on that make you different.
The very example that Raven used to make her point about ethnic sounding names, “Watermelondrea,” proves more about herself than anyone else. The internalized oppression runs deep, and it’s clear that she has her own set of things to work out before she can criticize anyone else. She is teaching young girls that before they can decide who they are, it will be decided for them.
It’s not because Raven has different views than I do that I think she should be removed. It is because her position on The View means that she can make comments that degrade people of color while continuing to make a salary and reach millions of viewers. Her comments diminish the confidence, and thus quality of life, of all the children that have to internalize her beliefs. Other figures in the TV industry have been fired over much smaller comments, or even comments that Raven has condoned (for example, the Univision Rodner Figueroa debacle where Michelle Obama was likened to Planet of the Apes). In 1970, Congress passed a bill to protect public health by removing cigarette ads from TV because of the impressionable nature of children. Raven presents a new threat to public health. Her words tell young people that they don’t matter and that they deserve to be beaten for not being the perfect student. Her words tell employers that racial discrimination is acceptable. She doesn’t present any harm in the physical sense of the word, but something far more sinister. Raven’s poor judgment and word choice threaten the souls of so many.
As a long time fan, I feel myself in a quagmire. Our girls of color deserve to have role models telling them that their names, hair, skin, and all of their different features make them beautiful. They deserve to be able to watch TV and feel empowered, not targeted. I don’t know how I would feel about myself if it weren’t for the characters Raven played. She was the black face in a sea of white faces on TV; she was a reflection of me. Girls now and forever deserve to have their culture be respected. They have the right to feel beautiful, and no one should be allowed to take away that right. Raven Symone needs to leave the TV industry; even now she appears on TV shows like Empire, making money off the community she continually puts down. We need less Raven Symone and more Raven Baxter, Olivia Kendall, and Galleria Garibaldi. We need people who can build our communities up instead of tearing them down. Raven is not that person.
[Image courtesy of Kamal Bilal, Redlands Bulldog photographer]