Bringing Sassy Black Back

Have you noticed that commercials these days are featuring more than their share of sassy-talking black women? It’s like there’s a Willona School of Acting that’s churning out the neck-swiveling, hmmmm-mmmm-talking, frying, cleaning, broad-hipped, asexual black woman to save the day. Pair her with an idiot husband, some silent children or a clueless salesperson and you’ve got a commercial.

There’s the Pine Sol lady. She’s been at it a long time and at least she has natural hair and is not a caricature. But that line, “That’s the power of Pine Sol, baby.” Ugh. And now, I’m pretty sure I spotted her in another brand’s commercial, this time joined by a gum-smacking friend.

Then we’ve got the Popeye’s fried chicken lady – Annie the Chicken Queen. She, by far, irks me the most. That terribly done fake accent. The shilling of fried food –chicken no less. The sweet tea and Leroy, the husband she yells at when convenient. There’s even a parody of Ms. Annie.

Swiffer got in on the act with a sassy mama saying, “Imma find out” and sashaying out of the room after the line “Are you a cool mom?” Momtrocious.

Then, there’s the deluge of Wal-Mart commercials with sistas out there saving money at America’s most tasteless store.

I realize I’m seeing targeted ads based on what I’m watching (Damn you Housewives of Atlanta!). Kind of like the Saturday nights I decide to stay in and all the ads have those abused pets that make me cry and then I salivate over the pizza and ice cream commercials until the Weight Watchers commercials and guilt show up.

When it comes to commercials, there are few alternatives, I realize. I acknowledge that it’s a good thing to have diversity on television. Yet, in general, all women are stereotyped in commercials (and all men are characterized as clueless –you all should be mad, too!).

On that front, Cascade entertains us with an ad with a woman at another sister’s house about to get into an argument about filthy dishes. The Cascade Kitchen Counselor shows up just in time. Seriously? Cascade is trying to perpetuate that women judge our worthiness over our housecleaning skills? Young women know that our value isn’t placed on sparkling windows or dishes. Especially when that task can be so easily outsourced. Instead, we judge each other’s shoes, child-rearing skills, husbands/wives/boyfriends/girlfriends, vacations and careers. What’s next, they’ll suggest that women want vacuums for Christmas?

Hmmmm mmmmm.

An Interview With the Original Owner of My Vintage Coat

Dear original owner,

I scored your coat at a vintage shop and have a few questions for you:

Q: If you could afford this couture coat, I have to assume that you had enough money to have help. I imagine that you had a “girl” who looked like me and cooked, cleaned and took care of your kids. (So what did YOU do all day?) Could you imagine your “Girl” one day having a granddaughter who would buy your coat? My grandmother was a “Girl.”

Q: Can you imagine that married women would fight to be accepted into the corporate workforce and then some of them would choose to keep all their household responsibilities as well, thereby having two full-time jobs and thus tons of stress?! Meanwhile, their husbands tend to do the same amount of work that your husband did. Why? Well, there was a Enjoli perfume commercial back in the 80s where a woman touted:

I can bring home the bacon/ Fry it up in a pan/ And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.”

This commercial helped convince a whole generation (or two) of women to be 24-hour women. Many women accepted that philosophy quicker than a cashmere sweater at a sample sale. We’re still waiting on the men’s jingle on how they can work and cook the bacon. Although these days grass-fed beef would be more apropos.

Early 1960s coat shown via catalog ad from that time, alongside me rocking the vintage frock in 2012.

Q: What happened to the original top button? What do you think of the new blinged out button I replaced it with?

Q: Why did you get rid of the coat? Was it because it was no longer fashionable? Or, when you passed away did your children lack fashionable instincts and give it away?

Q: Did you have one of those leopard coats like Jackie O? If so, where can I find it?

Q: What size were you? If it fits me, I’m thinking that in those days, you were definitely considered a big girl. Did you feel beautiful? Did you have lots of clothing options? Did you ever diet? If so, which diets were available? I’m pretty sure that Jenny Craig and Atkins weren’t options back then. Perhaps you did Weight Watchers as your “reduction” program?

Q: How many sexual partners did you have? Did you wait til you were married and then that night think, “Is that all there is?”

Q: Our president today is a black man. What do you think of that?

Q: Did you ever hear Whitney Houston sing or Michael Jackson dance?

Q: Can you imagine two hurricanes, a tornado and earthquake in NYC in an 18-month period? It happened.

Q: Would you believe that we’re still on many of the same political issues as in the 1960s? Yup, we’re still arguing about abortion, are still talking about birth control and people are still fighting for their civil rights. I know, shocking. Hopefully in 40 more years, we can move on to other social, political and environmental issues.

So thanks for your time. I’m really enjoying your coat. By the way, who was the designer? The tag is gone. I can use the Internet — this massive public spiderweb of information — to try to find the answer. But my generation expects immediate gratification, so I hope you can just give me the answer.

Four Women in a Whitewashed NYC. Again HBO?

First, there was Sex and the City, a show about four women living and dating in New York City. The characters were all white except for the occasional one-episode boyfriend, assistant or passerby. And now HBO has done it again with Girls. Another four women living in an NYC  that appears to have lost its diversity.

And yet, just like SATC, as much as I want to be mad for their lack of diversity, I’ve got to give them a pass. Girls is PHENOMENALLY good show. And beyond there being four white women and NYC as a character, there’s really no comparison to SATC. So I will not be mentioning SATC any more in this post.

I find it believable that these four girls wouldn’t know any people of color. I could see Charlie, or even Adam, having a black friend. But Hannah and the other girls, no way. Of course there are some entitled, insecure, whiny, self-centered 20-something black girls out there, but I just can’t imagine them being let into this circle.

Aside from Shoshanna, who is just undeniably adorable and hilarious, the real interesting people on this show are the men. I could become a cougar for Charlie. And you just know that strange Adam has to be bi-polar. And the gay guy hooked me when he slapped the boring pretty girl.

This shown is telling Lena Dunham’s story. It’s cool that HBO is giving her the license to do that. Has there ever been a more unattractive lead character? And all of the characters wear terrible clothes and  several appear as if they haven’t pulled a comb through their hair in years. Yet, the bad clothes — and godforbid boots — are a part of the genius of the show. And even though I can’t relate to any of these characters, the show resonates.

Hollywood isn’t exactly eager to give an unattractive, badly dressed group of black people a show like this. Well, there’s an exception: Madea. Tyler Perry’s stories involve cross-dressing, and sassy  black talk, so people watch. Would people line up to watch a show about a quirky group of non-white women? Or a diverse group of women?

I’m pulling for the black or Latina or Asian writer who’s going to break through that and make the world want to watch her story in a legitimately great show with excellent writing, phenomenal acting, an interesting backdrop AND backing by a powerhouse like HBO. In the meantime, I’m going to rewatch this season of Girls. I’ve got to hear some of those great one-liners again.

Brown Is the New Nude

Last summer, a lace dress was my must-have. After an exhaustive search, I finally found a lace dress winner. Five days later, my online order arrived and my excitement went into rewind when I saw this otherwise perfect dress’ hideous tan lining.

I returned it to the store and noticed that the despicable tan lining was on most of the other lace dresses. The Sales Associate (SA) explained that the lining was SKIN-colored to give the dress a transparent look.

 Years ago, I was shopping at Nordstrom at the Galleria in Dallas for coffee colored pantyhose [Aside: I had a job with a horrible boss who required me to wear pantyhose.  After being sent home twice for disregarding her rule, I grudging complied with her insane request. I’m glad that pantyhose, are no longer fashionable or expected, except that Kate Middleton is trying to ruin that trend]. Anyway, quality coffee-colored pantyhose were next to impossible to find. I complained to the manager. Her reply: “We really only stock SKIN tone colors, so we don’t expect them to order more brown.”

 Last fall, I started searching for nude shoes — the goal: shoes that matched the color of my skin to give me that long-legged look. I explained the look I was going for to my favorite shoe SA and asked her to bring me all the nude shoes she had with at least a four-inch heel. She came back with TAN and beige shoes.

 On Facebook, a page for a movement that campaigns for manufacturers to produce more brown bras received over 3,000 likes. This campaign was covered in the news and many fashionista bloggers have written about it as well. [Aside: In case you didn’t know, brown girls look terrible in nude bras. Yet nude bras are always plentiful — especially at sales.]

 Just like Crayola ditched the peachy color “flesh” back in 1961, fashion has got to ditch “Nude” as a term to define skin tone. It seems that the industry thinks this label applies to ONE skin tone, a color shared by maybe 9% of the world’s population. We can’t allow them to define skin’s color in one way. If nude is skin-colored, then there are hundreds of nudes – and they include brown.

 Needless to say I never found a lace dress last year, but at least now they are coming in a greater variety of colors, so I’ll probably start that search again.

 But recently I finally stumbled upon the perfect pair of NUDE shoes. And they are just my color.

Me - in my new nude shoes

The One Thing That Can Kill My Shopping Buzz

It feels like racial profiling to me. Admittedly, it’s absolutely nothing compared to the random stop and searches so many black and Latino men go through. Meaningless compared to the dangers of Driving While Black. But nonetheless, I feel targeted and disrespected. I’m talking about people assuming that I work in the store when I’m there to shop. It’s late January — the end of the sale season so I’m fresh off the circuit, newly questioned and bristling about it.

I realize that this happens often to other people and it’s not related to race. I saw a recent article on things that black people mistake for racism, but shouldn’t. And  this was on that list. My argument is that it happens too frequently and only in certain stores for me to think that my race doesn’t play any part in the assumption that I’m in the store to serve.

Mind you, I have nothing against being a salesgirl. I often dream of quitting my job and moving to Paris to be a shopgirl and live a simple, yet fashionable life. Nothing wrong with the department store hustle, my problem is with the blanket assumption that I’m doing it.

Like once in Bloomingdales, a woman thrusted an item at me and asked me to put it on hold. When I told her I didn’t work there, she said, quite sensibly, Oh, but you aren’t wearing a coat! Right, bitch. I was trying on a dress.

At Barney’s I’ve been asked if an incredibly cute color-block dress as available in green.  Once in Neiman Marcus, a little girl ran up and asked whether the item she was holding was on sale. I question why she would ask me. She pointed at her mom across the store and said, She told me to ask you.

One time in Saks, a bewildered-looking man asked me to start a dressing room for his wife. I said I don’t work here — with an attitude. He flushes with embarrassment and stammers, I’m so sorry! It’s just that you’re holding so many clothes. We both had to laugh at that one. Pass granted.

It’s never happened to me at Macy’s or Century 21 or H&M or Target. It’s always Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales or Barney’s. And it’s never happened in Bergdorf. Perhaps because I don’t look nearly polished enough to work there.

I’ve shared this complaint with other people. My white friends assure me that it also happens to them. My black friends run the gambit. Some suggest that I keep it all in stride, it’s no big deal. Others get completely off topic, asking why I’m in those stores, or suggesting that I should be shopping at a black-owned business anyway.

I’ve been developing a mentoring relationship with a senior-ranking African-American business professional and recently we had a conversation about assumptions. He described similar experiences — being with his CEO (an older white man) and people assuming he’s the driver. Driving around in his black Mercedes and people thinking he’s a car service? Entering a room for a meeting and people directing him to fix the projector.

He’s in the “take it all in stride camp.” His technique is to quickly redirect people. For example, when entering a room with his boss, he confidently steps forward and begins to introduce himself, so no one will make assumptions about why he’s there. He contends that it saves others the embarrassment of making bad assumptions.

But I’m not really interested in making them feel more comfortable. I want to feel more comfortable. I’ve decided that the next time I’m standing at the counter (on the side without the register), waiting to pay for my dress and someone hands me a credit card, I’m going to take that credit card and not even thank them for the gift.