Escapism or Erasure: the challenge of consuming white content as a Black person

By Hadera McKay, Opinion Editor

This past spring break, I finally finished my three-month-long first watch of the late 90s classic, Sex and the City. As the end credits ran, I was more somber about it than I’d imagined I’d be.

 Sex and the City is a six-season chronicle of the unsurprisingly politically incorrect, embarrassing, and hilarious sexscapades of four middle-aged working women and their search for love, good sex, and happiness, narrated by columnist Carrie Bradshaw. 

The intensity of my interest wouldn’t have been so surprising if I hadn’t recognized the absurdity of myself, a young Black woman, finding ways to connect with the objectively privileged lives of these white women. I identified with Carrie’s habit of overthinking, Miranda’s glaring cynicism, Charlotte’s undying will to make the life that she wanted for herself, and Samantha’s rejection of emotional connections out of fear. I realized how much of a default it was for me to ascribe a connection to circumstances that were undoubtedly not mine, and I was at once slightly sad and also intrigued. How could I so easily find meaning in these objectively white stories?

Out of embarrassment for consuming a fictional experience so far from mine, I found myself jokingly describing it to my friends as a much-needed form of escapism. I hadn’t realized then how precisely I’d hit the mark. I realized that I’d not only connected with, but found solace in this white content—dealing with white characters and their white problems—and its isolation from the historical and institutional racial oppression that I dealt with mentally, physically, and emotionally every day. Consuming white content in this way was a form of escapism that briefly distanced me from my oppression, exposing a coping mechanism that I hadn’t even known I had. 

Due to the traditional lack of representation, BIPOC people have been forced to see themselves in content where no one looks like them. As a result, they foster connections with identities and circumstances that may seem very far from their own. It’s a particular survival skill that has always unwittingly helped me navigate white spaces; from memorizing the lyrics to Taylor Swift songs so I’d know the words at sleepover sing-a-longs, to holding a comb and singing into the mirror, pretending I was Hannah Montana.

The same is true for books. I spent my entire adolescent life reading and loving books by white authors about white characters. I devoured young adult fiction novelists Sarah Dessen, John Green, and Morgan Matson, falling in love with coming of age novels and deeply connecting with the recurring themes of insecurity, decision-making, and identity-seeking. There was such comfort in these easy stories written by white people about white characters who have the privilege to exist in a bubble where they can interact with race at will. 

It was like a magic trick where their power to hold the truth and impact of oppression at arm’s length in their lives transferred to me during the small periods of time where I got to immerse myself in those stories. By reading, I could experience the extreme weightlessness of whiteness that comes from being the default representation of human existence. 

Such practices, while deceptively comfortable, are born out of desperation and habit. They can breed a sense of internalized erasure that translates into the belief that these seemingly romantic experiences and stories are reserved for white people alone. After reading those books and watching coming-of-age films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird, I understood the coming-of-age genre to be synonymous with whiteness. Could there ever be a space where the varied and layered experiences of young BIPOC people were not relegated to their oppression or to playing sidekick number one?

Additionally, jumping through hoops to find the ways that I connect with these white, privileged characters (oftentimes stripping them to the core of their humanity to do so), takes a toll. Sometimes the privilege is just too thick to wade through. I know Friends is a classic or whatever, but I honestly can’t make it through more than the first couple of episodes of that show without thinking it too obnoxious to continue. I’d much rather spend my time rewatching the funnier and Blacker Living Single, similarly about a group of friends in New York, trying to make their way in the world. 

Just because I’ve been forced to see myself in white stories, doesn’t mean I should. It also doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to find comfort in the lives of whites who don’t have to care about structural oppression on the levels that I do. It’s not a crime to find a sort of romantic comfort in the lives of people who will never be able to know your struggle. 

While I do not enjoy the realities of white ignorance, I do enjoy the romanticism of storytelling where characters live without the burden of interrogating the merit of their own existences in a world that is designed to work against them. Excuse me if I bask in the casual romance of white couples on screen like Carrie and Aidan from Sex and the City, or replay sweet teen movies like 10 Thing I Hate About You. These are all specific romantic and mundane depictions of life that Black people can and should be represented in their own way. 

Do not mistake this for envy. I am proud of the honesty and the range of Black stories that are lived and beginning to be told and in love with the essence of creating something so true to our language, values, and culture. I have never felt more understood than when I’m witnessing a story where someone who looks like me is going through the same things I am, or even going through something completely different. 

I am tired of thinking it’s an honor or a privilege to have Black stories told when white people do not recognize what a privilege it is to always have their stories told with nuance and care. I am tired of translating their experiences to mine, but also glad of the skill it developed in me to be able to honor the distinctly human qualities of all stories. To find a way to relate my inherently Black story to everything I see, making it universal in its own way. 

Deep down what I’m hoping white people take from Black stories is a recognition of the innate humanity and universality of our experiences without isolating the influence of our identities or the identities that they created for us as a form of oppression. That they can look at all of these things and love us as we are, without the armor of white references we’ve been forced to protect ourselves with thus far.