Americans don't always get it right when it comes to TV competition shows.
If you're like me, you've spent plenty of Monday and Tuesday nights the past few months watching the talented singers on NBC's The Voice. As a former reality TV show contestant, I like to see skilled performers inspiring me with their abilities rather than angry housewives demeaning themselves with their fighting.
That's why I've enjoyed watching powerhouse singers Sisaundra Lewis and Delvin Choice this season on The Voice. This week was no exception. Each delivered an emotional performance on Monday night's show.
First came Sisaundra. She was moved to tears when her 76-year-old churchgoing mother decided to come to see her perform for the first time in her career. Sisaundra's mom only listens to gospel and did not support her daughter's decision to sing secular music. As expected, Sisaundra blew away the competition with her version of Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." Usher called her "incredible." Shakira said, "If you ever open the school of Sisaundra Lewis, I'm sure the four of us would enroll." And Adam Levine called her "elegant," "strong" and "electric."
Later in the show we saw Delvin. Dressed in all white with a cloud of white fog on stage, Delvin fought back tears as he sang R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." Blake Shelton said, "That was as good as it gets on this show." Usher called it an "incredible performance" and said, "You've never seen a man fly until you've see a man cry." And Delvin's coach, Adam Levine, said, "We all know you deserve to be at the end of this thing."
After Monday night's stellar performances, both Sisaundra and Delvin appeared to be moving comfortably toward next week. Then came Tuesday, and both singers found themselves in the bottom four singing for the final spot in the top five. Shakira said it was "a little unfair," and Blake Shelton said he was in shock to see Sisaundra in the bottom. "It's a little contradictory to know that we're looking for the best singer in the world and to see Sisaundra in this position right now," he added.
Let's face it. America doesn't always get it right. Sometimes they just don't understand Black people's voices and music. I still remember that week in 2004 when Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino and LaToya London all found themselves in the bottom three on American Idol. Even Elton John found that problematic. "They have great voices. The fact that they are constantly in the bottom three ... I find it incredibly racist," he said.
Perhaps there's an explanation.
Blacks only make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. In a society that tends to feature and highlight white cultural influences, it's virtually impossible for African-Americans not to be exposed to rock, pop, or country music at some point. It's far easier, however, for white Americans not to be exposed to contemporary R&B and soul music.
Given the demographics, it's not surprising that strong African-American R&B singers would be eliminated before white country and rock singers on a voter-based TV talent show. But true talent doesn't depend on skin color. If only more Americans could see beyond our color-coded filters, we'd recognize talent wherever it existed.
But the truth is, because of our different levels of exposure, Blacks are more likely to recognize white talent than whites are to recognize Black talent. Sure, there are some fields, such as professional sports and entertainment, where most whites readily recognize African-American achievement. But even then, Blacks often find themselves boxed into socially acceptable categories.
We expect Black achievement on the basketball court but not on the hockey rink. We expect Blacks to be rap stars but not country music singers. White Americans, on the other hand, enjoy greater freedom to move beyond racial boundaries, and thus Macklemore can win a Grammy for best rap album and Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash can win the NBA MVP Award.
We see a similar phenomenon in politics, where the majority of Blacks routinely vote for white presidential candidates but the majority of whites have never voted for a Black presidential candidate, not even for President Obama.
This is the America we live in, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who's paying attention. But it doesn't mean Blacks are powerless. Our vote helped Obama win two national elections. And it could decide the people he works with in Congress.
That's why we can't sit back and assume that well-meaning white people will do the work for us. I felt bad last night when I went to bed knowing that Sisaundra and Delvin were voted off The Voice, leaving no Black contestants in the top five. But that's just a TV show, and I'm certain they both have promising careers ahead of them. I do not want to go to bed on Tuesday night, November 4, feeling even worse. Sometimes the first step in exercising your power is just remembering you have it.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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