As Whoopi Goldberg so eloquently puts it in the quote above, representation matters! It helps inspire. It can help underrepresented minorities and groups feel like they belong, like they’re worth just as much as anyone else.
Growing up as an adopted kid just outside Stockholm, Sweden in the early 90’s, I didn’t look like anyone else. Most of the kids in my school were white, there was one other kid in my class who was darker skinned. However, that kid’s father was black, so while a bit lighter − maybe he felt as though he could relate to someone. When you’re a kid, you usually look up to someone (or someones); be it a parent, a sibling, a family member or even a character on TV.
→→As a grown up, the people you look up to are usually ones with great personalities or with other good, non-superficial, qualities. As a kid though, those feelings of admiration are usually based on more basic aspects. Cool hair color, accessories or gadgets. For example, maybe you had a favorite superhero? While kids might focus their admiration on their favorite superhero’s cape − white kids have the, dare I say luxury, to not have to go beyond that. My childhood friends never cared whether or not their superhero was a spitting image of themselves, rather they could fantasize about the fact that when they grew up they’d have muscles and look (more or less) just like their heroes. They didn’t have to reflect on the fact that none of their favorite heroes shared the color of your skin. Being adopted, I didn’t look like either of my parents who were both fair skinned (even though my mother, with her Italian roots, has a slight more olive-toned complex and dark brown hair).
Can you see how this becomes problematic?
It was when I started first grade, that I first realized that my skin tone was different from basically everyone else’s. That’s a weird thing to realize let me tell you, not to mention quite mind boggling for a six year old. Who was I supposed to relate to? While my peers at that age focused a lot on which parent they looked alike the most, I failed to find anyone that I really shared the majority of my traits with. I can only speak for myself, but it led to a feeling of disconnect and like I wasn’t at home anywhere − being adopted made it even more difficult.
TV-series and movies have changed since I grew up and I’m not saying that there are not people of color shown on TV today − we’re getting there. Growing up though, it was quite disheartening to constantly be reminded of my ”otherness”. Take the Disney princesses for example, in a sea of mostly white ones, there were only three that stood out: Pocahontas, Mulan and Jasmine (Tiana didn’t appear until I was older). These three female characters were all portrayed with a strong focus and connection to their respective cultures − none of which I could relate to. Plus, they all grew up surrounded by people with the same skin tone as them. As for skin tones, Pocahontas was probably the one I was closest to; as such, for the longest time, she was my favorite. To be honest, I think a big factor was the fact that she actually looked a little bit like me.
→→When I’ve discussed this topic with [white] friends, some have said ”but I didn’t feel like I looked like I Disney princess either, what’s the big deal?” I’m not saying that Disney, in their representation of ‘the female’ as a whole, is good and that the only thing they haven’t captured is the representation of skin color. Still, I posit that it is a big deal and growing up I barely saw anyone like me, even in my actual life. Hopefully, for most underrepresented minorities or groups, they have felt a belonging to something or someone in their actual life, even if their lives or situations weren’t visible in the media or pop culture. As a kid, not even seeing something as basic as your own skin color around was weird.
It has led, not only to feeling like an outsider virtually everywhere from a very young age, but also to the fact that I failed to enjoy certain things that most kids seemed to enjoy. Take masquerade or Halloween parties for example, I’ve always struggled (and still do at times) with it. Most of my friend’s struggles are related to not feeling creative and having a hard time deciding what to dress up as (character wise). Mine have been about skin color, literally, I can’t stop thinking about it! It might sound silly, but as a kid I never would’ve dared to dress up like a white character or famous person. I’ve felt limited to dressing up as a ”brown mermaid” or ”brown anything” − as in a general type of character, rather than an actual one. I’d never feel comfortable saying ”I’ve dressed up as Ariel”, even if I wear my hair red nowadays and I found a mermaid costume for next Halloween; I’d probably say ”I’m a mermaid” and leave it at that.
→→What’s interesting (for the lack of a better word) is that I haven’t gotten too many explicit comments on my ”brownness”, but it’s become so internalized because I’ve constantly felt reminded of the fact that I don’t look like most people around me. BECAUSE THERE WERE VERY FEW REPRESENTATIONS OF PEOPLE OF COLOR AS I GREW UP! Ultimately, as a kid, it became an internalization of feeling ”less than”, too.
Internalization of this type, devaluing ones self worth, is particularly destructive. Norms are a powerful thing in societies, they’re so internalized they usually become ”common sense”. This is why representation matters, if people of color (all variations) would be more readily seen in different type of media and contexts (i.e. not just the ”genius Asian/Indian person”) − then we might help overcome those notions of ”otherness” and feelings of being ”less than”. Much like Whoopi Goldberg states, it’s then that people of color (or other underrepresented minorities or groups) might realize that they can do anything − that they have just as much right to claim their space in society and in whatever areas they’re interested in! Things that many white people have the luxury to take for granted.
→→A few days ago I saw this published in my social media feed:
I’ve followed Misty Copeland for quite a while (left picture, on the far right) and she’s so fascinating, beautiful, strong and talented. As a white person you have no idea how liberating it’s been for me to see women like her ”popping up” in my social media feed. When I was a little girl, the only ballerinas I saw were white − the conclusion I drew? Maybe ballet wasn’t for me. This comes from someone who’s only danced very briefly and at a much later age. Who knows, maybe I would’ve tried it earlier if I’d seen more young girls who looked like me, dance ballet as a kid! This is why representation matters! It sets the bar, it changes norms, it fosters unity and equality! As the caption above states − it’s about role models! We need them.
Even now, as a (too) soon 30 year old woman, I need them! It’s not just for kids. This last year or so, I’ve gotten more interested in make-up. For a much better reason than why I originally wanted to use make-up. As a young teen, make-up for me was about trying to look like everyone else. ”Even if I might not share their skin color, or body types (not tall and blonde), maybe I can at least get a liiittle closer if I have that IT lipstick”. Now, finally, I’m beginning to enjoy make-up as a more creative way to express myself and beginning to embrace what I look like (even if others, of course, inspire me). This is much due, and thanks to, women like Deepica Mutyala. She has helped highlight, for me anyways, that make-up is and can be used by ”brown chicks” as she usually refers to herself and those who are close to her skin tone. It’s seriously a STRUGGLE to find make-up for people with my skin tone! Usually, the color ranges are severely limited and not until very recently, have larger make-up brands started to get the gist; there are more skin tones out here! It’s has seriously been such a pleasure to find women like Deepica! It’s made me feel more comfortable and dare I say, a little more beautiful?
→→For those of you who know me, you know that I’ve struggled a lot with my body image (not explicitly skin color wise) and I honestly think seeing these representations out there, among all, the more commonly, white influences, has started to help! I still struggle, some days a lot, but hopefully this−seeing other ”brown chicks”−online, and bodies that are similar to mine, is helping!
I got the idea to write this when I realized, as I searched for tattoo inspirations, that virtually no Instagram accounts (of quite famous tattooers), have photos of tattoos made on people of color. WHY? I can’t be the only brown-skinned person who has one, so, really, what’s up with that? Is it more aesthetically pleasing to post the pictures of people with white, alabaster skin because the black lines seem more prominent in contrast to their skin? Tattoo’s are not only for white people, just sayin’.