By definition, representation means the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone. While there may or may not be measurable data to attest to the impact of seeing “yourself” (someone of the same race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, body type, religion, so on and so forth), I can say from personal experience that it makes a difference, a big one.
As a child, I didn’t see myself in the way that the world saw me, and like most I didn’t become aware of my racial identity until it was pointed out to me by someone else or a social structure/institution.It never occurred to me that I was different than my friends. Sure, we may have looked different, for example, my childhood best friend had long light brown hair, bright blue eyes and freckles, while I had curly black hair that “shrunk” when we got in the swimming pool and brown eyes, but we weren’t really different, right?
Due to the injustices, bias, and prejudice that exists in our world, our experiences throughout our lives would be different; as the world sees us differently. Identifying this was pivotal in my development as a woman of color, because it made me aware of the messages I was subconsciously sending and the messages that were being sent about me.
That’s where representation comes in.
Representation in mass media, systems of government, our communities, and beyond are vital in the validation of self and making sure that everyone has a voice. When subgroups of people are absent from the hypothetical “table”, those who are present are left to fill in the blanks. Historically speaking, those who have been at the table often do not represent the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, sexual/gender diversity that exists in our world. This for obvious reasons has been problematic.
Throughout most of my adult life I have been aware of how lacking diversity is in the spaces I inhabit almost everyday. Whether it’s at work, where I am the only woman of color in an office building of 200+, at school where I help make up the University’s small minority population, or in pageants, where women of color are at times scarcely represented. It’s hard not to notice, when you’re so aware of yourself and how you “fit” within your surroundings or in my circumstance rather, fit out. I frequently find myself thinking the way I present myself to make sure I fit in the realm of what others would deem, “safe”, “appropriate”, and “approachable” – all in effort to avoid the stereotypes about black women, in particular.
Much like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, me choosing to recognize the importance of diversity doesn’t mean that I am “anti anything” or only want to see minorities at the forefront. While I shouldn’t have to say this, it’s something that needs to be said. I advocate for everyone to be equally, accurately, and fairly represented. Our world is too diverse and therefore too beautiful to have certain groups of people left our or not accurately represented.
Quick story, that reaffirms why I do what I do..
A few weeks ago I was speaking to an after school program that focuses on leadership development for young women in elementary school. Due to the location of this school, the majority of participants were either minority students or of a lower socioeconomic class. I was there speaking as Miss Western Nebraska 2017 and presenting information from my program, Project Poise. We were discussing self love at large and using words of affirmation to build ourselves up. Kids being kids, they are always fascinated by my crown and ask a great deal of questions regarding pageantry when I make appearances. I of course, gladly answer, but one question in particular on this day had me stumped.
A little girl raised her hand and asked me, “Can you wear curly hair and win a pageant?” Perplexed, I asked her, “What do you mean?” She continued, “Well, my hair is really curly and krinkly, and I’ve never seen anyone with hair like mine win a pageant. Everyone always has straight, long hair.”
My goodness. This little girl has pinpointed the lack of representation of black women with natural hair in pageantry. This is why representation matters. Our young people aren’t oblivious, when they don’t see people that look like them on the screen, they internalize and begin to limit themselves based off what they do or don’t see. How can you aspire to be something you don’t see? How can you envision yourself being somewhere that you aren’t encouraged to go? How can you dream bigger, when you feel limited by your surroundings?
That’s why I do what I do. My entire being is representative, whether that’s in pageants, whether that’s in my professional career, whether that’s in the community service work, or the things I say on social media. Someone is always watching, and that’s a responsibility I am humbled to have.
We’ve got work to do.