The Battle for Representation Starts in Childhood
How unseen Black kids become unseen Black adults
When you start talking about diversity, you'll often hear people say that representation matters. If you're in a work setting, you might think that means having more diversity in the boardroom, but that's not the only place it matters.
In fact, the problem of non-representation of Black people starts way earlier, in childhood. Let's take a look at some typical experiences for Black children.
What Color is "Flesh"?
As a white kid when you get a cut, you take for granted that you'll be able to patch it up with a "skin" or "flesh" colored plaster. Until very recently - and I'm talking within the last couple of years - that wasn't true for Black people.
All through my childhood I had pink plasters (they weren't skin to me, no matter how they were labeled) or fabric plasters in a weird shade of salmon. As the genre expanded, I could get different shades of flesh, none of which matched my own. Though I didn't label it as such then, the realization that my skin wasn't seen as "skin" led to moments of cognitive dissonance.
Do Your Dolls Look Like You?
It's not so bad now, but in my own childhood in the Caribbean, having a Black doll ws a rarity. My parents went all out to make sure we had several (we still wanted Barbies, too, to be honest). All the dolls we saw on TV looked like white girls or women. For us, those were dolls, and what we had were Black dolls.
Though I'm glad now that my parents took that stance, I don't think my sister and I appreciated the Black dolls as much as we might have. Most little girls (I was an exception) like doing their dolls' hair. Good luck doing that with the Black dolls of the '70s and '80s. That definitely reinforced the idea that Black hair was difficult to manage, so what did that mean for us?
I didn't see a Black Barbie (complete with Eurocentric hair) till the '90s. They may have existed before but I was no longer playing with dolls.
My own daughter had dolls of all hues with a variety of hair types, and we even found one that looked a little like her. Progress indeed. But for her, as well, most of the must-have dolls she saw advertised looked like white girls or women. You see the problem, don't you? If dolls are beautiful and they don't look like you, then maybe you aren't beautiful.
Dancing Around the Color of Skin
I never did ballet lessons, but the default uniform is pink from head to toe, and professionals wear tights that blend in with white skin. That doesn't work so well if your skin is dark, and it's a reminder that as a Black person you're not the norm.
My daughter had the same issue when she had dance lessons, and it sometimes felt like her skin and curly hair were a problem when it came to costuming.
Thankfully, that's changing a little. I read not long ago about the prima ballerina who cried when she was finally allowed to wear brown underpinnings for her ballet costume. It's taken way too long to get there, in my opinion.
Is Black Beautiful?
Let's talk about teen mags and beauty mags. By now, you know where I'm going with this. These days, it's a little more common to see a Black face on the cover of a magazine. Sometimes you'll even see more than one.
That's a relatively recent development in our history. I don't remember seeing any when I was growing up, and even into my 20s it was rare, apart from the occasional supermodel. Again the message is: Black is not beautiful. Even if your parents tell you that you are, it's hard to deny the evidence of your eyes.
Are You in the Story?
I grew up on Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and a whole host of classic children's stories, old and new. Later, I branched out to sci-fi, thrillers, romance, and more. In most of those, there were no Black characters (at least none that I recognized), and no Black characters in major roles. I didn't think about it; it was just how it was.
Just the other day, I was reading a book when it suddenly occurred to me that the heroine was Black. Even though there are more and more Black writers, that's still rare enough for me to have mentally noted it. After all, if we write what we know and we grow up in white majority countries and our influences are white writers, then there's a fair chance we might end up with supporting roles in our own stories. Kudos to those who actively fight that.
The Few Black People on TV
The vast majority of the TV shows I watched growing up had no Black characters. Star Trek's Lt Uhura was a welcome exception (and she was a woman, too, which completely delighted me).
Once Black, Indigenous, Latin and other POC characters started filtering into my consciousness, I noticed that there was still a representation problem. Some were played by white people in blackface or other makeup. Many of those that weren't fell into the well-worn stereotypes about Black people. I won't dignify those by listing them here, but suffice it to say I wasn't represented.
Later, there were a few people who looked like me. Michael Jackson, when he was still Black and not a pedophile; Bill Cosby, when he was not a rapist. Can I just admit here to being mad as hell that they couldn't keep it together and act right?! Thank goodness for people like Denzel Washington, Chadwick Boseman, Oprah and Viola Davis.
If you think about the timing, though, it means for half my life I didn't see myself represented at all. Things have got a bit better. In fact, some programs seem to have a diversity checklist they fill before filming. I can't decide if that's an improvement, but I guess that's better than nothing. Even so, seeing people who represent my existence and experience of Blackness is relatively rare.
How Racism Compounds the Lack of Visibility
As usual, this is a non-exhaustive list; practically every Black person can recall a childhood experience of being othered. But it gives you an idea of how Black people experience the world. For many, the idea that they are other is reinforced by racism at school and in the streets.
By the time Black people get into the workplace, many have had a couple of decades' experience of racism and lack of representation. Racism in the workplace further compounds what their lived experience tells them: that Black lives and Black perspectives don't matter. This is a mental health issue for Black people, and it's one we need to solve urgently.
But it's not just a problem for Black people; it's a problem for everyone. Because better representation means everyone gets a chance to see Black people as part of the norm, and that's a great way to fight racism.
Small Steps to Better Representation
So how do we fix this? Here are a few small starting points.
First, we need to normalize seeing Black people in all parts of life. My Medium friend Julia Hubbell does one small thing when she publishes content - she illustrates it with images of BIPOC. Sometimes they're hard to find, but she does it anyway so that the people who read her content see Black people in everyday life. I think this is fabulous!
Second, think about your children's and grandchildren's bookshelves. Do you stick to the classics, or do you include books from across the spectrum, covering different ethnicities, gender expressions, and family situations?
I'm not pointing any fingers here. My daughter had more books with BIPOC characters than I did, but that's not saying a lot.
Third, actively seek out media that offer both diverse and positive representation. For young children, Sesame Street is a good start, but there are plenty of resources at the end of a Google search.
One practical thing I'm doing right now is helping to educate children about the impact of stereotypes, poor representation and one-sided stories via the Anti-Racism for Kids course I've created for the Beyond School (aff).
As time goes on, I plan to expand on that and do my part to help create more equitable representation. If you've got thoughts on how to do that in your circles, I'd love to hear them.
As always, thank you for reading.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. Cover photo courtesy of Canva.