Representation Matters…And Here’s Why

Representation matters

It’s just a picture. Or is it?

“It’s just a picture. Right?”

At least, that is what I tried to rationalize over and over in my head this morning after opening an email from ThoughtCatalog congratulating me on another published piece. 

I was making a big deal out of nothing again, wasn’t I?

It was after all, just a picture.

But something just didn’t feel quite…right. And in my heart, I was not at peace.

As I’ve mentioned in my About Me page, I’ve always loved writing. Short stories. Poems. One of my life’s ambitions is to one day publish a YA fiction novel – and of course, it will be featured on the NY Times Bestselling list (duh). When it comes to writing, I love creating personalities for my characters, developing their stories and designing the very essence of who they are. Anything that would allow me to create and bring to life, the multi-dimensional characters and vivid worlds that lived in my head.  And as a blogger, there’s nothing better than the feeling of hitting that “Publish” button and seeing your work live for others to see, and hopefully relate to.

Black girl magic - William Stitt

William Stitt

My writing experience

Early on in my writing journey, I would often write stories relating to my own experience as a teen, dealing with friendships, love interests, parents…you know – things that your “average” teenager would face in their everyday life. But I too often left out the parts of my own black experience that included sitting hours under a hairdryer, while waiting for the stylist to finish another woman’s touch up, or the pain and sting as the relaxer settled on my scalp, or how, no I couldn’t hang out on Saturday, because I was actually doing my hair – all day. Or how I felt different from my peers when my body was changing and I developed curves when most of my friends were still mostly flat-chested, or how I couldn’t understand why white boys didn’t think I was cute or worthy of hair-pulling-crushes. All of these experiences, were missing from the narrative. 

Instead, I found myself writing about characters with freckles and light eyes, with pale skin that contrasted against brown or blonde hair that flowed gracefully through the wind. And then one day, it finally hit me.

My characters look nothing like me! 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing, as a black author, stories about phenotypically white characters.

But, why?

Contemplative - Larm Rmah

Larm Rmah

The point.

Perhaps it was because of the predominately white culture I was immersed so deeply into throughout my young life. Or the fact that most of the books I read featured stories with mainly white protagonists – seeing as the selection of books showcasing the lives of relatable black teens and families was slim to none.

Maybe it was simply that I just didn’t have many examples to go off of. 

Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to submit some of my work to ThoughtCatalog.com – they post a few dozen articles everyday, written by other writers like myself. They’re a great platform to get my writing out there for the world to see and it’s always been a pleasure working with them. Recently, they published another piece of mine talking about the 5 Ways to Encourage Yourself When You Feel Rejected…or something like that – you can read it here.

The first thing I felt when I heard that it had been published was pure elation – success! Another piece published and out there for the whole, wide world to see and respond to. But when I clicked on the article link, that elated feeling quickly faded into one of…I don’t know…disappointment?

It was all there. My thoughts. The encouraging advice. My scripture passages of choice. All of it. But what graced the top of the article was what really hit me:

It was a picture of a white woman. Granted, she was beautiful. Lovely, in fact. But, she was…white.

Accomplished - Juan Ramos

Juan Ramos

The big deal.

I thought to myself, well this has happened before – the same disappointed feeling struck me then, too. I mean, it’s not that big of a deal, right?

But, I am the author of the piece…and I am black. And the woman in the big, hipster-esque looking picture staring back at me…is well, white. Come on – aren’t there any other generic, happy-go-lucky pictures out there featuring a 4C (or A or B!) texture-haired POC?

Then I thought to myself, is this a reflection of me or who I am or what I identify as? Shouldn’t it be?

My writing certainly was. And I wished the photograph could have been as well.

Black Girl Magic

Conclusion.

I did take a look through the first 12 pages of ThoughtCatalog’s list of published pieces and, out of the 80 articles, I could only find two that pictured a person of color as the featured image. Two. Whether the image was representing an article on mental health issues, love and relationships, experiences of your average twenty-something…they showcased white women and men, and – surprise, POC were no where to be found (or at least, very hard to find).

In the end, I contacted the individual who published my piece, after spending about an hour or so periodically drafting up a response while checking my emails at work this morning. I voiced my concern. I shared my position and tried my best to make my point clear, that – no I wasn’t trying to be nit-picky, but instead I hoped that ThoughtCatalog could make more of a concerted effort to be conscious when picking photos to represent the pieces they publish.

And more importantly, the writers that create them. 

Quentin Keller - Black Girl Magic

Quentin Keller

Representation matters to me.

To some, maybe this information is irrelevant. Or even unimportant.

To me, this is just another reminder of why I continue to write and share my story, and why I’m still holding tightly onto that dream of becoming a published author.

We need to rewrite the narratives to be reflective of the experiences of more than one race or ethnic group. Or ability. Or gender.

Because I wish that when I was younger, there were more stories that mirrored my experience as a young, black girl, turned young woman.

Because, one day a little black or brown child will read my work and proudly think to themselves, “Hey…just like me!”

At least…I really hope so. 

8 Comments
Leighann

Twenty-something, lover of Jesus. I like animals (esp. dogs), Fun-Fetti cupcakes and yoga. I love God and do my best to love others. I hate too-warm weather and socks that fall into your shoes when you walk. I'm a huge fan of Christian rap and cold, sunny days.

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8 Comments

  • Fehintola

    Great article. I’m usually very happy when I read posts that talk about experiences that I can relate to.
    Recently a Nigerian company did an ad campaign using white models and I saw a tweet of an angry Nigerian calling the brand stupid. We are BLACK here in Nigeria (yes we have white expatriate here too) why use white models. I doubt a lot of people would relate with the product because their representation sucks!
    Oh again great post Leighann!

    http://www.fehintolaogunye.com/2017/02/words-of-encouragement-for-new-week.html?m=1

    • Leighann

      Leighann

      Fehintola thank you so much for reading – and for sharing that experience! It is certainly about time we get equal representation, or at least representation that is reflective of the general population. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, and hope to hear from you again soon. Also, thanks for sharing your blog – I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Nichole

    Great post! Representation certainly does matter. I’m glad my daughters will have a chance to know of writers like you!

    • Leighann

      Leighann

      Thanks, Nichole – wow, you have no idea how much that means to me. Thank you so much <3

  • Melissa

    As a cultural studies student, I appreciate this blog post! As a person who is indefinable to most people outside of my country, I thank you. Representation matters!

    • Leighann

      Leighann

      Thanks, Melissa – it certainly does and I’m so glad that this resonated with so many others! It makes me realize how important it really is to other POC. I wholeheartedly appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts!

  • Meghan Liddy

    I LOVE THIS POST. I am an adoptive mother. Both of my daughters are black ( Ghanaians ) and it’s so hard to find racial representation. You hit it right on the money! <3

    • Leighann

      Leighann

      Thanks so much for reading, Meghan! So glad that this post made an impact for you.

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