Growing up, I learned what beautiful is through observation. I studied the standard from magazine covers and television screens, and everywhere in between. I subconsciously studied how the girls who got the guy were portrayed in movies, compared to those who were just side characters. I learned from the language used to describe women who were beautiful and those, who they said, were not. I absorbed the world around me with a now lost sense of purity.
As a kid, there was no standard to discriminate this.
Being biracial, I was praised for parts of me I shouldn’t have been, and was told parts of me were beautiful because they were white, and in turn was condemned for my Blackness. I remember being young and getting my hair done by a young woman who told me I was lucky I had pretty curls and not Black ones.
Though it wasn’t directly said, it was implied through media and society that Blackness was not to strive for and that my whiteness was where my beauty and value came from. People would rave about how I looked ethnic, or “racially ambiguous.” But I never saw myself as some racial question mark, or some entity of the in-between. I was Black and white, a statement that had never came with confusion for me.
But as I grew, most of my identity was formed around others perceptions of me. And throughout this I continued to absorb the world around me. The main character in movies, the models walking down runways, the women I had grown up to looking up to, they were all white.
At a young age I internalized anti-Blackness. I didn’t understand this consciously, I wasn’t racist or spewing hate, but I saw how the world hated Black people and it consumed me. I recently found a journal entry from seventh grade, one of the hardest times of my life, where I scribbled about how much I hated myself.
Specifically though, how I hated my nose, my lips, my hair, the features of my face where my Blackness is prominent. It wasn’t because I hated being Black or saw err in it, but because I saw the world hate it and celebrate whiteness. I wanted to be like the popular girls in my school, who wore Abercrombie and Fitch and Aeropostale, with stick-straight hair and button noses, who the boys liked.
And for a long time I tried. I fried my hair to frizzy wisps until inches of my hair broke off from heat damage. I wore designer jeans and Abercrombie dresses my mom got for me on sale at the outlets. I tried to be the pretty, popular girl, the girl who would get the guy, have the friends, live the happy life. It didn’t work, I was miserable trying to fit into shoes that would never fit. But at that time, I felt there was no other way to be liked by my peers.
I never felt that I could be loved and accepted just by being myself. This isn’t an experience that is solely personal, but one that many marginalized folks can relate to.
I often wonder how my perspective in my adolescence would’ve altered if there had been true inclusivity in my life. If magazine covers had featured different races of women, highlighting their individual beauty, rather than pushing the same Eurocentric values of beauty that people of color would never fit into.
I wonder how my perspective would’ve changed if the starring role was occupied by Black people as often as white. If the popular girls who get the boys on television were depicted as confident Black woman, rather than catty white ones. I wonder how I would’ve learned to love myself growing up, if I had been brought up around a society that showed love and acceptance towards people of color, instead of overwhelming our senses with white-washed narratives.
There were moments growing up where I glowed from representation. As a kid I still remember the day I saw “Princess and Frog” in theaters. The only other Black princess I had ever seen was Brandy in her rendition of “Cinderella,” a childhood favorite of mine, but there was something so magical about Princess Tiana.
It may have been because I’d grown up watching Disney films and on occasions been privileged to go to Disneyland and get the autograph of their princesses. I remember feeling so entranced, so in love, so grateful for Disney’s first Black princess, even if she was a frog for nearly the entire movie. The ability for my childhood self to see some reflection of myself in a Disney princess was invaluable.
This feeling of pride and representation can parallel the fairly recent release of “Black Panther.” The film broke box office records, but every adult and kid wanted to go see a superhero film revolving around Black people because it had never been done before. Seeing “Black Panther” for many was the first time they’d seen themselves represented in a superhero movie, and not as just a side character.
Black people have been included in film for a long time, but in limited ways. A Diversity Report done by UCLA shows that as of 2017, 77% of roles were claimed by white people. Prior to this, there was always the token Black character, who was usually fashioned around stereotypes, as a side character. They were there for comedic relief, or were portrayed as the bad kids.
Even in shows featuring Black people, a consistent issue in the industry is colorism. There may be multiple Black actors on a show, but often those roles are casted to light-skin people over those who are darker-skin. This is an issue permeating not only the Black community, but all communities of color. Inclusivity is not only having people of all races, but of all shades included.
In television shows dominated by white people, Black people were cast for limited appearances, often as thugs and prostitutes. The role of Black people in television until recently was to reinforce racist stereotypes about them. One of the most notorious films perpetuating Black criminality is “The Birth of a Nation,” a racist film that was played at the White House. This stereotyping was especially prominent when I was growing up during the early 2000s. The only show I watched starring Black people in a positive light, was “The Fresh Prince of Belair.”
There was definitely more, like “Moesha”, “Everybody Hates Chris”, and “Girlfriends”, but it was limited. And when you’re six and flipping through channel after channel, and 90% of the faces flashing in front of you are white—it is damaging.
I am grateful for the way media has diversified since I was growing up, but it isn’t enough. Though we’ve made great strides in regards to the amount of Black people in the film industry, music industry and other highly populated markets, it is no where close to being truly inclusive, to being truly diverse.
I want to turn on my television and see faces that accurately reflect our population: trans people of color, queer people, fat femmes, butches—every type of person imaginable included in our media, not just the polished, socially acceptable ones.
This past year has been one of demands of equality and inclusivity, and many businesses have responded in performative ways. Inboxes have been flooded with generic messages assuring that these million-dollar companies ‘stand with Black lives’ though do nothing to promote or protect Black people. Having one Black person on a staff or a television show is not diverse. Nor is having two. Diversity means including many people of many different backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, etc.
If any field is dominated by white people, with a few token people of color, it’s important to understand this isn’t diversity. It’s important to understand that because of the lack of inclusivity, people of color will feel uncomfortable to speak up, and if they do, they often times won’t truly be heard.
The issue with our society’s current approach to diversity is that in a lot of cases it’s forced. It is not only an issue penetrating media, but every day interactions as well. Businesses or industries will use numbers to realize how white-washed their businesses are, which should be evident by just scanning the building, and in response will hire a few token people of color to spice up their office. Diversity is seen as a forced response to an issue that they don’t entirely understand.
Instead of forcing inclusivity because it’s right, which it is, there should be more awareness of the benefits that inclusivity brings. Being in a diverse environment allows for more people to feel comfortable, safe and seen. In an environment where people feel protected and valid, better work will be produced. Having people of different backgrounds allows for different perspectives, different approaches to questions that a room full of people with the same experience and background may not be able to answer.
But most importantly, diversity allows for everyone to have the possibility to do anything. Seeing women in fields dominated by men or Black people in fields dominated by white people, reminds those of us who have gotten our societal roles and expectations crammed down their throats, that they can do more. That they can be anything that they’ve ever thought of. It’s hard to imagine something you’ve never seen.
But by seeing all people in all sorts of fields, the opportunities for all people will feel wide open. Little kids will believe they can be anything, and won’t have to question their place in the world. That’s the type of inclusive world I want to be a part of.