Representation Matters

Categories: Representation
06/21/2018
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After a year of attending a predominantly white institution I had a lot more conversations about race than I ever had before. Being back home has led me to reflect more on my race and how that affected me as a child. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey and attended a high school of only 1,000 people, which is connected to the middle school. Here the U.S. racial minorities were majority of the population. Our corridors were filled with African American students, Latinx students , and Asian American and Pacific Islander students who outnumbered the white population. Even so, I could not always evade thoughts that somehow my brown, melanated  skin wasn’t good enough or that my 4c, meaning extremely coily and thick, hair wasn’t straight enough. Even as a relatively confident person, these notions of being “not good enough” were engrossed in my head as I was surrounded by a community of people of color. Not all of it was internal either—people made fun of my hair and mocked how dark I had gotten after a season of soccer in the sun. While I ignored the small voice in my head that appeared maybe once every year and the rude comments that were thrown around casually, other kids may not find it as simple to brush it off. With the influence of media on my generation and the power of seeing ourselves in the things around us, we need to have more dialogue about representation and we must keep fighting to see more diverse faces in all facets of media.

I am an avid television watcher and I have always been one. From action to mystery to rom-coms I have become the television connoisseur in my household and always hand out recommendations to anyone in need of a good watch. And yet, with my vast list, I can count less than a handful of black leads and not just the token person of color best friend who is there for comedic relief. I can count a handful of women who were on screen to be more than just a love interest to the lead male. I can count a few LGBTQ+ characters who had speaking roles. And I can count a couple people who have a mental or physical disability.  

Here is a breakdown from a large study completed by professors at UCLA :

28.7 percent of women have speaking roles in film

28.3 percent of minorities had speaking roles in media overall

2 percent of LGBT had speaking roles in media overall

A separate study from the same institution found:

2.4 percent of people with disabilities had speaking roles in films

 

Our media today is not reflective of American society and when minorities do see themselves, it is oftentimes rife with negative stereotypes. Studies have proven that portrayals can influence audiences psychologically and dictate their biases and prejudices. As minority groups are seeing sparse representation and negative depictions it can harm how they view themselves. They can face stereotype threat, in which people feel themselves conforming to stereotypes, often negative, and become more wary and anxious about how they act. This can lead to underperformance and a lack of self-expression in minority groups. People who live in communities without minority groups may only have exposure to them on screen. Majority groups can internalize the negative depictions they see and project those sentiments in their daily lives.

“I knew that I was beautiful, but it didn’t seem that society agreed.”

Even in other outlets I have always found it difficult to see people like me. When I was younger cartoon characters and books I read were filled by a majority of white boys. As I perused the doll section in Toys-R-Us there was only a small selection of dolls that looked like me on either side of the aisle. I knew that I was beautiful, but it didn’t seem that society agreed. As a young girl obsessed with Barbies, I had to come to terms with the fact that I could only have one doll that looked like me out of the twenty others. More recently, a report found that only 29 percent of women of color were on popular magazines in 2016. I want young children to see themselves positively represented and know that society sees them as beautiful and valued.

While recent years have seen growth in representation, media is still a massive breeding ground for exclusion and harmful stereotyping. We need to continue to call out these industries and have conversations about inclusion. By holding companies accountable for who they hire in all departments, and who they display we can have more accurate representation of all the diverse and beautiful people that live in the US. And hopefully, a young child can turn on their television or walk into a store and see how beautiful and important they are to society.

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Nikita Forrester is a sophomore at Cornell University pursuing a degree in Communication with a Business minor and an Inequality Studies minor. She is a member of Rotaract Club, an organization focused on local and international community service projects. Nikita is also a member of the F word which has weekly discussions about feminist issues and works on various projects throughout the semester. Throughout her time in her college, she plans to increase her involvement in social justice issues and play a larger role in planning events that happen on campus. Nikita is extremely passionate about intersectional feminism and hopes to expand her outreach to affect change her community.