It’s An Honor To Be Nominated…
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Representation matters, but what is it about being recognized on a broader stage that matters to us?
Growing up I watched a fair amount of TV commercials targeting kids. Even though I didn’t have a language for it, I noticed early on how gendered these spots were—girls’ commercials were bright, sparkly, and invariably pink; boys’ ads were dark and had an edginess to them that was conveyed by electric guitar riffs.
The commercials that had both girls and boys in them tended to be for games like Connect Four or Mouse Trap. In those commercials, it was clear who were considered winners—and it wasn’t me or people who looked like me. White boys were the ones who won the game by the end of the commercial, and in the few ads where a girl did win, she was always white.
It didn’t stop there. That mainstream racial hierarchy—white boys, white girls, the ethnically ambiguous, and brown tokens bringing up the rear—was everywhere: in books, in magazines, in catalogs, in television shows, in movies. I got the message loud and clear: Whiteness was the default for mainstream media.
It’s a reality that underrepresented minorities have been talking about for years. But those conversations have started moved from private and niche spaces to the public-at-large, thanks to the mainstream’s recent fascination with “reporting on race” and mining our online conversations for click bait.
We’ve talked about why #RepresentationMatters and that #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but the lack-of-diversity discussion seemed to have exploded when Twitter users pointed out that #OscarsSoWhite not once, but twice.
“It’s obvious to anyone of color that representation matters,” writer Sharisse Tracey told me via email. “It matters so much that we might feel as though we shouldn’t have to answer why. But at the same time, we also know better. We know that we can’t take anything for granted as people of color.”
I don’t think it’s about asking for approval—it's about demanding respect.
One of the counter-responses to #OscarsSoWhite within our own community is a version of what I’ve heard about most race relations issues today. Why does it matter that the mainstream doesn’t acknowledge us? Why do we want to enter these white spaces and be celebrated, when we can celebrate us amongst ourselves? Why do we want their approval so badly?
But I don’t think it’s about asking for approval—it's about demanding respect. Those pointing out that #OscarsSoWhite are continuing the work of upsetting that racial hierarchy that tries to invalidate our worth. It's the kind of bias that blocks us from attending industry galas, and, at worst, literally destroys us via police (or self-appointed enforcers of a police state) brutality. Addressing the Oscars' lack of diversity is also a way to confront a system that unwittingly tells the next generation that they don’t matter.
“When my kids don’t see themselves on the screen, their voices and experiences are not being represented,” lifestyle coach Stepha LaFond told me. “It’s easy to form a belief that your voice isn’t as important or as valued. This lack of representation can lead to self-doubt, feeling unimportant, or idealizing Eurocentric culture as what they should strive to emulate.”
“As the mother of a little girl with a vivid imagination who loves to write stories and put on living room plays, I feel that it is extremely important for her to see someone of color being recognized for their achievements in a forum like the Oscars,” said business strategist Shakima Martinez. “Children who love sports or music can turn on the television and see people of color represented in athletic leagues or music videos quite easily. Unfortunately it’s a tad bit harder to find Black actors and actresses represented on the big screen. How are the small children of color who have scripts in their head ever going to feel comfortable stepping into those roles if the majority of people they see on TV don’t resemble their daily life?
“I feel that it is my job to help stretch my child’s imagination and I’d love for her to see more people who look like her being celebrated in TV and film,” she continued. “It would give her the comfort in knowing that all those stories and characters floating around in her head can actually turn into something amazing because there were other people, just like her, who paved the way.”
It also matters for us grown folks, too. Self-described ‘80s kid Sharisse Tracey reflected on what it meant to see The Wiz in theaters or to fangirl out over characters Tootie Ramsey (Kim Fields), Lydia Grant (Debbie Allen), and Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll) on The Facts of Life, Fame, and Dynasty respectively.
"I learned a lot from these women from their characters," Tracey says. "That you could be bold and beautiful, strong and still be heard. And it mattered that I could see myself in them. That they sounded like me or people in my family."
You know, I finally have an answer to those earlier questions. Why does it matter that the mainstream doesn’t want to acknowledge us? Because it insists that racial hierarchy I saw as a child is right. And that amount of wrong just needs to be called out.
What do you think about the debate about representation in mainstream media? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.