The Not-So-Subtle Signal of Representation

Recently, I posted a conversation with my esteemed colleague, Peggy Ho, in which we touched on the power of representation – and the lack of it. I’m glad it came up as it is a conversation we need to have. While this is clearly a challenge in companies, this is also a challenge for young people. There is a lot going on in the minds of young folks as they are working through and reconciling their experiences without guidance or context to help make sense of it.

In my own experience, I can remember being in elementary school when Charlie’s Angels was the hit TV show. I can remember friends picking an angel to pretend to be – a role model, of sorts. Kinda like we pretended to choose a Jackson brother to marry (Michael, always Michael – anyway, I digress). I was acutely aware of how none of the Angel’s images resonated with me. Even when I reached outside of that show to other shows, still no one. In my 10-year-old mind, I was looking for a role model. In that same space, I thought a role model had to be famous, which ruled out my mom, her friends and all of the professionals around me, including my teachers and principal. I felt an emptiness in my search. I experienced the same emptiness when there was a hair thing and my hair was not represented nor flowed the way others did. As a young girl, it was tough to see myself outside of my immediate circle.

I did find a source of inspiration, though when I listened to the words of then popular “The Greatest Love of All” by George Benson – no, Whitney (and we miss her) did not sing that first. The words saved me. They really encouraged me and gave me an anchor to use. And if these words were working for George (and he was famous), then it could work for me too. He sang:

Everybody is searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

Without these lyrics, I am not sure what the subtle sign of the lack of presence of Black Women on TV would have suggested to me. It was because George told me that I wasn’t alone in looking for a hero, and that if I didn’t find one it was ok. He encouraged me to learn to depend on myself.

Today, the lyrics are not always so thoughtful. So, yes, we have to talk about it. We have to assume that there are 10-year-olds who are thinking about who they see and what is being said and what it means about them. Representation matters and perhaps my suggestion that it is subtle is wrong. Perhaps it is quite loud and we have to include everyone to quiet the noise.

Dr. Lisa Toppin

Our theme song is “The Greatest Love of All” by George or Whitney – you choose.

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