Why Representation Matters

 

As you can imagine, the characters in the books I read growing up looked nothing like me. They didn’t have to learn to love their hair. Their mothers didn’t insist on them being heavily moisturized before leaving home so they wouldn’t get ashy. I’ve read that representation is important for inclusivity and perception. Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like oneself in the media makes a person feel included in society. If the stories being told of people who look like them are positive, then it reinforces positive views of themselves and what they can achieve in society. I can confirm that this is entirely true.

Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” was the first book I read that I felt was written for me; the protagonist was a black woman.  Like me, she had hair that defied gravity, and skin that glistened like fresh caramel during golden hour on a summer’s day. She knew many of the same challenges that I did, and she carried a small vial of Vaseline in her bag at all times because also like me, her mother had raised her properly. 

The most important thing about her though, was the fact that she fell in love. It was the kind of soft and passionate love that transcended distance and demanded to be felt no matter how much time had passed. I had never seen a black woman be at the centre of a thing like that. In the stories I read, that kind of romance only ever involved characters who didn’t look like me. Great stories—such as “The Notebook”—that everyone had read and secretly aspired to in the quiet places of their hearts only ever had white characters in them. 

Now it’s not as though that was enough to make me think I would never find love; but it did put limits on the kind of love I imagined possible for myself simply because I had never seen it. Many of the stories I read that involved black women were often centred around the “strong black woman” narrative and involved so much struggle. Thus, Adichie’s story gave me a chance to see something else. This was particularly important for me because I was entering adulthood at the time.

From then on, I made the conscious decision to read more stories that were written by black authors because I wanted to give myself what the literature of my childhood did not—the chance to see myself represented in art.

I have often thought about how my view of my blackness and the world around me might be different if I grew up as a minority. Growing up in an African country meant that I was not a minority during my formative years. So, even though I wasn’t represented in most of the media I consumed, I was adequately represented in daily life and this brought a sense of balance to my perception of self. The women on the street celebrated me and called my full lips the most beautiful thing they had ever seen; so I had no problem believing that my black was beautiful. The black women around me had already achieved incredible things, so it wasn’t difficult for me to see myself becoming anything I wanted to be. I am aware that not all children of colour have that luxury and that those who do not, will need to rely more on representation to fill in those gaps.

Representation—and proper representation—gives people the permission to imagine for themselves, things that they ordinarily might not. It improves the way we understand ourselves and the way others who are not like us understand us. Representation matters not just for children, but for adults too, because what else am I after all these years if not still a little girl at heart—a little girl with a vial of Vaseline in her bag at all times.

 

 Theresa Aduwari

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