19: Representation / by LaQuann Dawson

Something I talk about daily and have been aching to write about is representation. What it is, what it means, where it is, where it is not. I'd like my experience to be taken for my personal reaction towards it and then the reason behind my reaction to be considered. 

I walked into work a few days ago and grabbed the newest issue of WWD, a fashion magazine my job is subscribed to, and noticed yet another cover, in the stack of 20 magazines, where no one looks like me. And to keep it transparent, I mean Black. I go through the stack of magazines to be sure I am mistaken and there is at least one Black person on the cover. To no avail. I flip through the magazine anyway and the entire inside is White as (h)well, with the exception of a photo of the Obama's with a "goodbye" caption. Oh, and Kanye West's show coverage on the same spread. So I should be happy, right? Sure, this magazine has had Black and Hispanic people on their covers before, I just have never seen them in person so this is not actually about the magazine itself. More so my frustration comes from wondering why I am so passionately thirsty to find myself in this magazine and in the world. It seems as though when I do find the representation I need I am excited and never fail to speak on it. I think had this been normal, seeing myself that is, I might become a little numb to it by now. Alas, I am not. I did not grow up seeing Black men all over magazines, at fashion week, in my favorite TV shows, in movies, in politics, on book shelves, in textbooks, at school, in ad campaigns, on billboards, or anywhere else but in my house and across the street.

You might think this would be an old issue since Obama was elected and we are so mainstream now. But it is not, not for me at least. After being oppressed and hidden for so long, it is internalized for me, and I am sure many others, to expect not to see myself as much and as well as I see the oppressor. When I talk about being underrepresented and misrepresented I hear a handful of go-tos. "What about Essence Magazine?" "BET?" "Black History Month?" - and those things I must say, make my argument a little bit stronger. It is disappointing and at a certain extent pitiful that we must start all of our own things, damn near exclusively for ourselves, so that we can be represented. What this does is create a divide, in my eyes. One that may even be unavoidable at this point. They don't want us on their TV shows so we make our own, they don't want us in the magazines so we make our own. They don't want us in their apartments so we start Inclusive (formerly niorbnb aka Black Airbnb). We even have our own tiny section in the bookstores and libraries. This sounds a lot like segregation and it should not be necessary and it should not come to this point in 2016. 

What being underrepresented for so long has done is condition me to feel as though whenever I am "properly" represented it is but a crumb of what I deserve. Or that it is out of pity or remorse. It makes me feel as though there is a certain quota or unwritten law (shit, written too) anymore that says "make sure there's a Black person in every photo on campus or else they'll get upset". I know that this exists and I have seen it. I have also seen the truth where there is not a "throw some Blacks in there" guy and they just forget about us all together. Schools that advertise a self proclaimed "diverse" campus with a video panning a room full of nothing-but-White artists. Do they not see the rest of us? Do they find nothing wrong with this image? Or is it normal because it is honest?

H&M recently released a beautiful ad campaign featuring women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, body types, ages, occupations, personalities, beliefs , and sexualities. It really was beautiful but being as conditioned as I am to question these things I can't help but think about the intentions behind this ad. I read some comments on the video and many question the plus size women who opened the ad wondering why she was in lingerie and not dressed, since H&M sells clothing primarily, not just undergarments. Many comments from those wondering why this beautiful woman would be used for this advertisement then when they go to the stores they won't carry sizes reflecting that of the model in the video. Is this ad just a ploy to get us into the stores or do they actually plan on being this all inclusive kind of brand? A brand with sizes past a 14. With employees who do not undermine real women and flinch at the idea of a plus sized woman, or a woman with hairy armpits? Will they regularly check their representatives? Will we see more racist tweets about how Black people do not give off a positive image? Even in south Africa? I saw comments questioning where the disabled women are. Of course, H&M can't throw every kind of woman possibly into this advertisement but the fact that there are people upset that they do not see themselves in this video, which is claimed to be the most inclusive H&M ad yet, proves my point exactly. This ad is lovely, H&M, but please do not pat yourselves on the back for creating something that should already be normal.

On the subject of plus sized people, I can only imagine how they must feel in this world. Seeing themselves so minimally and when they are seen, the light isn't always the most positive. Can you imagine how plus-sized women must feel? Or plus-sized Black women? Where are they in the magazines, in the ad campaigns, in the movies playing normal, non-demeaning, typical, or trope roles? What about disabled women? Or lesbians who aren't being unnecessarily sexualized? Gay men who are more than the "gay best friend". Gay movies that aren't just about sex. Black movies that aren't about slavery. We get so desperate looking for ourselves that we begin to accept the smallest things that might represent us. We get so hungry that we eat the crumbs just to satisfy ourselves a little bit. It shouldn't be that way and it is unfortunate that this is our reality. Pitiful that I have to flip through a magazine with high hopes and low expectations that I will see to see someone who represents me. Pitiful that I must expect to be left out of most mainstream art, media, and television. I can only imagine what countless others must feel. Pitiful that I feel like I am being fetishized or used when I do actually see myself. Because in my conditioned eyes I think that so many people rather just see a bunch of skinny White people in all of the ads. I appreciate those who do a good job at being inclusive and representing the real people in the world, but progress is slow. We should be well past being this excited about seeing a plus-sized model in a high profile ad. In a perfect world, this ad wouldn't deserve the press that it is getting. But here we are, in an imperfect, slow moving, judgmental society where seeing a few Black women, a chubby woman and a girl eating fries in bed is a gift

I think a lot about representation and in this moment I am realizing just how important it is and has always been to be able to see myself in so many parts of the world. When I was younger I played soccer and I can recall a time when we had to actually start trying out for the teams. I go to try outs and do fine, I look around and see that I am the only Black or Hispanic boy in the room. At that point I mentally figured that soccer wasn’t for Black people, at least not in my town, and I never went back.  I think about representation in this moment and I see my mother buying my baby sister all of the Black and Mexican barbies and dolls that she can. I think about representation and I wonder why I never get to see billboards with pictures of my beautiful Aunts on them. I think about the clubs in New York that I avoid because...where are the Black people? If I go in is someone going to call me a nigga? 

I have more questions than answers and more problems than solutions but I do hope that our society figures it out. How hurtful it is to be left out of the loop. How painful it is, long-term, to be told by a fucking store that sells panties for $3 what we are supposed to look like. I see my sometimes insecure mother, my friends who make jokes about themselves, and I see my little sister and what she is growing up around.

So many factors contribute to where we see ourselves fitting in this world, more than just magazines and billboards. Because at the end of the day, fuck fashion for a while. What about my professors and my high school and junior high teachers? Where are our Black and Hispanic educators? Where are our politicians? Where are the people who tell us that it is okay to be who we are. Our role models? Our mentors who are but a phone call away? The Tammy Davis' of the world who tell me I can do anything I want. The Jaden Smiths who tell me that it is okay to wear flowers in my hair or a skirt if I want. The Frank Oceans who tell us its okay to have feelings and feel broken hearted over a boy. The Yomi Sodes who say its okay to not be OK. The Princes who show us we can fuck up the world and be 5'2 and wear eyeliner and get any woman we want. The Miles Hodges who pour their hearts out on stage in the form of words and tears. The Lavern Coxes to give us life. The bell hooks who come to our defense. The Langston Hughes who tell our stories. 

We all have our influencers and we see ourselves where we can, but at the end of the day I believe it is important to represent yourself at a point and figure out how to get the rest of the world to catch up and get hip. I think back on my life and I think about how many times I didn't walk into a room because I wasn't already in the room. At a certain point we need to just be the first Black boy on the soccer team. The only old woman shopping in H&M. The first plus-sized person to audition to be the lead in a serious movie. The first disabled girl to show up at a model casting. The first short boy to walk in fashion week. The first Ghanaian to go to an EDM festival. The one girl to play football. The only guy in the nursing program. I regret the fear that I've had in my lifetime to shy from things that I told myself weren't meant for me because of what I see in society and the media. We are all so individual, different, beautiful, special and to reduce ourselves to what we see in the magazines is a disservice to the self. 

We are better than to call ourselves "coconuts" or "Oreos" because we like things that the world has told us were only for White people. That we have told ourselves were only for White people. We should shop where we want to, young people do not own every thing just because they're the ones on the posters . Representation, misrepresentation and underrepresentation are damaging factors that contribute largely to low self esteem, not living one's fullest life and the questioning of one's worth. Society pulls and pushes us in different directions telling us who, what and where we should be. At the end of the day it is important that we ultimately do our own thing and do it with some sort of confidence. I've learned that we aren't always going to have role models or visible heroes who hold our hands to let us know that who we are is okay.  We need to be that for ourselves and for other people. Being comfortable with yourself is contagious. 

Stay lit, love yourself (per usual), be patient with yourself, people and society too. Thanks for reading and apologies for this long jumblefuck of a rant. 

Oh, and I wanted to thank society19.com for featuring my blog on their website. What an honor. See the full list here: Society19

- Lackwhen

 

 

Posted in ,