There weren’t a lot of people in the media that looked like me growing up. I remember the characters that came closest to looking like me came from the cartoons that I would watch, like Penny from “The Proud Family” and Alex from “Totally Spies.” At the time, I don’t think that I consciously focused on how there wasn’t a lot of representation in the media, but I do remember not having a lot of role models because I didn’t feel as intensely connected to them. Looking back at it now, I can see why my friends wanted to emulate celebrity role models like 4/5ths of the Spice Girls and Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus- it was easy for them to relate to these people because my friends could easily make themselves look like them. It was easy for them to look like their favorite Disney princess and I knew that I could never pass as Ariel. My sister has darker skin than I do and I know that her choice of role models that looked like her was even smaller than mine. I don’t think that it ever bothered me too much when I was younger, but now that I can look and see little girls so happy to have American Girl dolls that look exactly like them or being able to dress up like Tiana or Mulan, I don’t want for any child to ever have to feel even slightly bothered by the lack of diversity that they see in their lives.
In first grade, we learned that Squanto was a friend of the Pilgrims. In 11th grade, we learned that even though the Pilgrims might have not killed Squanto, they sure as hell wiped out nearly an entire race of people. We learned about all of the countries in the world, but we never talked about the diverse makeup of the population of our own country. We never talked much about diversity in school, but my parents always made sure to teach my siblings and I about what all was going on in the world. We were taught that deep inside, people throughout the world are all the same, but that we all experience life differently. Just because someone did not live the same way or look the same way that we did, it did not mean that their life was wrong in any way. So while I may have lacked learning about people who looked like me in school, I was fortunate enough to know that I wasn’t the only person in the world that looked like how I did. I think that this helped me work around the lack of representation because I’d learned enough about the world to know that these marginalized communities existed and that it wasn’t just one group that was being silenced. I knew that if enough people all felt the same way then they would soon find a voice for themselves that the rest of the world would hear.
When I was little, some of the kids that I went to school with would ask me if my sister and I had the same father because her skin is darker than mine. Even though I’ve always lived in the United States, my first name is Samaria, and so I sometimes get the “oh, where are you from? Are your parents from here? Are you a citizen? What’s your first language?” kinds of questions. Recently, people have been more hesitant before asking me those things because I think that they’re learning that it’s not very polite to go full scale police investigation on someone that you just met in the supermarket.
And I don’t think that I’ve ever necessarily been offended by people asking me these questions, but it bothers me that it’s usually the people that I barely know that jump straight into these questions. Like, maybe try and get to know me as a person first before you ask for information that doesn’t concern you.
I think that the first time I really stopped to think about the importance of representation in the media was when Disney announced the release of ‘Moana.’ In the United States, a lot of underrepresented cultures are gaining platforms to spread their messages, but I’ve never seen much of anything in the news about the nations of the Pacific. People of color make up the majority of the world and have the ability to use their gifts to reach many people. Representation is encouraging because it shows solidarity within communities. It lets people know that you exist as a person and that your culture is important enough to be talked about. The world is a large place filled with many different types of people, so there is no excuse for the same anglicized narrative to repeatedly be the only one that is heard. Just because people don’t currently know about you, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t know about you. POC currently lack representation in the Western media. It’s discouraging to try and enter a field where you feel as though no one can relate to your experiences, but there are people out there who can connect with you. I know that in the future, people of all races, genders, sexual identities, and mental and physical abilities will have a way to voice their opinions and be heard. I think that the future starts with this generation.