I want to start off this one by telling you all a story about how I was writing a story and I was telling my mom about it.
So a when I was like 8 or 9 I was writing this story about two twin princesses that rules a kingdom together and let me tell you I was into writing this story. I was about twenty to thirty pages deep which was pretty intense for someone my age and I was super proud of this story. I would show my mom pages and tell her about all the plans that I had for the story. The plot was all over the place but my mom was happy because I was invested in something I liked and it was productive so she was super supportive.
One day I was telling her about the princesses and I was so happy to share with her everything about the story. And then something my mom said caught me.
“Oh and these princesses are gonna be beautiful right? You’re going to write about the braids they wear and how pretty their black skin is!”
My mind froze. Lead was literally stuck in my throat and I couldn’t say anything because guess what? My princesses weren’t black. My princesses were blonde and brunette with blue and green eyes and lily white skin. That night I just smiled to my mother and told her of course, but I honestly felt at lost at what my mother just suggested.
For a while I struggled with the thought of black people, people who looked like me, being in any type of fantasy world because I had never read a book with black people in the fantasy world. Elves, princesses, knights, kings, magicians, witches, everyone was white so when I tried my hand at writing fantasy that was all I wrote about. And when my mother finally mentioned that she imagined them as black she pointed out to me that this lack of representation shouldn’t be normal. Why in a world as nuanced and diverse as a fantasy world can a dragon exist and a black king cannot? Why was I, a black girl, completely excluded from the story altogether? Why didn’t I exist?
I tore at me, the genre I love never seemed to love me back. I could never see myself as a princess or a mage or anything because I was never part of the narrative. And this means a lot to me now because of my little cousin who is struggling with the color of her skin when she’s only in the 1st grade. Yeah she might have grown up watching the Princess and the Frog but the movie barely even showed the Tiana as a human for 45 mins.
And this isn’t only a problem for black people. Arabic, Latinx, and Asian communities are lack representation too. Never seeing yourself in something that you love is heartbreaking because it sends the message that you can love it all you want but you can never be a part of it; it sends the message that you will always be a passive participant, you can look, you can appreciate but you can never ever join in on the fun.
And I and many others are trying to fight this. I’m trying to write main characters that look like and live the same life like me, but this isn’t something that only I and many others should deal with. The industries that market and produce content should change too. Pushing this “White is Right” rhetoric through advertisements, books, and movies should stop.
“But,” the opposition will say, “they use black people in ads, movies and books! They aren’t racist!”
Yeah sure they do, but here’s the problem with when they do use any type of minority in any media we consume: they always look Eurocentric. Always in ads that black people are smiling at me with their pearly white teeth, they are always light skinned, they never have my big nose, and they are never wearing the braids that I and many in my family wear proudly. They don’t look like me and that is a cultural and industrial fault. We don’t embrace the cultures and looks of others. We don’t let everyone say their piece.
No one should feel excluded from something that should have been open to them in the first place. No one should be excluded and wonder if that space is even open to them.
(Chimamanda Adichie gives an excellent TED Talk on this! The Dangers of a Single Story Watch this and hear how she dealt with lack of representation.)