Now Reading: How the Lack of Representation In Media Affected Me As a Child


How the Lack of Representation In Media Affected Me As a Child

March 19, 20188 min read

I remember being a little girl sitting in my Sunday school class with loose-leaf, white coloring pages sitting in front of me, crayons in hand. They were always scenes from whatever passage we happened to be studying that week. I would do my best to stay inside the lines. When I colored my pictures I wanted them to be beautiful, so I would color my trees such a deep green that I would get lost in it; there would be hints of a lighter green throughout the leaves, because I wanted so badly to capture the beauty I saw, when I looked at the trees outside my window.

I would color the sky such a dreamy blue with purple and gold clouds hanging in a way that made them appear so inviting — I convinced myself that one day I would be able to wrap myself up in those clouds. Then when I would get to the small people in the picture, I wouldn’t hesitate to grab the crayon titled “flesh” — a color that had such a radiant pink a fair tone. A color I believed represented the beauty I wanted to create with this picture.

The color brown never went toward the people I would color; I was convinced that the color brown was ugly and had been reassured from my classmates that it was true.

I would watch, as they never brought a brown crayon toward their white coloring pages — they wouldn’t dare stain them with an boring, ugly brown.

I spent half my childhood in a church, where my family was the only black family in the church. When I attended an organized school for the first time at 8-years-old, in the third grade, I realized that I was one of six students in the entire school who were black. At the time this did not bother me; I was used to not seeing people like me. As I grew older and reflected upon how I looked at myself and black people around me, I realized that this all had been the beginning of a journey toward self-hatred.

I do remember not being able to look in the mirror most days growing up.

On other days, in which I could allow myself to do so, I would stand there and dream about having long, blonde, straight hair. I would wish for the radiant, fair skin I colored in all of my Sunday School pictures.

I also remember looking at my siblings and relatives, who had much darker skin than I did, and I was so thankful that my skin was not as a dark as theirs, all while praying for lighter skin. It makes me sick and embarrassed to think about it even now.

There was one Halloween, when I wanted so badly to be Hannah Montana. I was supposed to borrow and wear my friend’s blonde wig with the costume I’d put together for our church’s Halloween party. She ended up forgetting the wig, and I was disappointed. I wasn’t going to be the pretty blonde I imagined I would get to be that night. My friend told me not to worry about it. You see, the outfit I was wearing was very “early pop star Disney,” so really I could have called myself any character that was on Disney Channel at that point.

My friend told me, “You can just tell everyone that you’re Raven instead.” That crushed me even more — why would I want to be Raven? I’m stuck being black everyday already. I still cannot believe that I was 8 or 9-years-old with this hateful mentality toward myself.

Being black was something I could not change, and I could not accept that. The representation within media did not help that — if anything, it was what fueled it.

I was raised for most of my childhood by my aunt and grandmother. Black culture was something that was celebrated in our household; my aunt always doing her best to teach us the greatness in being black and the importance of celebrating our achievements as black people. I was always turned off to this. It had to a lot with not wanting to hear the suffering of our ancestors, but also, it wasn’t the history that represented whatever beauty and righteousness I saw in being white. It wasn’t the history I wanted to represent me. These thoughts or feelings that I had were never really vocalized — they were just always internal, mental battles I dealt with.

I would oftentimes watch movies and TV shows with white characters, because that’s just what happened to be on and popular. They were the cool, fun, beautiful, quirky and redeeming characters I wanted so desperately to relate to. In middle school, I googled images of “a beautiful woman,” because I wanted to be a beautiful woman. The search results came back with a flood of white women with straight, long hair and pearly white smiles. The faces of European beauty. Not a black woman in sight. I tore myself apart.

When I looked in the mirror, my reflection was not who I wanted to see. Her skin was too dark, her body too curvy and her hair too nappy.

Now I know that I am not the only little black girl or boy who struggled with finding their identity in a sea full of whitewashed media. Whether it’s books, movies, TV shows, music videos, etc., kids look to media, and they see who is treated “better.”

They see who gets the higher leg to stand on, who is painted as a villain. They see whose beauty is adorned. This is why movies like Black Panther, which gives black children a mainstream black superhero, who they can emulate, are so important. Or teen sitcoms like Grown-ish, which are able to show that young teens/adults can have the same gut-wrenching, quirky coming-of-age story as Carrie Bradshaw or the next white girl or guy.

We are in a time where PoC are beginning to get the representation that is deserved, and I am nothing but here for it. I would never want to see a child of color grow up with the same kind of internalized-hatred that I learned from absorbing the media around me.

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Kayla Starks

20 year fighter, chasing visions of her future