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The importance of representation

When I write creatively, I write about white people. Not the same white person, sure: There’s the awkward misunderstood white person, or the rich white woman destined to solve crime or the hard working white man that robs a store at gunpoint. Sitting in a conference with my creative writing teacher, I told her I’m scared to write about things that I don’t know.

I fell in love with writing as I fell in love with books. I would read the Magic Tree House, Judy Bloom, Andrew Clements and Ann M. Martin during lunch, at recess, in my room when the lights were meant to be off. I told myself I would be a writer — that I could be a writer. On the covers of my second grade novels I’d draw a girl, using the peach shade crayon, and name her Grace. Or Lindsay or Abby or Charlotte. This is a girl I felt I knew. She was all around me, in my white school, in my white town. She was on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. She was on magazines and American Girl dolls. As I got older, this white wash became more apparent. Classical literature praises this peach-shade figment: Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina. These adventurous yet respectful white women — I eventually branched out to white men — became my muse.

Representation in the media is a constant source of controversy. For decades, award shows like the Oscars and Grammys have consistently overlooked the work of black artists. Black Panther is proving to be one of the most influential movies of our time with its assertion of black power both in its plot and cast. Many other films and TV shows released in the past few years have sought to provide representation for minority groups in the media. Representation isn’t just a nice way to appease complaining minorities. The media is a reflection of who America is and isn’t. America isn’t just white, and it never has been. When America looks into a mirror, the reflection is white, Christian, financially well-off. The picturesque American citizen.

I, along with so many people of color, write about white people because that is the only face the media deems as a full character. The complexity awarded to white Americans in the media is not seen in minority characters. There is no drive to explore the sassy black sidekick when there’s the multi-faceted white person. There is no incentive to explore minority characters when they exist to further stereotypes. I assumed this was normal. Fiction is about channeling something ideal or fantastical. In my childhood, the ideal was always white. Black people were side characters or villains. They were thugs or drug lords. They were never the hero. The media is partially responsible in the process of constructing what blackness and whiteness are, and in America, the furthering of racial stereotypes only helps justify racist actions. The fight for adequate representation isn’t a new thing. Amazing people have been advocating for cultural diversity in the media since before I was born. But there is more work that needs to be done.

We are in such a place where fundamental American thought can be shifted. Right now, minorities are starting to be listened to. Minorities have been yelling for decades at a country that doesn’t acknowledge us as part of its cultural makeup. Now there are more movies, TV shows, podcasts, models, activists that are beginning to be appreciated and listened to. This is the time. Children don’t have to write about peach-colored girls. The foundations created finally have room for some footing. By pushing for representation, we can change the way America is seen by Americans. When media is white, the stories of the marginalized, of racism, unfair housing, income inequality are never told. The media is a way to bring stories to life. The complexities of different races are not realized by most Americans because they are not visible to most Americans. The media is a pivotal start in forcing Americans to confront the harsh truth of our current political dynamic. Our media is silencing the voices of millions.

Representation is a vicious cycle. We write about what we see and what we experience. When all we study is white and all we see is white, all we create is white. I applaud the great authors and thinkers that have managed to test these boundaries, to push our current media and literature out of balance. They inspire young writers like me to explore the unseen characters, the traditional sidekicks, the never forgotten villains. They also encourage us to find characters in our own identity. We are encouraged to write characters with our strength and weaknesses and flaws.

Everyday, the media reassures us that America is white. Minorities are sidekicks or the help, the American Dream is alive and well, and racism is dead. Representation in the media means that America can finally see itself in all its multicultural, multiracial, beautiful self. Representation in the media means that America sees more to minorities than stereotypes. Representation can make disadvantaged groups become real people.  

Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Natachi Onwuamaegbu

Natachi Onwuamaegbu

Natachi Onwuamaegbu is a freshman from Bethesda, Maryland. She is currently undecided but is leaning towards Political Science and English. Currently, Natachi is part of the Black Student Union and hopes to run a radio station on campus. When she's not wandering around campus, Natachi likes to sit in the sun, listen to music and overuse semi-colons.