Representation is cool, but sometimes you need more
I am wholeheartedly a champion for representation. I know first hand how hard it is to envision yourself in spaces in which you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you. Younger me would watch shows like Clarissa Explains It All and movies like Mean Girls envious of the blonde hair center of attention. When I imagined what and who I wanted to be when I grew up it was a mom, a basketball player, or a hair stylist. That is what the women who looked like me were doing.
I’ve written about this before, but growing up I didn’t have many black friends. The year before I enrolled in middle school my mom, siblings, and I went to live with my grandmother in Malden, MO. If you’ve never heard of this city it’s because it’s in the middle of nowhere and set back about 10 years from the rest of the civilized world. There is almost nothing but dirt roads, Walmart closes at 10, and if you want to shop for clothes you have to drive about an hour to the nearest city.
When we arrived my mom immediately put me and my siblings into summer camp to get introduced to the local kids, and it was horrible. They all called me white and made fun of how I talked. I hadn’t seen their movies, I hadn’t listened to their music, and they made sure to let me know that those things meant that I didn’t fit in.
The longer I lived there the more I became like them. My blackness became tied to the music I listened to and the things I watched on TV. Black was slang, gelled down bangs, BET, and talking loud.
When we left Missouri and moved to Tennessee I found myself aligned with people similar to the ones I knew in Malden. I submerged myself in all things urban and hip-hop- talking down to anyone doing things I deemed to be “white.” My blackness was tied to being the blackest person around and never giving anyone the chance to call me white again.
When I got into college the cultural confliction came on 10 fold. Going to a PWI everywhere I went I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a total whirlwind of finding myself and what being black meant to me.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve had the honor of seeing phenomenal black women like Beyonce, Oprah, and Michelle Obama rise to levels of fame and success beyond my imagination. There were plenty of women who looked like me in positions I dreamt of filling, however, the gap was as wide as ever before.
As I got older and came more into my own, I began to realize that representation can only take you so far. Seeing people in positions that I wanted to be in or in positions that inspired me was awesome but I definitely was missing more tangible and relatable point of references.
We talk a lot on the blog about taking stock of the company you keep and building a tribe that will help you grow, but I don’t think we talk enough about seeking mentorship and successful women of color enough.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend an event put on by Blavity & 21 Ninety as a promo for their #EmpowerHer conference and it was eye-opening, to say the least. The event featured the Blavity CEO, Morgan DeBaun, and three of Nashville’s top black influencers: Jasmine Hockett-Sweet, Renee Watkins, and Kenya Raymer. This event was jam-packed with some of Nashville’s most hardworking and creative black business owners and entrepreneurs. The vibe in there was bananas. We shared struggles. We talked about our passion projects and exchanged business cards so that we could help each other be successful. It was nothing short of magical.
Being in that room really solidified the importance of having multidimensional black women in my life. I met doulas, writers, event planners, podcasters, PR pros, moms, marketers, engineers, and several other women living their best lives. Meeting women who looked like me in so many different positions and phases in their lives felt like black girl magic personified.
These women shared many of the same experiences and fears that I had. Speaking with them on these things made me feel normal yet powerful. Some of the things I feared would be my downfall, they showed me were only minor hurdles on my journey to the top. Their triumphs through tribulation encouraged me to stay faithful and work harder. I also got the chance to share my experiences with women who hadn’t reached my phase yet and offer them advice and encouragement. It was really such a beautiful thing. In a room full of strangers I felt so at home.
Adding these women to my tribe made me feel as though I am protected and supported all around. Being represented is step one, but having these major influences in my life really changes the game. If I give offer one piece of advice it would be to never stop seeking mentorship and sisterhood. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I truly believe that life takes a village. I am so appreciative to have attended this event and met these amazing women. Becoming connected with them has truly changed my life for the better and I know it will be long-lasting.