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. I 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. Aside from a Hispanic girl named Esmerelda and her family the only other non-black people I knew of in Malden was one white family. This was a culture shock for me to say the least.
When we arrived my mom immediately put my siblings and me into summer camp to get introduced to the local kids, and it was horrible. They all called me white and made fun of my proper grammar. They made fun of my lack of knowledge in what they deemed to be the most important black culture trivia. 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 here 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.
As I went through high school my identity was a little more skewed. I was more focused on my grades and college and the friends had been hanging with before weren’t into the same things. My new friends were more diverse, and the black people in the group were definitely in the minority. It didn’t seem to matter though. My identity was academic. Being black didn’t matter in the environment. It was only about forward motion.
When I got into college the cultural confliction seemed to come 10 fold. If you don’t know I attended the University of Tennessee. At the time of my freshman year, it was only about 10-15% minority. Everywhere I went I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. when I moved out on my own my roommates were all black and we shared so many #blackgirlmagic moments. I remember our first night after everyone moved in and we hung out laughing up late in our satin head wraps. It was such a moment for me.
College overall was a whirlwind of finding myself and what my blackness meant. During my freshman year, Obama was elected as president and the world and its climate was forever changed. This was the top and most elite place a black figure could be featured. As if we weren’t’ getting enough with Barack, we were also blessed with his beautiful, regal wife, Michelle. The Obamas gave us something we could all aspire to be. Watching Michelle execute her position with such poise and respect kept me glued to her every move. I could only hope to be that elegant one day. The part that really fascinated me was how she and her husband played such a distinguished role in the world without losing any of their culture.
As the Obamas went into their second term I was finishing up college and heading home. Though Michelle Obama was everywhere and black girl magic was on a rise there still just felt like something was missing. 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’ve gotten older and come more into my own, I’ve come to realize that representation can only go so far. Seeing people in positions that you would like to be in or in positions that inspire you is awesome but actually having these people in your life makes a world of difference. 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 about mentorship and research 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 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.
I have quite a few close friends with whom I share my biggest dreams and hardest battles. Sometimes though, it’s tough for them to understand what I’m going through or how certain things affect me. 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 makes a world of a difference. 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.