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Why Representation Matters to Black Lives

Being the “only” in a sea of majorities is not a new feeling to me. Sometimes I go back and forth between feeling grateful and perplexed by those experiences, like waves both embracing yet dodging the shore. In the second grade, my teacher spoke to my mom about getting me tested as “gifted.” Until high school, one day each week, I would go to the “gifted center,” where various children from other public schools around the city of Pittsburgh went for enrichment experiences that challenged their intellectual capabilities. In hindsight, I was exposed to information and culture in a way that most of my peers weren’t, and I didn’t truly take advantage of that. I hated going. Most of my friends weren’t there, and even more isolating was that most kids didn’t look like me either. I remember sitting by the window on the school bus ride to the “gifted” center, and my anxiety was higher than the seat in front of me. The bus ride back to my home school was the best part of those days for me.

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After my time at the gifted center ended, the trend manifested. It manifested into gifted classes in high school (my Spanish teacher in ninth grade asked me if I belonged in the gifted class when I walked in the first day), and then in a University of Pennsylvania graduate program with mostly white students. It even followed me to my first job out of graduate school at a private drug and alcohol center where I was the only clinician of color in a more extensive staff of — well, I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now. 

When I saw Kamala Harris being sworn in as Vice President and Amanda Gorman reciting words of progress and perseverance, I felt something challenging to put to words. I felt what seven-year-old me wanted to feel — like it mattered to be a minority in a space where not many others look like you. I felt seen. I finally felt like, whether you are a little girl in Pittsburgh taking “gifted” classes or Madam Vice President, your representation says far more about you than it does about all of the white faces looking back at you. Honestly, I didn’t always know why I kept giving in to taking advanced courses or why I ended up at an Ivy Leave for graduate school. Sometimes, I felt like I suffered in the moment. Presently, I know that I not only deserved to be in those spaces but that I earned my spot.

So how else does representation have power?

Representation proves that you and I can do anything.

I never had a burning desire or plan to ever go to an Ivy League. I loved diversity and art too much to feel claustrophobic. That’s how I always imagined I’d feel at an Ivy League — like I couldn’t breathe. Then I grew up and found myself on the path of wanting to pursue social work on a clinical level. I was finishing my degree in Temple University’s bachelor of social work program, and I wasn’t ready to leave Philly. Philly was home now, and that home still had plenty of room for me to grow, not to mention a dire need for people with my skill set. When I found out that the University of Pennsylvania had one of the top graduate social work programs in the country, I decided to apply. I truly never expected to get in. I thought about the other candidates with their intellect, drive, work experience, and money. I felt an overwhelming amount of self-doubt. Yet somehow, out of thousands and thousands of candidates worldwide, I was one of two hundred-ish selected. When I got the acceptance letter, I worked as a hostess at a bar, and I remember running into the bathroom and just squealing. I stared at my reflection in the mirror and knew that I was willing to take another ride into feelings of loneliness and imposition. 

Regardless of how I got there, I did. Getting accepted into that graduate program proved to me, without a reasonable doubt, that I am capable of absolutely anything. And that is not a subjective statement — you, dear reader, are capable of absolutely anything and more.

Representation reiterates that hard work is important and necessary to get anywhere close to your dreams.

Capability, however, is to be followed with laborious hard work. Truth be told, the work is hard, but the sacrifice is probably more demanding. My mom said that I’m always going to have to work twice as hard to prove myself as my white counterpart. She told me that meant I didn’t get to goof off in school or on the bus (don’t tell her that I did the latter). And in true mom fashion, she was all too correct. That lesson that many black children are taught carries onward into adulthood, where executives replace teachers and stacks of expenses replace books. Disregarding the specific environment, being black is a job within itself if you live in the United States. For a country that is so unified, we have always been treated and viewed as second-class citizens. From where I stand, I believe that generally will not change. Your dreams matter as much as anyone else’s dream — don’t they deserve the sheer best that you can give?

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Representation contributes to a more positive self-concept and higher self-esteem.

By definition, self-concept is our self-constructed, individual perception of our characteristics, behaviors, personality — all of what makes us who we are. Our self-concept is also influenced by what others think of us and how others perceive us. In other words, self-concept is what we think of ourselves personally and socially. Research shows that quality depictions of race/ethnicity can promote positive outcomes for those who identify as such, one of those being higher self-esteem. How you see yourself links to how you value yourself. If you are a black child and you’ve never seen someone on television or in books who looks like you in roles of power or decision-making, maybe you start to believe that people like you aren’t supposed to be in those roles. Perhaps you begin to believe that it’s deeper than not supposed to be and think that you can’t or that you don’t deserve to — that is self-esteem. In Barack Obama’s latest book, A Promised Land, an elementary school teacher told him that after the 2008 election, some of her students of color who were at risk of failing worked harder from that point on. All that I can imagine is what Kamala Harris’s victory represents for young black girls and how their self-concept and self-esteem could bloom into something breathtaking.

Representation forces the majority to question the way the “norm” is perceived.

Just as more and accurate representations of black people impact black children, those representations also impact white people. There can be a shift in the way black people are thought about and characterized. Particular profiles of people create images and concepts around who is valuable, a contributor to society, deserves resources, etc. When someone like Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, or Stacey Abrams makes headlines in a positively wondrous way, norms start to scatter on the floor. Their presence forces the majority to ponder on their previous absence and small proportion. We who identify as black already knew that we are not small but short in opportunity, scarce in resources and wealth. The world cannot unsee the next four years. Not only do they know what is possible, but they have seen it.

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I Am Not Your Negro.

If you have black or brown skin, you are living, generational proof that absolutely anything can be achieved by the human race. You, me, we are the origin.

“The world is not white, it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing a Chase Manhattan bank…. But, the Negro in this country, the future of the Negro in this country, is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of this country. It is entirely up to the American people. Whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger they maligned so long.” – James Baldwin, 1963.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here