Why Minority Representation in Media Is Good for White People, Too.

Hey, fellow white people. There’s a lot of discussion about how important representation of minorities is in the media right now. From Black Panther, to A Wrinkle In Time‘s multi-racial family, to lingering discussions about how many of America’s most popular shows are really, really white, I get that it can feel like the message is, “We’d really like to see a whole lot less of people like you.” And I get that that, when interpreted that way, that doesn’t feel great. But I want to tell you why minority representation in media is actually really good for you, too.

Do you know what “edges” are? It’s a term I’m not sure I’d really heard before a few weeks ago. In an ad for her HBO show, Two Dope Queens, Jessica Williams mentions that her white boyfriend told her “Your edges look really nice”. She joked that that is the nicest thing a white man can say to a black woman he’s dating. From context, I got that it was something to do with hair, but I wasn’t sure what and I was too lazy to Google.

a princess in theoryThen, a few days ago, I picked up Alyssa Cole‘s A Princess in Theory (which I definitely recommend if you want a light, charming romance that is kind of like an updated Coming to America with a hint of afrofuturism). The characters are almost entirely African or African-American, so the logistics of black hair care came up fairly frequently. Things like a character oiling her hair before a date, or a character putting on a headscarf to sleep in. These are entirely foreign hair care concepts to me, as a person with straight, smooth hair (about 90% of my hair care regimen is about removing oil from my hair).

And then there was the discussion of edges. One character’s “edges are flourishing”. Another character’s distraction over having her heart broken can be tracked by how unkempt her edges become. I finally had to look up what “edges” are–they’re the small hairs that grow along the hairline which can be particularly vulnerable to breakage, and they require their own maintenance.

There might be a person or two of color who reading this and rolling her eyes. After all, it’s not like “edges” are a new or obscure concept, and here I am, a 36 year old American woman, finally bothering to take the three minutes to look them up. She may view me as foolish.

She’s not wrong. And that’s the thing about ignorance, whether that ignorance is intentional or not: it makes you look foolish. Who wants to look foolish? Not me, certainly, and probably not you, either. But the fact is that the books I’ve read and the television shows and movies I’ve watched–and that are marketed to me and people like me–don’t include information like that.

Think about what you know about how white women care for their hair. You probably know a lot, even if you aren’t yourself a white woman. Maybe your mother was a white woman and you saw what she did to get herself ready in the morning. But you’ve also seen a million shampoo and hair dye commercials featuring women. You’ve seen scenes on television and in movies where (white) women do their hair. You’ve read novels where (white) women get their hair done.

How many times have you seen a shampoo or hair dye ad that featured a black woman? How many times have you seen a scene in a television show where a black woman does her hair? How many ads have you seen for hair care products specifically for black people? Probably pretty close to zero, right?

Let’s think about something else: even if you’re not Jewish, you probably know what Bar Mitzvah is. You know what the word tuchus is slang for. Maybe you know what a cantor or a mezuzah are. You certainly know that the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday.

What day to Muslims go to the mosque?

If you don’t know but knew a lot of the stuff in the previous paragraph despite not being Jewish or having Jewish friends, there’s a good reason: a lot of writers are Jewish. That’s not some “Jews control the media” bullshit (writers in Hollywood control jack shit)–but the representation of people who are religiously and/or ethnically Jewish means that the details of life as a Jewish person in America wind up on screen and in print pretty frequently. That’s great! But the lack of writers of Muslim faith means that authentic portrayals of the lives of people of the Muslim faith don’t show up very often. And that’s not great. Because, again, it leaves us ignorant, and that makes us seem (and often act) foolish.

It might not always feel like it but we, as white people, need more black writers, more Muslim writers, more Hispanic writers, more Asian writers, more Native writers. We need more gay or trans or bi directors, more directors of color, more female directors. We even (especially) need more minorities working as hair stylists and makeup artists and costume designers and prop department employees and set dressers matter. People bring their lived experiences to their work in the arts, and the more variety of lived experiences the more vibrant and valuable the art.

Stories are important. There’s a reason every single culture has story telling traditions of one kind or another. It’s how we teach each other about the world, about people who aren’t us. Whose stories we choose to tell communicate who matters in a society, and a history of declining to tell the stories of people of color has had a negative effect for all of us.

I’m not so naive as to think that making an effort to tell the stories of black Americans in a more authentic way will fix racism (if we’ve learned anything from the last few years it’s that a shocking number of people still proudly hold old-school racist ideas). But for those of us white folks who have been rendered clueless by swimming in a media environment that only reflects our lives back to us, more representation of minorities can only be a positive. It won’t stop us from saying awkward or unfortunate or insensitive things (saying awkward and unfortunate and insensitive things is part of the human condition). But it might make it less likely that we’ll say unintentionally racist things. And that is all to the good.

So embrace it. Celebrate it. Enjoy Black Panther for being a fun superhero movie just like any that features an almost entirely white cast (i.e. basically every single other superhero movie). Trust me, you’ll be smarter and better rounded for it.

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