Representation Matters and This Is Why

“It’s just a picture. Right?”

At least, that is what I tried to rationalize over and over in my head one morning after opening an email from a popular online magazine — that will remain nameless — congratulating me on another published piece. I was making a big deal out of nothing again, wasn’t I?

After all, it was just a picture.

But something just didn’t feel quite right. And in my heart, I was not at peace.

I have always loved writing. Short stories. Poems. One of my life’s ambitions to this day is to publish a YA fiction novel and, of course, it will be featured on the NY Times Bestselling list (duh). When it comes to writing, I love creating personalities for my characters, developing their stories and designing the very essence of who they are. Anything that would allow me to create and bring to life the multi-dimensional characters and vivid worlds that lived in my head. And as a writer, in my opinion, there is nothing better than the feeling of hitting that “Publish” button and seeing your work live for others to see — and hopefully, relate to.

Early on in my writing journey, I would often write stories relating to my own experience as a teen, dealing with friendships, love interests, parents. You know — things your “average” teenager would face in their everyday life. But I too often left out the parts of my own black experience. Things like: sitting for what seemed like hours under a hairdryer while waiting for the stylist to finish another woman’s touch up, and the pain and sting as the relaxer settled on my scalp, not to mention the fact that, no I couldn’t hang out on Saturdays, because I was actually doing my hair — all day. Or how I felt different from my peers when my body was changing and I developed curves when most of my friends were still mostly flat-chested. Or the confusion I felt, constantly asking my mom why the white boys didn’t think I was cute or worthy of hair-pulling-crushes. All of these experiences were missing from the narrative.

Instead, I found myself writing about characters with rosy cheeks or freckles and light eyes. Girls with pale skin that contrasted against brown or blonde hair that flowed gracefully through the wind. And then one day, it finally hit me.

My characters look nothing like me!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the truth was that I was writing, as a black author, stories about phenotypically white characters.

Perhaps it was because of the predominately white culture I was immersed so deeply into throughout my young life. Or the fact that most of the books I read featured stories with mainly white protagonists — seeing as the selection of books showcasing the lives of relatable black teens and families was slim to none.

Maybe it was simply that I just didn’t have many examples to go off of.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to submit some of my work to the aforementioned online magazine — they post a few dozen articles everyday, written by other writers from all over the world. It was, at the time, a great platform to get my writing out there for the world to see and react to. One day, they published a piece of mine talking about 5 Ways to Encourage Yourself When You Feel Rejected — you can read it here.

Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag now.

The first thing I felt when I heard that it had been published was pure elation — success! Another piece published and out there for the whole, wide world to see. But when I clicked on the article link, that elated feeling quickly faded into one of utter disappointment.

It was all there. My thoughts. The encouraging advice. My tweetable, witty banter. All of it. But what graced the top of the article was what really hit me: it was a picture of a white woman.

I thought to myself that I shouldn’t be surprised as this had been my experience before — the same disappointed feeling struck me then, too. I mean, it’s not that big of a deal though, right?

But, I was the author of the piece, and I was, and will forever remain, black. And the woman in the big, hipster-esque looking picture staring back at me — was white.

C’mon, really? I thought to myself. Weren’t there any other generic, happy-go-lucky pictures out there featuring a 4C (or A or B) texture-haired person of color (POC)?

Then I thought to myself, is this a reflection of me or who I am or what I identify as? Shouldn’t it be?

My writing certainly was. And I wished the photograph could have been as well.

I did end up taking a look through the first 12 pages of ThoughtCatalog’s list of published pieces and, out of the 80 articles I saw, I only found two that pictured a POC as the featured image. TWO.

Whether the image was representing an article on mental health issues, love and relationships, experiences of your average twenty-something — they showcased white women and men. People of color were no where to be found (or at least, very hard to find).

In the end, I contacted the individual who published my piece, after spending about an hour or so drafting up a response while checking my emails at work. I voiced my concern. I shared my position and tried my best to make my point clear, that — I wasn’t trying to be nit-picky, but instead I hoped that ThoughtCatalog could make more of a concerted effort to be conscious when picking photos to represent the pieces they publish.

And more importantly, the writers that create them.

To some, maybe my concerns felt trivial or even insignificant. To me, this was yet another reminder of why I would continue to write and share my story, and why I’m still holding tightly onto that dream of becoming a published author.

We need to rewrite the narratives to be reflective of the experiences of more than one race or ethnic group. Or ability. Or gender.

Because I wish that when I was younger, there were more stories that mirrored my experience as a young, black girl, turned young woman.

Because, one day a little black or brown child will read my work and proudly think to themselves, “Hey…just like me!”

I really hope so.

This story was posted on An Injustice! A new publication geared towards the minority millennial voice. We are currently looking for more voices to add to our team. Check here for how to join!

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leighann blackwood, lmsw

Written by

social worker. aspiring radical doula. dog aficionado. a girl with a lot of words in her head and not enough space to store them.

An Injustice!

A new intersectional publication, geared towards voices, values, and identities!

leighann blackwood, lmsw

Written by

social worker. aspiring radical doula. dog aficionado. a girl with a lot of words in her head and not enough space to store them.

An Injustice!

A new intersectional publication, geared towards voices, values, and identities!

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