The Heroes We Need

Women of color are finding it increasingly difficult to step forward and disrupt patterns of dysfunction–but these women are the heroes America needs.

An image one respondent brought in to our ZMET interview to represent her “thoughts and feelings about making an impact on the world.”

Now, more than ever, we need heroes.

As I stood on the TEDxPittsburgh stage in June delivering my talk on how women of color perceive themselves in a society where they face challenges such as misrepresentation and discrimination, I was naive to assume that the relevance of my topic had reached its peak.

As recent events mark a terrifying moment in American history, the impact they promise for women of color is especially concerning. Just as it seemed safe to believe that every young girl growing up in America had a much better shot at fulfilling her potential, oppressive cultural and political attitudes have risen to the surface and undermined that possibility.

My parents, who grew up somewhat financially disadvantaged, immigrated to America from China to raise my sister and I in hopes of giving us a more fruitful future. While my sister and I were fortunate enough to have been raised in both an ethnically and culturally diverse environment that was open and accepting of difference, even the most diverse of communities today are not safe from the explosion of blatant racism that has coincided with the rise of racial, cultural, and religious discrimination. The current sociopolitical climate has energized hate groups by igniting their animosity and normalizing the use of bigoted speech, thus threatening to silence and disempower women of color who may no longer feel that it is safe to give voice to their opinions.

This era, however, is even more damaging to the mental and social health of young women of color because it builds on and promotes their existing negative perceptions of their role in the world.

When we conducted sixteen one-on-one ZMET interviews with young women of color across the United States to better understand their thoughts and feelings about making an impact on the world, we found that as they awaken to their destiny, these young women of color frame their lives as the archetypal Hero’s Journey, with obstacles to navigate and monsters to slay. Their end goal is transformation — they have big dreams to change themselves, change others, and change the world.

Positive imagery associated with respondents’ “thoughts and feelings about making an impact on the world.”

To better illuminate and understand their deepest thoughts and their personal experiences as women of color in America, we asked these young women to bring in images that represented their thoughts and feelings through metaphor.

Photography and imagery communicate distinct narratives that are as unique as the individuals viewing it. When we look at an image, we interpret its contents using our own memories, experiences, and implicit beliefs and biases to formulate a story that gives the image a personal meaning. Our emotional experience of an image or photograph is determined by how much personal relevance we can make of the image — or the strength and meaning we co-create around the image. Thus, selecting images for our ZMET studies can be a very emotional and self-reflective process — albeit a subconscious one — which creates personal value in an image that may seem otherwise trivial to us. In turn, these images create a metaphorical lens through which we can better understand our respondents beyond spoken or written language.

Negative imagery associated with respondents’ “thoughts and feelings about making an impact on the world.”

While most of the imagery represented these young women’s feelings of empowerment and optimism in their ability to make an impact on the world, we were shocked to find such a stark contrast between the positive and negative imagery. Notice, for example, that the images above do not depict the whole self; rather, they show obscured faces and represent individuals who appear alone and isolated.

Though our respondents brought in a few images that depicted symbols of journey and transition consistent with aspects of the Hero’s Journey, what is beyond the horizon in the images is unclear. They cannot envision what their futures might look like — and that can perpetuate their anxieties and sense of defeat.

Symbols of journey and transition show an ambiguous or unclear outcome.

When we look at these images, we see a young woman who feels disconnected from herself and others, struggling to overcome obstacles that prevent her from reaching their full potential. These images are rich metaphors for the worlds these girls experience, offering clues that may not have been revealed in just plain conversation.

While there is undoubtedly a plethora of obstacles these young women of color face, one is a significant and persistent problem in our society — a lack of media representation and role models who share their racial and cultural background and affirm their lived experience and positive perceptions of self. Having characters or images we can relate to helps us better understand ourselves, and helps others be aware of, appreciate, and celebrate diversity. It is particularly crucial to see oneself reflected in the media in the face of prejudice. A face that looks like your own validates you as a human being; to see those like you love and be loved by others can be such a strongly emotional and powerful experience for individuals of marginalized groups who often face discrimination.

As we found in our research, however, the lack of representation in our society makes it difficult for young women of color to picture themselves overcoming the many obstacles that lie on the path to awakening their inner hero. To make it to the end of the journey, they need to be able to visualize their destiny.

In the context of today’s cultural and political climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for women of color to even recognize that they have the potential to make a difference; Donald Trump’s rise as president administered a dangerous shot of adrenaline to xenophobia and sexism — perpetuating hate, violence, and general disregard for many groups, including, but not limited to, young women of color. And though these young women can find solace in memes, we must encourage a more active — and perhaps aggressive — manner of “coping.”

As women of color are playing significant roles in shaping the direction of emerging social movements and struggles for the rights of minorities across the country, we need to help create a sustainable cultural narrative for young minority women who want to become leaders and visionaries in areas that, according to society, are “ill suited” for them. Our research offers implications and recommendations that reflect both the conscious and unconscious desires of these young women.

Many of us, including myself, are privileged. We must use our privilege to empower other women and to help them reach their full potential. As women in leadership roles, we must help one another and keep the movement to propel all women forward alive. We must build opportunities for dialogue and recourse, and create platforms through which women of color can share their personal stories. We must preserve and perpetuate the participation of women of color in both media and visible leadership roles. Through stronger positive media representation, we can help amplify the voices of young women of color, encourage them, and give them the strength they need to fully awaken their inner hero. We can demonstrate that we truly believe they can be heroes — not only of their own narratives, but for others, too.

Tweet from @womensmarch in response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA.

However, a hero, by herself, can only do so much saving.

It is important for us to keep in mind that women of color should not be expected to shoulder the burden of fixing the very system that tries to oppress them. As I reflect on the tweet above, I am reminded of one scene from Wonder Woman during which Diana asserts: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace of mankind. But then, I glimpsed at the darkness that lives within their light and I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat.”

As we struggle to fight the battles of our internal and external worlds, white women and other allies of women of color need to step in and use their privilege and access to not only help reduce the barriers that prevent us from succeeding, but also to confront, condemn, and educate against subtle and overt racial, cultural, and religious bias in their communities.

Dianna Feng is a Senior Insight Analyst at Olson Zaltman. You can watch her full TEDxPittsburgh talk, “Empowering Women of Color through Media Representations,” on YouTube here.