Representation Matters: The Impact of Images of Women of Color in the Digital Age

By DeKiah N Baxter

Dear America,

The images of women of color (WOC) over time have changed dramatically. But our presence in media has a long way to go.

We have moved from women not being acknowledged at all, to being used as sex symbols for years, to finally getting representation, but only if they were white women. Today, we see women like Serena Williams, Kerry Washington, Amna Al Haddad, and Selena Gomez being the faces of some of the world’s biggest company advertisements, significantly those that are usually male dominated. This trend is encouraging. Even so, more is required. These images of women of color representation should not be a passing phase. We deserve, need and want more authentic and positive representation.

As consumers and leaders, and as more women step up and use their voices to effect change, unfettered supply and demand dynamics require society to pass a microphone and display more images, narratives and portraits that are authentic and accurate.  Approximately 8 out 10 women in the world are women of color.  In a few years, the WOC of my generation will claim a collective majority in the U.S.  Those seizing opportunity associated with the change will cultivate approaches that are culturally authentic.  To be successful, the authentic/accurate preservation of culture and narrative require more balanced, intentional and inclusive images of diverse women be created, published and shared in a digital age.

In a 2017 panel interview with Madame Noire, several single black women were interviewed about their experiences as black women living their daily lives, with a focus on the impact social media and men have on black women.  They were asked about the perceptions of natural hair in the workplace, resulting in a detailed explanation that ends with an “it’s my hair and I wear it how I want to”. From the outside, it would seem as if these women have a grudge, when, however, they understand the vital role they play in the narrative of black women and black girls. They see the value of displaying all styles, languages, and cultures in their careers because they see how vital it would be for their children and other young black women entering the field.

The images of women of color in media influence culture and society. For example, we see, whenever they do show us on camera, the consistent goal to show black women as “angry”, “dramatic”, and “attention-seeking”. However, when white men show those same characteristics, they are portrayed as “bold”, “passionate”, and “in touch with their emotions”. It’s interesting that Congresswoman Maxine Waters receives the popular narrative of an “angry black woman” behind everything she does, but when the POTUS Trump fires back with disrespect, it is not perceived negative in anyway by varying news outlets. While many could argue that America is better than that, I’d like to point out that every part of history President Trump refers to in his “Make America Great Again” rants refer to a point when America either held people in bondage (and that was 400 years), was discriminatory and racist toward a group of people, was at war with another country (or itself) or was in a form of economic crisis.

How people feel can encourage or discourage their development as a leader in this ever-changing world. It leads to less confidence to enter a field, therefore, less diversity in that field.  Although we shouldn’t still be in the stage of “firsts” (“first black”, “first Hispanic”, “first Asian”, etc.), we ARE. It is important that we acknowledge that there hasn’t been representation of every race in every field, and work to encourage young women to move into those spaces with confidence and faith in their hearts.

DeKiah Baxter
DeKiah Baxter, Miss Black South Carolina, Special Contributor, XXTRA Special and Free

As a woman of color, I love seeing myself represented in politics, advertisements, books, and all forms of media. I remember growing up and ever seeing a black baby doll on the shelves. I remember growing up and seeing one black girl in

a classroom on television never speaking up or always being the mean girl. I reflect on the times I watched the Cheetah Girls (all 3 movies of course), the first mainstream movie I saw featuring black women, Hispanic women, and Indian women as major roles in the cast. I always viewed my skin as beautiful but wondered why others didn’t seem to think the same. If I thought this, then I know I’m not the only one that noticed.

Since I am older now, I have seen so many of my childhood experiences not be passed on to generation Z.  I am excited to see all that is in store for them in the future. I know I cannot bring back all the wonderful memories I had as a child, but I can develop girls seeking guidance today into the best women they can be. They can be Maxine Waters. They can be Serena Williams. They can be Adrienne Bailon. They can be whoever and whatever they want to be. From my reign as Miss Black South Carolina 2018, I’ve come to love the impact I can have on young girls in my community. I know that the images they see do matter and I’m excited to become one of those images.

This article was written by DeKiah Baxter, a member of CELIE’s Inaugural Summer Congressional Internship program.  DeKiah attends Spelman College.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not attributable to XXTRA Special and Free.