As a kid, Disney Channel's Raven Baxter (played by Raven-Symone) on That's So Raven meant the world to me. A black girl who wasn't only popular, well-dressed, and academically successful--but magic. The idea that someone who looked liked me, with a family that looked liked mine, could excel in both the tangible and the supernatural made me fall in love with the television show. I could see myself in Raven, in a way I couldn't see myself in any other show on the channel. She was real. She was relatable. She was representative.
I've always--subconsciously and purposely--sought out the people of color in films and on television. I've watched an entire series from pilot to finale only to count the amount of token characters of color on the fingers of one hand. These characters are usually static and flat. Their role is not to add to or take from the plot. Their role is to "diversify" the cast. I encourage you to visit the blog linked here, EVERY SINGLE WORD, which puts together clips from movies featuring every single word spoken by a character of color in a movie or series. Many compilations last no longer than 20 seconds.
When black characters are not insignificant tokens, they often embody detrimental stereotypes of the "thug" or the "angry black woman." Often the character of color is either filling space or fulfilling harmful, negative images.
So let's get to the point. Why is representation important?
First, we should highlight the problem. A straightforward explanation was offered by Wake Magazine:
"The lack of racial diversity in media is rampant. According to the New York Film Academy, only 12.4 percent of speaking characters from the 2007-2012 top 500 grossing films were portrayed by black actors, while 75.8 percent of these roles were portrayed by white characters. In fact, 40 percent of the top 100 grossing films from 2012 showed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast."
Having characters we can relate to is important, as it often helps us grasp an understanding of ourselves. Media offers viewers a reflection of themselves, and a peek into the world of others. Having dynamic, round characters of color not only gives a diverse audience a chance to see themselves, but also gives the white audience a chance to see beyond stereotypes they've learned. The same is true vice versa.
Of course the lack of representation extends beyond race. An unsubstantial amount of representation of races, religions, sexes, genders, sexualities, body types, etc. leaves out the stories of millions.
"Without equal representation, there are people who are not feeling heard or seen. In a nation and world as diverse and complex as ours, the last thing we want is to lose the stories of a large portion of our people (Wake Magazine)."
This is why people were annoyed with the 2015 Oscars being the whitest since 1998. This is why Viola Davis's Emmy win meant so much. This is why magazines like Ebony and stations like BET have to exist. This is why having a black girl play the role of Annie mattered. This is why the black community made it a point to see a Star Wars with a black man as the leading actor. This is why women like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay rule our world.
This representation is meaningful even outside of the realm of media. Barbie dolls of color are important as a beauty standard and message of validation. Black people like President Obama, in positions of power, are important as a symbols of success and possibility.
Under-representation is dangerous, as it leads to misunderstanding and isolation. It is time for media and melanin to finally merge.