I want to preface this collection of thoughts with two important pieces of information:
- The intersectionality of humans encompasses all levels of identity: gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. I will be focusing on the experiences of women and girls of color, particularly African American women and girls, in the ensuing collection of thoughts.
- I am a white woman. I do understand the experience of being female, but have not lived the experience of being a person of color, nor will I pretend that I understand what this intersection is like.
From a young age, I remember that my version of the “ideal girl” was sweet, pretty, and smart. In the years of teenage-hood, this image continued to shift. This “ideal” would still be sweet, but popular. Pretty, but the outside mattered the most. Smart, but if a boy was around, it was cute to play ditzy.
The goal, for me at least, was to find my space in the world.
As I entered my freshman year at Baylor University, I still clung to these perceived female ideals, as I began my transition into womanhood. Thankfully, I signed up for a religion course with the most ambitious, passionate, and “woke” professor of my educational career. This strong female became a role model in my life, and now in my social work practice.
In this religion course, I was introduced to many new ideas and concepts. Our professor explored scripture, culture, and gender norms with us in ways that many of us from privileged backgrounds had never experienced. Two of the topics that struck me were feminism and race in American. This was my awakening.
The class was diverse. The discussions were rich and often difficult. Biases were checked, and the truth of what life is like for women and people of color unfolded before my naïve freshman self. Understanding the experience of women of color was new and powerful for me. I learned about women of color doing amazing and powerful work that was transforming lives. Let me share an example with you.
At the age of eleven, Marley Dias realized she could not relate to the books she read for school. As a lover of literature, Marley felt the texts offered in her educational setting only highlighted white boys (and their dogs). She decided that this representation was not fair to girls, particularly young black girls like herself. She began a movement titled 1,000 Black Girl Books. The requirement for the books to qualify? The main character must be a black girl! With the help of two of her best friends and the hashtag #1000BlackGirlBooks, Dias received over 10,000 book donations in which black girls were the protagonist. Once the books were collected, Dias donated them to communities across the United States all the way to Jamaica, where her mother is from.
“I am working to create a space where it feels easy to include and imagine Black girls and make Black girls like me the main characters of our lives. “
– Marley Dias
The question is, why does the work of this one teenage girl matter?
Because representation matters.
To be able to see yourself as the main character is empowering. It is a powerful (and necessary) experience to be shown that your skin is beautiful, and your value runs deep. If the stories of black women are excluded or diminished, there is an entire narrative missing. Their narrative is critical to seeing the full beauty of humanity, as is the narrative of humans of all intersections. To quiet one narrative is an injustice to the individual story and to the rest of humanity. We are missing the mark and missing out.
Oprah Winfrey puts it this way:
“We’ve got to keep telling our stories because our experiences are so broad and rich and multifaceted there is not just one way to be black. The more stories we share the more reflective we can be of the whole diverse African American community.”
Dias knew this as a young girl. Vibrant and full of passion, she is changing the way black girls and the way children of other races in America engage with literature. Young white boys, even white girls, have seen people that look like them in books, movies, and popular music. Children of color have not had the same representation. Thankfully, these books exist, but not to the magnitude they should, which means the good work of Marley Dias is not over.
This year, I am learning and growing as a social work intern at a school where about 99% of the students identify as African American or Black. I am able to learn from women and girls of color every day. From the spunkiest three-year olds to the brave eighth graders. From administrators with passion to the educators who have an overflow of wisdom. These women and girls are teaching me so much, especially about the ways I, as a person of privilege, have missed the mark and how we collectively, as women, are connected.
The goal for women, in my younger mind, was to find our space in the world, but this is not enough for women to simply find our space. Because, the truth is, we do not belong in one particular space.
Women and girls, particularly those of color should be seen in every space this world has to offer. They should be seen in politics, space, academia, medical, science and engineering fields. These women should take up space in Hollywood, and D.C. and corporate America, their faces and voices should have a place at the table.
I have learned in my time at my internship and through the stories of women and girls of color that the world is better when empowered people empower people. When I, and we all, engage with stories that are different from our own, collect books where characters offer diversity, listen to music and movies that come from different backgrounds – the world is better and bigger. We become better when we explore cultures different from our own and truly value the lived experiences of others.
As a person of power and privilege I have learned that I cannot simply claim to “speak for those without a voice”. We all have voices. I just have to find more ways to pass the microphone. And then listen. Women of color have good, powerful and relevant words to share, their narratives can and will make us and our world better.