The Grind

So this is what representation feels like…

April 7, 2022, 9:15 p.m.

For me, I often feel this weird sensation when I’m first represented in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s as if a spotlight has been cast upon my current existence telling me, “Hey! I see you. And your life experiences — they are seen, they matter and they are a part of this world too.”

Whether it’s seeing Stanford students in the Olympics, TV shows mentioning my hometown Fresno or  someone who looks like me at my Oxford college (I was studying abroad), seeing certain aspects of myself represented often creates a warm feeling of belonging, as if I can look into the world and into the mirror and see the same thing.

Recently, I was reading the Webtoon comic LMLY, when I fell in love with its art style and positive representation. One of the main characters, Sofia, was “Black,” but not in the way I was used to seeing on the platform. Her being there wasn’t spectacular — but how she was there was.

Rather than be relegated to an underdeveloped, advice-giving secondary character, she was the main character and love interest. Her unapologetically Afrocentric features — full lips, curious eyes, bulbous nose, rich brown skin and dense hair — were presented admirably and perceived as pretty by many in the story. Rather than magically have straight hair, she wore bonnets to bed and spent time on twist outs.

Sometimes, I get the impression that people think we have naturally straight hair. And I don’t blame them. But that depiction can reflect a lack of understanding that can undermine feelings of representation. It can feel as if being “Black” is reduced to a mere skin color, when it also entails features such as sun- and lotion-loving skin and naturally coily hair, in addition to the cultural aspects. I suppose the term “Black” lends itself to that, technically being just a color, but that’s a discussion for another time…

Anyway, with this comic, the representation wasn’t just surface level but went deeper. Personally, that meant a lot.

I remember reading the Webtoon shortly before heading to bed, and there was this scene where Sofia was wrapping her hair with a bonnet. I quickly got up, looked in the mirror and did a little squeal. I wanted to put on my bonnet and shout: That’s me!

I promptly took some screenshots of the characters and sent it out to my West African friend who also reads Webtoons. As I sent the pics, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this what positive representation feels like?” I have seen disheartening conversations online about people dissing Afrocentric features, and seeing this comic boosted faith that people can see the beauty in them. And it’s not that I’d never seen representation like this, but up until this point, I had never seen such representation in my comics.

Suddenly, I felt another emotion: annoyance. Why was I so happy to just see a character in a comic? Why was I so happy just to see a bonnet? On the one hand, it was great, but on the other it highlighted the problem of underrepresentation. Why should I be so happy to see something that should be so normal? Despite centuries of inhabiting the U.S., African-American/“Black” representation has been scant. But at the same time I felt ungrateful. Why would I be upset at something so wonderful? I concluded that it was a step in the right direction, but still indicated that there was much progress to be made.

I would also like to note that there was another character with black and pink braids (love that) who was more richly melanated than Sofia, so to speak, who did serve as an advice-giving secondary character. She is not even named; she just sits down at a cafe, sips tea and gives the main character advice. So far, she has only been in one episode out of 20, so who is to say how her character plays out? Still, this is important not because it’s a problem with the individual comic, but because it gives in to a wider trend of colorism.

It’s one thing for one comic or form of media here or there to happen to follow this trend, but when one sees this — characters of darker complexion being relegated to the side over others — over and over and over and over again, it sends a message that this is the way of the world. It says, “If you look like this, you are not the main character. You are permanently a side character, meant to aid the main ones in their hero’s journey without complaint nor thanks.” So this is what representation feels like, you tell yourself as you watch representations of yourself perpetually be side characters.

Humans are trained to see patterns, even if not explicitly stated. I will admit, though, that in the Webtoons I read, it’s not like there is no main character representation of “Black” characters (women especially) with darker complexions. It’s just that they are often abstracted to the point where the only thing that makes them “Black” is their skin color; they are removed from any physical, cultural or social elements that come with it. So for me, similarly to the aforementioned annoyance, LMLY represents a step in the right direction, but still indicates that progress needs to be made, not with the individual comic, but on a wider scale; it’s a systemic issue. Still, with both characters, I feel a strong sense of representation.

Nonetheless, the comic reminded me of the textbook illustration of the “Black” pregnant woman and fetus that went viral this year. The image was created by Nigerian artist Chidiebere Ibe, a medical student who creates diverse textbook illustrations that are accurate on rich brown skin. Seeing the illustration was amazing, but also worrying. As a news reporter said about the illustration, “You know, you don’t realize that you haven’t seen it until somebody shows you [it].” Indeed, you don’t realize the lack of representation until the solution is presented right before your eyes. I wondered how many other problems were like this — invisible until some insightful creative saw an innovative solution, ushering society into a new normal.

As a child, you don’t realize that what is presented as the default to you is not necessarily a default — and as a budding adult, that realization is powerful. I know more representation is coming. I feel the wave of it simply waiting to be unearthed, poured into the mainstream and diffused into society’s public consciousness, recycled and reused as sources of cultural inspiration.

In the meantime, I seek these things out. Recently, my Instagram algorithm has caught on to my tricks. It exposed me to three short children’s poetry books — called Curls, Glow and Boom — about Afrocentric hair, as well as children’s literature on African history such as Idia of the Benin Kingdom and Njinga of Ndongo.

African history, especially West African history, is part of American history.  A lack of representation is often responsible for the false narrative that Africa has no culture, no past, no empires, and that the history of African-Americans begins in a slave ship, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it in one interview. And those beliefs start young, which is why instilling representations of different people across the board is so powerful —whether they’re 5, 15 or 50.

So to those who are writing these stories and coming up with narratives that represent diverse narratives, thank you! Keep on writing, keep on sharing, keep on inspiring! I’ve had a taste of excellent representation, and it feels so good!

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