I threw the bodiless blonde in the trunk of the car, hoping I’d disposed of it in such a way as to not draw attention to her abrupt disappearance.
This was late night espionage.
I drove around for days like this. I imagined her painted smile, and her pastel blue eyes with their fixed stare. Sometimes, when we stopped at a light, I heard the head roll and “thump!” in the trunk.
In the past I had been a fan of open parenting, and talking with my daughter about her choices. I attempted to share as many of my reasons for parenting actions as I thought she could understand. But this late night espionage involving a brassy blonde doll head she’d been given as a gift that I hoped she’d just forget about, was deeper than that.
I knew it was crucial that we combat the pop-culture ephemera we were swimming in. I knew it was critical we had some shield against the cultural drinking water we were immersed in. And every time I saw my then 6-year-old brown girl combing our Afro pick through those platinum blonde locks, I worried about the explicit and implicit signals she was receiving.
Because representation matters.
It matters so much that in 1954 a psychiatrist was able to prove that the explicit and implicit messages U.S. culture was giving to black children could be seen in how they felt about a set of dolls that were the same in every way except color. You can watch a stirring rendition of Dr. Kenneth Clarke's doll experiment here. In it, you see Dr. Clark ask a series of black children questions like “which one is ugly?” “Which one is mean?” Each of them chooses the black doll. It is a moment of deeply resonant sadness to watch.
Today, much of Dr. Clarke’s work has been replicated in the “implicit bias” research. And training in implicit bias has been advocated and conducted in the wake of scores of highly publicized police killings of US citizens. Most black and brown. Many unarmed.
The acknowledgement that representation matters doesn’t need anymore sanction by the scholarly community, the mental health community, or mothers of children of color like me.
Even the children have been demanding more images that look like them. And businesses like the EYESEEME bookstore in University City, near St. Louis, Missouri have begun to cater to this need.
As a writer, I know that it is key that children have books with images that look like them. Part of the rubric of what creates the academic “achievement gap” is that white children are constantly bombarded with positive images of themselves.
As a diversity and inclusion facilitator, however, the battle is to move from simple visual representation to representative power.
Some organizations do a good job of assembling their non white, and disabled employees for the photos on their marketing materials, but not so good a job of making sure real organizational decision making power is shared across gender, race, age and ability.
So the call to action is this:
- Think and talk about who is missing from the table in your organization.
- Spend some time researching implicit bias facilitation as a professional development activity for your organization (Contact me, if you need help, or I can recommend someone who would be a fantastic fit.)
- Press your leadership about the ways it has stopped at visual representation and how it can move to representative power.
My final point: All of us are like those pictures that you zoom into and they turn out to be made up of lots of smaller pictures. The variations and levels and possibilities are infinite. But what lack of representation has done, is feed our need for the “simple” story, and mostly in the form of the binary. So, when you’ve never seen (or haven’t seen enough) stories about good folks of color and bad folks of color, or good disabled folks and bad disabled folks, and every kind in between, your brain goes for stereotype. Our brains gather from what we’ve been exposed to in order to draw conclusions. A lot of that “exposure” is contained in the loud silence of invisibility, and who is not represented when it matters most.