In 1995, just 2 years after my family relocated to Duluth, I was asked by my 8th grade history teacher to explain my experience with colorism to the whole class. I was the only Black kid in my class; in the whole school the only other Black kid I knew was my older brother. Moving from a diverse community to a pretty homogenous Scandinavian town was a culture shock to say the least. I remember the first time a little white girl put her hands in my hair because the texture was “so neat.” I’d never even heard the word “neat” used that way before.
All through middle and high school I more-often-than-not found myself as the only Black person, and often only BIPOC person, in the room. While I grew accustomed to this reality, I realized that my peers did not have to navigate the world the same way that I did. Most of my new friends spoke the same language (neat = cool), ate the same food (I’d never heard of lefse. I’ve still never had it.) and had the same or generally similar experiences. Where I came from the kids I knew hadn’t learned how to swim. We went to public pools and would wade or splash around in the shallow end, so swimming the length of the pool in order to pass gym class seemed both foreign and impossible to me.
So my 8th grade teacher asking me about colorism came from a place of sincere curiosity. I hope in the nearly 30 years since that teacher asked me that question that she has learned how alienating that is. The thing that became evident to me is that the other 25 people in the room–that teacher included–had a limited frame of reference and shared ignorance. There was a genuine lack of knowledge and information about me and where I came from. I still live in this community, in the three decades I’ve been here I have learned a lot about–and shared experiences with–my white friends and their families, but, to this day, I’m often still the only Black person in the room or, at best, I can count the other people of color on one hand.
I imagine if my school had had a Black teacher or Black principal or if the district had invested more time and energy into creating a safe welcoming environment, I would not have been put on the spot in front of my whole class, or someone would have explained to the little girl why it’s inappropriate to put her hands on another person without their permission, regardless of if she thinks different their different hair is “neat.”
There are microaggressions and discriminatory practices that happen every day that the majority population doesn’t even realize because these practices have always been the norm.
**And that’s why Representation Matters.** It’s not just a phrase.
I know that my awkward preteen years would have been so much more comfortable if I saw more kids that looked like me. While at Lincoln Park, my brother and I were the only Black kids I knew of in the whole school. But once I started high school at Denfeld, I learned that my experiences were not unique to me – There were Black students from Morgan Park, Washington, Woodland, and Ordean that had gone through the same awkward moments. I often think about how much easier it would have been if I could have seen just one more Black girl with box braids.
While visibility is important, it is just the minimum. Adequate representation is so much more than that. It’s not enough to simply ‘see’ different people in shared spaces. Adequate representation gives diverse groups a seat at the table. Diverse representation allows voices to be heard and different ideas to be shared. Diverse voices allow different needs to be met, and ensures policies are appropriate and equitable.
Representation needs to be included at every level of an organization. When an organization lists equity or DEI as a priority, I always ask what that board or leadership team looks like. Without adequate representation at the leadership level, decisions are frequently made ‘about us, without us’. Has Leadership considered different walks of life beyond ethnic diversity? Some other factors to consider include:
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Socio-economic background and neighborhood of residence
Considering diverse perspectives benefits everyone. For example, while ADA compliant ramps and curb cut outs were created with people in wheelchairs in mind, these accommodations have also benefited other people, like those with walkers or canes, those on bikes or rollerblades, and those pushing strollers. Closed captioning was developed for the hearing impaired, they’re also helpful to people learning English. And I know for a fact I’m not the only parent that has turned on the captions because the kids were too dang loud!
Lack of representation in Duluth impacts everyone. This was an issue in Duluth Schools when I was growing up, and while the district has made definite strides, it would be great to see more diverse leadership in the district both on the board and within the schools–in teaching staff and administration. Lack of representation is obviously a crucial issue all over our community. It impacts city leadership, business and organizational leadership, our community’s boards, committees and everything in between.
Representation matters. Its importance can’t be understated. We live in a community and society where race determines so many things for so many people: if you’ll be hired, if you’ll get a mortgage, if someone else will be your friend, if your chances of dying are higher in childbirth, your life expectancy, your chances of graduating high school, your chances of being suspended from high school, if you will be expected to speak for your entire community, if your hair will be constantly touched and commented on, and so much more. We’re in this situation because of intentional decisions and the only way for us to undo these things is to intentionally create space for representation in our community– in our schools, in our businesses, in our organizations and in our city. By recognizing Black people’s skills and talents, and hiring and/or electing us into positions where our voices are heard, we have the ability to impact policies, make decisions, open minds and create change that benefits everyone.
Like Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.”