What comes to mind when you hear the words “black people”? Is it our melaninated, brown skin or our jewel-like braids that you feel so inclined to touch? Or maybe you think of our defiant history and vast range of musical, athletic and academic abilities. Perhaps the first words that came to mind were such things as ratchet, angry or loud. This isn’t surprising — it is a result of a society that portrays us this way.
The word “black” represents an extremely diverse group of people, spanning a wide geographical area and a broad range of religious beliefs, ethnicities and languages. However, there seems to always be a flawed portrayal of our community in society, turning what should be a beautiful mosaic into a uniform canvas. This monotonous depiction of the black community often presents black people in a negative light. This affects not only how others in society perceive us but also affects how we view ourselves.
Black people are often subjected to social labels and expectations for the entirety of our lives. A recent study from Yale University revealed that many preschool teachers have implicit biases against black students, resulting in lower expectations and gifted-program referrals rates for these students. Black people are subjected to harmful stereotypes even as early as infancy. Such stereotypes persist throughout a black person’s life — in youth, where we are viewed as thugs or troublemakers, up until adulthood, where we are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
The representation of black people in society also has devastating effects on our self-esteem. This is evident in the popular Doll Test, in which black children were presented with two dolls that were completely identical to each other, except for their skin and hair colour. A majority of children preferred the white doll to the black doll, revealing an internalized racism and self-hatred that often festers in many black children. This further demonstrates that, from a young age, a negative or inadequate representation of black people in society has devastating effects on our self-esteem.
Lack of black representation is a problem that extends to the academic world as well, including here at Western University. Many black students in first year have taken note that there are very few black professors on campus. This is not only felt by first-years, but also by black upper-year students in multiple disciplines, many of who have never taken a course instructed by a black professor. This clear underrepresentation causes black students to constantly absorb subliminal messages about what we are and what we might go on to be: having nobody that looks like you in an academic position can discourage anyone from pursuing such a career path. Though this is a complex issue for which there isn’t a simple solution, it is clear that universities like Western can do more to improve the representation of black academics on campus.
Effecting positive representations of black people in society will require our collective efforts. But how do we change a narrative that seems so firmly rooted? We can start by including more role models for black people in our society. These can be mentors and other black professionals in the community, not just rappers and basketball players on the big screen. We can also increase representation by supporting black-owned businesses and black politicians. With the recent rise of popular media featuring positive representations of black people, it is evident that these more accurate portrayals sell just as much as black stereotypes. It is up to us, as a society, to support media and filmmakers that present black people in a more honest light. Ultimately, such an effort will lead to the creation of a more equitable society in which everyone gets a fair shot at doing well in life — without the negative perceptions of race working against them.