In her latest podcast episode, Meghan Markle spoke to Mariah Carey about what their experience has been like as biracial women in America. They shared thoughts on how "people want you to choose" between the two races. "They want to put you in a box and categorize you," Meghan said. She told Mariah that it was "formative" for her to see a singer that was half-black on the mainstage because "representation matters so much."
This certainly isn't the first time that celebrities have talked about the importance of representation and lamented over the fact that there aren't more people who look like them in the public sphere. America Ferrera, Octavia Spencer, Jameela Jamil, and many others in Hollywood have spoken about the importance of placing more actors of color on screen in order to make young, non-white women feel like they're seen and heard. Producer Shonda Rhimes is known for her so-called inclusive TV shows that cast people of color in roles that were originally written for white people. Netflix's Bridgerton, for example, features a black queen, a black lead, and Indian characters in a series that was based on novels that included an all-white cast. This was praised in Hollywood incessantly and paraded around as a forward-thinking decision in a backwards society.
It got me thinking about why so many people are preoccupied with this concept of representation. Why is the importance of representation shoved down our throats so often? And why are young women told that they need to see women who look just like them on the cover of magazines in order to succeed in life?
I Never Saw Representation Growing Up—and It Was Never a Problem
I grew up in a small Southern town about 30 minutes outside of Savannah, Georgia. In my school, you were either white or you were black, and that was that. My mother is Korean and my father is Italian, and when we moved to Richmond Hill in 1995, we were the only family in town that didn't fall into the two racial categories. I have memories of some people staring at us in the grocery store because it was so rare to see Asian people in our town, let alone mixed-race Asians like myself.
There were a few times in school when students would tease me for my eye shape or the fact that English was my mother's second language. But my parents taught me that kids are cruel no matter what you look like, and they are always finding something to bully somebody about. My father told me that if anyone ever made fun of me, it wasn't necessarily because I was half-Asian; it was because I simply looked different. He and my mother told me that I should be proud of being different and if someone stared, I should just smile and go about my way.
I never saw anyone who looked like me in my school, at the grocery store, or at church.
I never saw anyone who looked like me in my school, at the grocery store, or at church. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked like me on the cover of magazines, in TV, or in the movies. But this didn't really bother me either because I was far too busy excelling in school, winning piano competitions, and playing tennis.
My parents taught me from a young age that I was capable of doing great things and they never emphasized skin color or race. I never really heard my parents categorize others in terms of race or ethnicity. Instead of focusing my attention on what people looked like or what their culture was, my parents encouraged me to work hard and be successful. Although I couldn't see it then, looking back as an adult I can see that my parents instilled a secure level of confidence in me that made any conversations about race irrelevant.
It wasn't until I got to college that things changed; professors and some older students told me that I was oppressed and a minority who was different than everyone else because I was biracial. I attended different campus events and got involved in a diversity club (which I initially thought was going to be an organization that taught us about different cultures, ethnic foods, etc.), where I was promptly told that society didn't value me because nobody looked like me in movies and entertainment.
I fell for this narrative for the next few years of my life, but when I came back to my senses, I returned to what my parents taught me: You don't need to see someone who looks like you achieve great things in order to feel like you can succeed in life.
This is setting up women to live with lifelong insecurity.
That's why when I see people online—especially young women—harp on this concept of representation, I can't wrap my head around it. Why on earth would we want to teach young women that they need to see women who look just like them in order to feel valued and validated? This is setting up women to live with lifelong insecurity because it makes them believe that their validation and value comes from an external source that is ever-changing, rather than finding a sense of self-worth and self-confidence inside themselves.
The Obsession with Representation Is a Waste of Time
Unfortunately, the broader problem here is that we're teaching young women to look to entertainment and media for important values. The fact that girls look to celebrities and influencers for validation and self-worth absolutely breaks my heart, because every single person in Hollywood is temporary at the end of the day, just as the entertainment industry in general is not constant. It's ever-changing and it's a money-making machine that is concerned first and foremost with profits rather than truly empowering women.
When I reflect back on my childhood and my hometown (which has grown exponentially over the last couple decades and is now a much more diverse place), I realize that the factor that made me feel confident regardless of whether celebrities looked like me was having two loving parents who invested time, love, and energy in me. My mother spent a lot of time with me at home and even quit her job for the first several years of my life so she could shape me from a young age. My father worked long hours and would sometimes leave the house at 4 a.m. to go to work, but he was physically and emotionally present for me when he wasn't working. Both my parents attended every piano recital and competition, tennis match, and school award ceremony.
This is what we should be focusing on if we want to empower young girls to feel validated and empowered. It shouldn't matter if the cast of Bridgerton is black or brown. It's perfectly fine to see more storylines in Hollywood that feature people of color, but we shouldn't tell women that this is crucial for them to feel seen and heard in society.
We shouldn't wait for someone who looks just like us achieve great things in order to feel like we ourselves can succeed.
We shouldn't wait for someone who looks just like us achieve great things in order to feel like we ourselves can succeed. Besides, just because someone looks like us doesn't mean we should automatically look up to them and make them a role model. There's so much more to women than their skin color and their ethnicity at the end of the day, and that's the message that we should be teaching young women more than anything else.
Yes, women should mentor younger girls and help them succeed in life, but this mentorship shouldn't be predicated on skin color or race. It should be built on the shared value that we should help each other achieve great things in life, regardless of what we look like.