Representation Matters – Shana’s Story

Watching TV growing up, I regularly overheard my family talking about a new black character in the “stories”. I also remember my mom watching shows like SOAP and Benson because they had that ONE black character.

At my house I learned we watched the local newscast that featured black news anchors. There was no station loyalty. It was all about who delivered the news. I knew it was a big deal to the adults in my life, but to me I thought, “what was so special about seeing another black adult?”

Although I didn’t understand it when I was around seven or eight, media representation had a huge affect on me. I must have been watching BET’s Video Soul when I first saw Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All video. I always watched videos so there was nothing special about sitting in front of the TV or watching Whitney Houston sing for that matter.

Then I saw her. The little girl, the young Whitney who set my dreams in motion. I remember watching the video thinking, “I could be that girl.” I believed that I could grow up to be Whitney Houston or someone famous. I believed I could sing, although I couldn’t (and still can’t).

The point is, I believed…I just believed.

Right or wrong. Maybe it was the times, I grew up being told black people don’t (fill-in-the-blank).

  • We don’t swim.
  • We don’t do winter sports.
  • We don’t win certain awards.
  • Black people just don’t (again, fill-in-the-blanks).

Then that changed when I moved to a new neighborhood. I met black people who swam, played baseball, went sledding and skiing.

There was also a black figure skater who won the World Championship in 1986 and an Olympic medal in 1988. Debbie Thomas was young and brown skinned. I was immediately hooked. I must have pestered my mom after seeing her skate because not too long after, I got my first pair of white figure skates.

I loved ice-skating and being on the ice. Whenever I was on the ice with my friends who were also black, we pretended to be Debbie Thomas and perform the jumps and spins that we saw her do. Occasionally, the white girls that were actually taking skating lessons would teach us a trick and we would practice all the time.

I didn’t realize it until recently. Both of these moments changed me. While I will NEVER sing as well as Whitney, I fell in love with music and media. I watched videos all the time with hopes they would show that Whitney Houston video so I could imagine myself as the little girl walking across the stage to the grown-up version of Whitney Houston. Side Note: I did “perform” the Greatest Love of All on an auditorium stage, luckily no video exists.

I realized I wasn’t a singer, but I still desired to work in music. I wanted to be a DJ for the local station, WZAK. I wanted to work for BET and host Video Soul. I wanted to work for SoSoDef records. I wanted to be anywhere close to the music industry. Another Side Note: I was on air for my college radio station and interned for Sony Music. Plus I earned a degree in Broadcast Media so I guess all that daydreaming and imagining paid off.

As for figure skating, I eventually stopped. In fact, it was shortly after Thomas fell in the Olympics and she began to fall out of favor. Yet, my love for the ice never went away. Even now I wonder if I hadn’t seen Debbie Thomas would my children have learned to skate and love ice skating as much as they do.

Other moments of black girl representation on TV and movies that have stuck with me over the years.

  • Punky Brewster– The 80s sitcom featured a Black sidekick in Cherie. I watched all the time and wanted to wear all those “cool” fashions
  • The Cosby Show– Explanation needed. A successful black family, a doctor married to a black lawyer. Only now do I understand the amazingness of that show. At the time I was always trying to figure out which Huxtable sister I was and swooning over Theo and Cockroach
  • Different World– Another major life moment for me. I loved and still, love this show. The college process of Denise trying to decide where to go to school (on the Cosby Show) and the imagery of campus life had me ready to go to Hillman. This show was probably was the catalyst for me going away to school, although I will admit I was bummed when I found out Hillman wasn’t a real school.
  • Head of the Class– This show was about a gifted high school class in New York City. They were kind of cool nerds. Although I don’t remember many of the storylines I always loved the smarts of the TWO Black girls, played Robin Givens and Kimberly Russell. In my young imagination, I would be as smart as them when I became a cool high schooler.
  • Lean on Me– I remember seeing this movie in the theater. I was young with no idea of what high school was really like. After Morgan Freeman, as Joe Clark got the school together I imagined that that was high school life,  Actually, I remember the Eastside High School alma mater better than any of the schools I actually graduated from. Don’t laugh – you probably do too. In case you don’t, you can watch the iconic bathroom scene here.
    Do you remember any of these shows, what was your representation matters moment? Comment below or share your story with us.

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Black Girl In CLE

Black Girl in CLE is a local blog that prides itself on exploring local places and events from a "Sisterly Perspective," as well as curating events and experiences to get people to explore Greater Cleveland.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you for this. Being white, I didn’t have a damn clue growing up that the shows and characters seemed to only reflect me. It’s hard to imagine how that must feel for people who have to search to see themselves represented. I’m glad you were able to find a few growing up (side note: A Different World
    Was one of my favs) – and I’m hoping within a few years, no one feels this way. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • Shana, great post! Right there with you…
    I am extremely grateful that my mom and grandparents did their best to expose me to activities, people, and experiences to show me black people DO! And now my husband and I make it our duty and responsibly to do the same for our children. We are adamant about exposing them to new activities and experiences, even if that results in them being the only or the first. We want to show them black people, can, will and DO!

    Every show on your list I most certainly can relate too. My add for your list is Family Matters. The Winslow family was a great representation for me. Laura & Eddie Winslow along with Steve Urkel was so close to my age that it was like watching a show of my neighborhood friends with my neighbors!

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