The Real “Black Mirror”: How What We See (or Don’t See) Effects Us Mentally by Abbie Oh Arroyo
July is dedicated to awareness and education of BIPOC Mental Health. Systemic racism and oppression have been recognized in its physical forms such as redlining, gentrification, a lack of funding in communities, having less access to resources, wage gaps, disproportionate murders and incarceration of BIPOC, and more. Something else important to mention about systemic racism is how it affects us mentally.
Media is a very influential medium of representation and what we consume can affect how we think and how we view other people. Huffington Post reports a study about “symbolic annihilation.” Nicole Martins of Indiana University says this is the idea that if one does not see anyone that looks like them in the media they consume, they must be unimportant (Boboltz, Yam). To my fellow BIPOC, we can all remember a time when we felt unseen in shows and movies we used to watch. For me, it was idolizing blonde Barbies and looking at all the fair-skinned Disney princesses who I wished to be for the longest time. People would argue and say, “What about Mulan?” I‘m not even Chinese. “What about the tan, brown-haired Barbies?” Most kids at the time were calling them ugly since they weren’t the actual Barbie so you could only imagine how kids like me felt. Looking back at this now, I think it actually had to do with her lacking European features we praise so highly that made her undesirable. These tokenized figures of BIPOC representation and so many others are often the scraps that are handed to BIPOC and told it’s “good enough.” BIPOC children still fall victim to eurocentrism as this subliminal racism, colorism, and exclusion of people of color create internalized racism and a wish to whitewash oneself to fit in.
Having a lack of representation can make someone devalue themself and not feel as important as others. As quoted in a 1976 paper called “Living with Television,” George Gerbner and Larry Gross say, “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation” (Boboltz, Yam). I cannot agree more with this statement. Though I felt invisible in the fictional worlds of Disney princesses’, I felt seen in series such as “Avatar the Last Airbender,” due to its heavy Asian influence and all characters of color and (as silly as this sounds) the Playhouse Disney series “Handy Manny” as they used Spanish and exposed the audience to Latinx culture. Recently, I rewatched the Avatar series and noticed a girl wearing a traditional Korean “hanbok.” I ran to my mom to show her because of how excited I was.
Though having more BIPOC representation is taking a step in the right direction, we need to be aware of how we are being represented. For example, the stereotypic portrayal of Black and Latinx people as dangerous or Asians constantly being defined by the model minority myth can be very harmful. Before people even get to know us, we will be profiled by the way the media represents us. By showing only one side of our multifaceted identities and cultures, we are being limited by society and crammed into those boxes that may not truly represent who we are. I feel like this issue may affect others more than ourselves because we are sure in our own identity and truths, but with media attributing certain personalities or identifiers to BIPOC, others will be looking at us through a completely different lens than how we see ourselves. This can cause more microaggressions towards BIPOC such as someone saying, “Wow you are so articulate!” to us when we don’t have any sort of accent when we speak. In the media, BIPOC already have assigned roles and play stock characters whereas white actors have more range and variety. This is why seeing BIPOC as characters where they are not defined by their race is so necessary. This reflects into the real world where we can see BIPOC being anything they want to be and not be limited by their race due to others’ perception of us.
With all this being said, our screens really are a “black mirror.” What we see affects how we perceive ourselves and how others see us. There is so much more to how racism affects us psychologically. (I haven’t even gone into racial scarring and generational trauma but stay tuned for that!) Media is so important as it is something we consume and are surrounded by everyday. We look for parts of ourselves to be represented in anything we read, watch, or listen to- it does not only pertain to race. When we don’t see ourselves, we feel insignificant to the narrative. We need to empower and amplify the identities being represented in all sorts of media, not just books and shows but in our history textbooks and news. Refuse to be defined by stereotypes and look for real representation.
Boboltz, Sara, and Kimberly Yam. “Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Feb. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d.