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Representations of Women of Color in the Media

by Mariam Youssef | February 18, 2015

It's Hard Out There for a Woman of Color

I recently confronted a friend about the toys her daughter plays with. Her daughter, a beautiful 6-year-old girl, is obsessed with dolls. As my friend and I talked, her daughter laid out her dolls and played with them. I looked at the row of dolls and saw that not a single one had her beautiful brown skin, her playful curly hair, or her facial features. Instead, she spends her days playing with blond, blue-eyed, white dolls that look nothing like her.

I raised my concern with my friend. Her response was what I expected. "Where do you expect me to get a doll that looks like us? I go to the store and all I see is shelves and shelves of white dolls. The closest thing I can find is usually a brown or black Bratz doll, and they always look so sexual."           

This representation of girls and women of color in something as simple as children's toys is a reflection of the way we are represented in the media. Barring a few exceptions, there are two options for women of color in the media: invisibility and exoticization.

Invisibility

It can be hard to find role models for women of color in the media. Take a look at the Disney Princesses and count how many women of color you can find there—and consider the ways that their skin has been lightened and their features changed to more closely parallel traditionally white features. Try to find women of color reporting the news. Try to find women of color starring in sitcoms and acting as the heroines in dramas. While there are some notable exceptions, it is a challenge to find a woman of color in the spotlight. Most of us even take it for granted—when I turn on the TV or listen to the news, I don't expect to see anyone that looks like me.

Exoticization

As I mentioned before, there are some exceptions to this rule where women of color do get to be in the spotlight. However, in many of these cases, we are represented as hypersexualized and exotic. One doesn't have to look further than the world of advertisement to find blatant and unapologetic racism and sexism. Many of these representations normalize sexual violence toward women of color. When women of color take starring roles in TV and movies, they are presented as exotic. This creates a huge disconnect between the everyday lives of women of color and their representations in the media.

So What Does This Have to Do with the Church?

Like it or not, we are deeply affected by the media we consume. When we surround ourselves with media images where women of color are either invisible or exoticized, we learn to see all women of color this way. This has grave implications for the treatment of women of color in our churches. Many churches are not doing much better than the media in their representations of women of color. We are invisible in many of our churches. In racially diverse or white-majority churches, we do not stand a strong chance of having visible leadership roles. Our voices are often not heard or silenced. Teaching centers around examples that cater to a white male experience. In less racially diverse churches, like black churches or immigrant-community churches, we are often relegated to the sidelines and told that our support is the most important thing we can offer.

When women of color are acknowledged and seen in our churches, we are often treated like exotic creatures. We are asked to be individual representatives of our entire demographic. Many people also struggle to know how to deal with our minority status. I have been in more than one meeting where, as the only woman of color in the room, others have halted my contributions to ask if they could touch my hair or to say how they wish they could get nice tanned skin like mine. There is a way to acknowledge our minority status and the different perspectives that we contribute without gawking at us. It is hard to imagine yourself as a member of the body of Christ, equal to serve, when you are treated more like an animal in a zoo.

Points of Action

Women of color enter our churches with the burden of being both invisible and exoticized. It would be tragic if our church communities were responsible for perpetuating this experience instead of offering healing and acceptance. Moving forward, we must be conscious that we can interact with women of color in ways that reflect their full dignity and humanity in the church.

We must make space for women of color to be seen and heard in the church. We need to be given equal opportunities to occupy positions of leadership. Our voices cannot be silenced. Church leadership should proactively seek us out. For many of us, after decades of feeling invisible, we are afraid to speak out on our own unless the platform is opened for us. Our churches must make serious efforts to mentor and disciple women of color with leadership gifts and to offer repentance for the ways women of color have been made invisible in the past.

If all or most of the teachings from the pulpit reflect a white male experience, where are women of color made to feel like they belong? If women of color are included or represented, we need to be aware of how this is done. Consider the ways that your church talks about and presents images of women of color. If they are treated as other, exotic beings, this needs to be reconsidered.

Significant positive changes have been made over the last few decades to bring white women into church leadership. We are thrilled and grateful for the progress of our sisters. However, this progress has not extended equally to women of color, as we continue to be ignored and exoticized in our church communities. We pray that churches around the world would truly recognize women of color in their congregations as full members of the body of Christ, made in his image, equal to serve. 

Photo credit Flickr user Christopher Dilts