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The Power Of Visible Black Faces

What President Obama means to me as a black teen girl living in the UK

I was 11 years old on January 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama took office. Growing up in the UK, I had never been so enthralled by an American presidential candidate. I watched the political race that led up to his inauguration closely, intrigued by this man’s wonderful cadence and a campaign that glittered with hope and positivity. As my family and I watched the Obamas mount the inauguration stage, I drank in the moment. I didn't quite understand why it was so momentous at the time, but I knew it was worth remembering.

Now, as President Obama's second and final term is coming to an end, I do understand why: On that January day, an amazing black family showed me that I truly could be anything that I wanted to be. Obama was everything that young black people in my community were pushed to be: He was an intelligent, hard-working family man. But his victory wasn't just a win for African-Americans, Democrats, or even the United States; it was a win for black people around the world.

As a British-Nigerian, I often looked to the U.S. media to find representation growing up. While I was exposed to black people in the British media — children's stations like CBBC and CITV used loads of people of color as TV presenters, and the cool black British stars like Reggie Yates and Angellica Bell made me want to work in the media — I still found myself more attracted to American shows featuring young people of color. I watched Taina, a show about a young Latina; That's So Raven, which featured a bubbly, mischievous black girl; and The Cheetah Girls, a movie about a multicultural mix of aspiring singers. I also watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Everybody Hates Chris, and My Wife and Kids — all of which, unlike British TV shows, represented families that were similar to mine.

Especially after Obama was elected, I romanticized America as a place where people of color could be represented as both complex and ordinary. In the American media, young characters of color argued with their siblings, had crushes, and went out with their friends, whereas in the British media, people of color were never spoken about unless they did something wrong or remarkable. American people of color were able to lead the nation and also to be ordinary. To me, that was extraordinary.

I carried this reverence for America into my teenage years. I wanted to be a part of this nation that shared the stories and experiences of people who looked like my friends and me. I wanted to be part of this nation that produced the likes of Oprah and Beyoncé and elected a black man to the highest office in the nation. I remember saying to a few white friends, "I feel like I would be more likely to succeed if I went to America."

They were baffled. They found the prospect of a black girl wanting to go to a country where black people are victims of racism and police brutality on a daily basis bizarre. Although I am aware of America's shortcomings, I knew why I felt the way I did. As Idris Elba stated in a speech about the lack of diversity on British TV, "The USA has the most famous diversity policy of all: It's called The American Dream. ... If you work hard and you have great talent, you will have the same chance as anyone else to succeed."

Representation is so important. Seeing people who look like you succeeding in different sectors of society plays a vital role in children's sense of self-worth. Equality of representation teaches us that although all humans experience life differently, we’re all worthy and capable of success. It encourages us to see the world not only as it is, but also how we want it to be: a place in which people of color are not marginalized or tokenized but given platforms and positions in which their talents are honored, a place where people of color are law enforcers, entertainers, educators, scientists, politicians, artists, change-makers, and revolutionaries.

While President Obama has certainly faced criticism for his politics and cultural background, it’s undeniable how much he has done for black representation all around the world. Seeing his progress, his swagger, his smile, and the way his black face glows in a sea of white leaders has shown me what people of color are capable of achieving. The moment Obama became president solidified all the other little moments in my life that led me to believe that I was worthy of success and magic, regardless of my race.

But while Obama has been a great source of powerful representation, he cannot stand alone. My friends and I decided to address this by starting a campaign this July called One Is Not Enough. We want to address the lack of diversity and representation in the British media and scholastic curriculum. Through this campaign, we are collating and sharing the stories of young people’s experiences with representation and diversity across the UK. We hope this will be an educational tool and will also contribute to making some tangible changes, like promoting and encouraging young creatives whose visions coincide with ours, so we can start seeing better racial representation across the UK. Finally, we hope to infiltrate the British education system by first getting schools to make race discussions part of P.S.H.E lessons, which focus on personal, social, health, and economic debates and issues. After this, we aim to challenge the Eurocentrism prevalent in the British education system.

My 11th birthday was six days before the 2008 election. One of my presents that year was Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father. My own father wrote me a message inside the book, saying that just like Obama was a history-maker, I, too, could make history one day. When Obama became president a few months later, it affirmed this message — that I was capable of achieving great things.

Everyone deserves to have people they can look up to and see themselves in. Representation matters, and I will keep working to see more of it in British society. This is the key to cultivating a culture that advances from mere tolerance to empathy and love.

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