I see me in you: Role models and girls of color

Watching those tearful and excited girls at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College in Islington mob First Lady Michelle Obama reminded me about the dearth of female role models for many girls of color. It’s not that women of color aren’t doing great and noteworthy things. We are. We are. It’s just that the American gender hierarchy means women’s accomplishments are often overlooked and go sadly unfeted. And racial hierarchy means the accomplishments of women of color suffer most of all. I can’t be sure, but looking at those young girls in London react to Michelle Obama, I am thinking things are much the same in many other societies.

This is not good news for our girls.

When you set your mind to do a great thing, it is helpful to see that someone else like you has done it before. Yes, there are racial and gender trailblazers. Success is not impossible without role models and examples, but it sure as hell is a lot easier. And seeing a successful woman of color, hearing how she has navigated life, offers both a road map to achievement and a shot of pride in racial identity.

So, imagine how it felt to get a visit from an American First Lady—a black American first lady–for this girls-only, inner-city school where 20 percent of students are the children of refugees or asylum seekers, speak a total of 55 different languages and 92 percent of whom are from a black or minority background.

Both Nuria and Shereka closely followed the US presidential election and said that, even before her visit, Michelle Obama had inspired them both, girls born thousands of miles away, personally.

“You can relate to her story. She said, ‘I’m a working-class girl.’ And more or less all of us are working-class. She made it. And it made me think: if she can do it, so can I.” Read more…

President Obama’s better half gave of shot of “Yes we can” to the girls at Islington. And all girls need that.

“Big girls” too. I am in my late 30s, but seeing Michelle Obama in the public eye–an educated, professional black woman, who lived in the same Hyde Park, Chicago, neighborhood were I once lived, and admits to being a young smarty pants (like me!)–makes me giddy. If Michelle hugged me, I do believe I would shriek in excitement, too.

Oh, I wish we could bottle what those girls must have been feeling last week when they received their surprise visit. Of course, we can’t. So…

In the face of a race and gender-biased culture, and one more fascinated with a Lindsey, Britney, Miley version of young womanhood, than the real lives of girls and women of any race, how do we introduce good, female role models into our children’s lives?


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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