By Valerie James Abbott
There was a time when I didn’t really understand why representation mattered. I knew that when it came to toys, books and everyday things we see and experience that children might prefer toys or characters that look more like themselves, but I didn’t ever understand the ‘why.’ In fact, I never explored the ‘why.’ I noticed the dolls in the toy aisle at Target came in many skin tones. I noticed that television shows on the Disney Channel featured characters of different backgrounds. I noticed these things – but I didn’t get it.
It wasn’t until October of 2011, when my oldest daughter Mary Clare boldly entered my bathroom while I was taking a shower that the importance of representation started to catch my attention. She was only 9 years old at the time and waving a catalogue at me through the foggy shower door.
“Mom!” she said, loudly. “Mom! You have to see this. We have to get this. This is important, Mom. Please get out of the shower!”
I remember being thoroughly annoyed at the interruption during my 8 and a half minutes of peace and quiet. What on earth could possibly be so urgent that my child would insist I put down the shampoo to look at whatever was in her hand? I wiped away a small foggy spot and peered out.
There in front of me I saw my daughter’s little finger pointing at something I had never seen. Within the pages of the latest American Girl catalogue were a pair of pink hearing aids.
“Look! We have to get these! We have to get these for Bridget’s American Girl doll! Mom – do you see these?” she asked.
I saw them. And, I saw the delight in my oldest child’s face. She understood before the age of 10 years old what representation meant and why it would matter. Her sister was hard-of-hearing and had worn hearing aids for the last several years. Bridget was now 7 years old – and very much obsessed with all things American Girl.
A few months later Christmas morning arrived. When Bridget opened the box and saw her beautiful, new look-alike doll she smiled. She had curly blonde hair and a bow. Her eyes were blue. It took a few moments before Bridget noticed the shiny pink accessory neatly and perfectly placed on both ears. She screamed. And screamed again. I have never witnessed joy like that in my life. It filled the room.
I acted surprised. Wow! That Santa Claus is something else. I widened my eyes in an effort to dry the tears that were welling up quickly. A knot of happiness was lodged in my throat. Mary Clare sat next to her sister, admiring the doll and how much it looked like Bridget. It really did.
That was the day I started to understand the importance of representation — not only in toys, but in everything. Books, movies, posters, classmates, sports, music. Anything and everything we see and experience. It matters. And, I need to continue to pay attention to it and celebrate it.
*** Valerie James Abbott is a 1-3-6 Family Educator and Learning Community Coordinator for the Center for Family Involvement at VCU. In this dual role, Valerie works closely with parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and professionals to help reduce loss to follow up. A graduate of Hollins University, she lives in Henrico County with her husband and two daughters, one of whom is hard-of-hearing.