Everyone is talking about Misty Copeland, a dancer with the renowned American Ballet Theatre who is black, and rightfully so. However, what we aren’t talking about is how important her accomplishments are for a demographic that has grown up without that type of role model. She offers hope to a generation of women in today’s workforce.
I, like many little girls, took ballet as a child. The fantastical world of pink tutus and tightly fastened hair buns always carried me to a different world each week.
I loved the world, but I never fantasized about becoming a ballerina. Instead, I knew I one day wanted to be a writer and, later, a business owner.
As a millennial woman who also happens to be black, I grew up without access to Instagram or YouTube, where I could go to find other women who looked like me. I couldn’t, in just a few clicks, select as a role model a woman who grew up in America and, despite feeling different, achieved her dreams regardless of the obstacles placed before her.
I was one of very few black girls in my ballet class, often the only black girl in any of my high school or college classes. The magazines I read and the shows I watched never featured black women who looked like me. This later morphed into a different type of reality at work, often as the only black woman on my team or in the company. The lack of women to look up to who might be facing some of the same challenges (physically, mentally, emotionally) as myself was (and is) palpable.
The author Junot Diaz puts it better than perhaps I could: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
Copeland offers hope for an often-overlooked demographic in unexpected ways. When she became the first African-American woman named a principal in the American Ballet Theatre, many heralded her achievement as a breakthrough for ballerinas of color. Copeland herself was vocal about achieving the once-elusive goal. And, not surprising, most commentary in reaction to the announcement was about race:
“That race could still be such an issue in 2015 – and that African-Americans could remain so rarely seen in elite ballet companies – has been depressing to many dancegoers, and has led to impassioned discussions in the dance world and beyond about race, stereotypes, and image,” noted Michael Cooper of The New York Times.
But Copeland’s achievement goes beyond ballet because, for the first time in a long time, a black woman who defies physical stereotypes is being heralded for achieving a professional goal outside of the traditional circles of celebrity. Copeland’s story is one of triumphs against incredible odds that anyone can relate to. But more than that, it is about staring stereotypes in the face and saying, “You don’t define me.” It is about having the courage to be who you are despite what society believes you should be.
Conversation about body image tends to be centered on lessening the importance of physical characteristics. For black women, however, there is a dearth of women to look to as role models in pop culture and mainstream media. Too often, the same types of black women are positioned as role models while white counterparts have a plethora of women to look to as examples for those who have achieved their dreams.
Copeland presents a refreshing alternative in more ways than one. She is biracial and does not look like the stereotypical black woman often lauded by the media. While director and producer Shonda Rhimes has created a new kind of visibility, awareness and respect for black women that didn’t previously exist, too often those alternatives to black female stereotypes remain rooted in humor or television or music (or all of the above). Copeland’s achievement, on the other hand, brings that perception of black women into focus outside of humor or Hollywood.
In too many sectors (technology, literature, politics, to name a few), black women are underrepresented. Millennial black women, in particular, grew up with a lack of access to professional role models who had to overcome many obstacles that their peers did not.
Copeland’s rise to fame is not only a chance for members of a younger generation to see themselves represented and to realize that certain aspirations, despite stereotypes, are possible. It is an opportunity to reframe the discussion around race during a time when we perhaps need it more than ever.
Maura Cheeks is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who works in New York. She wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.