Representation matters. Everyone loves to see people like them trailblaze and become the first person of their race/religion/gender to break glass ceilings. However, when no one follows in their lead, their triumph was ultimately for nothing.
At this year’s Oscars, we celebrated many firsts such as “Roma” being the first Mexican film to win the Best Foreign Language Picture or Ruth Carter and Hannah Beechler being the first black women to win Best Costume Design and Production Design for “Black Panther.”
While any win is good for black people, what struck me more than these “firsts” was Mahershala Ali’s win of Best Supporting Actor for “Green Book”, making him the second black actor to win multiple Oscars for acting—second to Denzel Washington.
It is disappointing that in 91 years of Oscars, there have been so many firsts, but only two black actors have won more than one Oscar.
This is a problem because I do not know if anyone can name the first white Academy Award winner, and I feel people are even less likely to be able to name the second.
This does not stop with Academy Awards. This generation has seen few, if any, white firsts in any field from the Oscars to the White House, a field where we are still observing firsts for minorities.
In 1870, five years after the abolition of slavery, America saw its first black congressman. Almost 150 years later, states like California are just now electing their first black representatives.
What is the point of blazing a trail that will ultimately remain empty for 150 years? We complain about a lack of representation in all aspects of our lives, but we do not invest in representation.
We must shift from a culture that does not leave “firsts” behind. What this will take is in-depth involvement and political education.
This year Chicago will be electing its first black female mayor. We have reached a historical point in which no matter what the outcome of this election is, the winner will be a black woman.
We can be proud of this, we can call this progress, but the true demonstration of progress will be in four years.
We can celebrate firsts, we can break down walls, and we can shatter glass ceilings but if our firsts have no walls, no roof, and no one to protect them, then progress will never actually be made.