There are so many reasons why representation matters; seeing yourself and your experiences reflected in the world at large literally saves lives. Representation also helps us envision more clearly what success can look like, as well as how varied the paths to get there can be. This is especially important as Black women have endured systemic oppression, generation after generation and have lacked adequate representation in key positions of power as a result.
The Black women on this list demonstrate what positive representation looks like and we’re here to celebrate their achievements, despite the obstacles they’ve had to overcome in the process.
Tennis player Serena Williams has scored more Grand Slam single titles wins than any other person during the open era. While she’s an accomplished athlete, she’s also provided immeasurable positive Black female representation in a predominantly white sport. Not only is she inspiring Black women to enter these spaces, but she’s doing it all while being one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world, holding honours like Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsperson of the Year and so much more.
Never forget that sister Venus Williams is also an inspirational Black women bringing excellent representation to the world of tennis. Together, they’re sisters who conquer the world — let’s be real.
We know her best for the long-running television series, Grey’s Anatomy — but Shonda Rhimes’ work far extends the hit medical drama. Never forget, back in 2007, Rhimes was on the list for TIME magazine’s 100 People Who Help Shape the World. Similar to Geena Davis’ strategy to counter sexism in Hollywood (avoid presumed gender), Rhimes is known for her colour-blind casting technique — she avoided giving any of her characters last names (or race) for the Grey’s pilot — resulting in a diverse cast loaded with the best actors for their parts. We can’t wait to see what else is in store for her Netflix deal.
See also: 10 Women of Colour making a big impact on TV.
American actress and LGBTQ+ advocate, Laverne Cox, rose to stardom after bringing Sophia Burset to life on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. In addition to providing positive queer women of colour representation in media on screen, Cox made history for being the first openly trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in an acting category. She has been a trailblazer for the trans community on-screen and off, and her career has been both inspiring and necessary to help shift mainstream thinking. She’s had many firsts and has paved the way for trans people, Black women and underrepresented folks in general.
Former broadcast journalist and former Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, not only had to overcome incredible adversity as a refugee from Haiti, but she has showed young Black Canadians what success with integrity in multiple fields looks like. She is the first Haitian-Canadian to hold public office between 2005 and 2010, and we are still waiting for the next one at this level. In her time in this role, Jean used the opportunity to help raise awareness of victims of domestic violence as well as to fight for Indigenous rights.
A queen of firsts, Oprah Winfrey has made history throughout the years for various huge accomplishments including being the first Black women to own her own production company, being TV’s highest-paid entertainer, earning a legacy as a self-care (and self-help) empress and so much more. She is a pop culture and general cultural icon who deserves all the love and recognition she’s earned in her lifetime. Let’s be real, she was the original mega-influencer. Are we wrong?
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Kamala Devi Harris is a lawyer and the current sitting vice president of the United States, arguably putting her in the second most powerful seat in the country; we want more of this. It took 49 presidential elections to get this one right, and we can only hope it’s the first step for Harris towards presidency. She is impressive by any measure, and an inspiring role model for any little girl, but in a country that has proven oppressive for so many Black women more often than not, this is an important win.
Mae Carol Jemison
A NASA astronaut, engineer and physician, Mae Carol Jemison was a mission specialist on space shuttle Endeavour in 1992, making her the first Black women to travel into space. She graduated with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African-American studies. She knew she wanted to be a scientist from an early age and recalled the Apollo missions, thinking, “everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being really, really irritated that there were no women astronauts.” She not only helped break a racial barrier (on a planetary scale, at that), paving the way for other women in science, but with her example, she is also encouraging other young Black girls to shoot for the stars…and not give up ’til they get there.
One of the youngest Black women on this list, Gorman at 22 put herself on the map by reciting poetry at the most recent presidential inauguration. An activist hailing from Los Angeles, Gorman is a published author and a Youth Poet Laureate who frequently centres her work on race, oppression, feminism and the African diaspora. In doing so, she is also opening the gates for others to publicly claim their voices and speak up about their lived experiences. The world is watching.
Queer women of colour make life better. Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley is no exception. While fans of the Netflix series are all too familiar with her character Poussey Washington’s devastating storyline — the messaging of Black Lives Matter was an important one. Wiley generously gave herself to the role, the plot and our understanding of the issue. Off-screen, she provided inspiration for queer women when she married OITNB writer Lauren Morelli in real life.
Wiley’s real-life nephew, Asante Blackk, stars in When They See Us and This is Us. Guess talent is genetic for these folks, eh?
Rita F. Pierson
An educator and activist, Rita Pierson brings attention to the idea that each of us needs a champion. As a school principal in America’s notoriously unequal education system, Pierson fought for success in education for all her students, and was known for her belief that every child deserves an adult who won’t give up on them. Representation in school at every level needs to happen so students can see themselves reflected, including highest positions of leadership, and Rita Pierson achieved just that, following in a long line of educators herself.
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