What Are You? You Look Different

With the 88th Academy Awards over with, it will definitely stand out as one of the most infamous shows in the history of the academy, with actors, actress's and ... well, maybe some fans. I say some fans because the controversy may mean nothing to some folks, but has clearly hit a nerve with others. It all started when the Oscar nominations were announced and in that announcement there were no nominations for performer's of color, for the second year in a row. With that, a hashtag was created #oscarssowhite and many persons of color who work in the movie industry and some that don't decided to boycott the Oscars this year, citing that movies made by people of color and actor's and actress' of color are continually snubbed, or overlooked or never even thought of. It also brought to the forefront about the lack of diversity in all movies being made in Hollywood and the misrepresentation of our society as a whole with Hollywood executives and Hollywood actors.

Also, just recently, Ellen DeGeneres and the Gap were accused of racism in the media, over an ad for DeGeneres' kid's clothing line. The photo showed four young girls, three caucasian girls and one girl of color modeling the clothing. What some people felt was racist was, a white girl was using the girl of color as an armrest.

As a woman of color, these media related issues really piqued my interest and got me thinking about my own journey in life, being a person of color. I grew up with four other siblings and we all look alike in a way, but not in the obvious way. What I mean by that is, we have similar features such as the same shaped face or nose, but outwardly, we grew up looking very different from each other and what I experienced about other people's perception of us, is that because we didn't have the same color hair, skin tone and eyes, it was never assumed we were siblings. I have a sister with very fair skin, green eyes and very light brown curly hair, another sister with very blond straight hair, light brown eyes and olive skin, a brother with intense blue eyes, blond hair and light to olive skin, my youngest sister has green eyes, light hair and mocha colored skin and then there is me... I have jet black hair, jet black eyes and mocha colored skin.

So although there are some features that are obvious to us, it was not obvious to many people we came across as kids... now that we're older, many people say, they can see the resemblance.
As a kid, I remember neighbors being shocked to learn that my blond haired, blue eyed brother, was in fact my real brother... One time, a couple of kids invited my brother and I to come over to play at their house and when we got there, the mother became fascinated with us, she kept staring at us and asked several times, are you really brother and sister?

The mother then quietly snuck in a little question, "Do you have the same mother and father?" Or was one of you adopted? At 5 and 8 we both stared at her dumbfounded, not even knowing what that meant... Same mother and father...? Adoption?

I was intrigued by the thought of adoption and thought maybe I was adopted and that was why my family was so weird.

I have no idea what she made up about us. But that was a typical conversation with people who met us... Are you all related? Do you all have the same parents...?

It was something at a young age that made absolutely no sense to me, because nobody ever said, you all look so different, they just looked at us like we were a misfit of kids with a mom who definitely must have been meeting up with different milkmen. But there was no action of that sort going on, just a bunch of real blood siblings, sharing the same parents, but with different looks. Pretty boring...

I actually never knew I was different until people -- well, adults -- would single me out and ask me questions that were quite absurd, such as: "What type blood are you?" and or "What are you?"
I had no idea of my blood type and what was I? I knew I was a girl, but that was all I could think of...The great thing about being a kid is, unlike adults you don't always feel compelled to answer someone, so I imagine I just thought these parents of my friends were big weirdos and I just moved on to whatever was going on in that moment.

What those adults and their questions did do, eventually... was get me to look around and to see what was different about me, at first I couldn't see it, I mean my friends and I all loved barbie (who incidentally was blond, we loved the Brady bunch (more blond girls), wonder woman (phew, a brunette, but with super fair skin) On tv, lot's of beautiful blonds, but not anyone who looked liked me... magazines... nope, not there either, again, mostly blonds and definitely not dark skin... So, it turned out I was different, or at least different looking. Oh, and my name was different back then too... I was the only Tiffany and my siblings all had unusual names as well... I became self conscious and wished I had long blond hair like my sister or blue eyes like my brother, nobody really thought of them as different, only if they were with me or my younger sister and we said we were related.

Then one summer evening, my family and I were watching the summer Olympics or some type of world sports event! It was very exciting to watch American athletes compete for our country and to root for each one of them. At some point, while watching the events, there was a pause and two people came on the tv screen, a man and a woman and they started to discuss how the american athletes were doing in their respective sports. Normally, that would seem like a good time to go to the bathroom, but something kept there... In fact, I could not take my eyes off of the screen.
I was mesmerized by the woman on the screen... I was so fixed on her that I had no idea what she was saying... I couldn't stop staring because this woman looked like me! I had never ever in my life seen a person on TV that looked like me and it hit me in a way that I felt like I knew her or I wanted to know her, or I wanted to do what she was doing. Her hair was just like mine, long, dark black and a little wavy, her eyes were dark like mine and her skin color was a perfect match to mine. I felt so excited to see someone who looked so much like me or who I looked so much like, doing something as important as being on TV, interviewing world class athletes!

I immediately screamed out, what is that woman doing? My siblings looked at me like I was nuts and my older sister said, she is reporting on the games and interviewing the athletes".

I said, reporting, is that a job? My sister said, "Yes, it's called a news reporter dummy!" Instead of getting mad at her dummy comment, I smiled my biggest five year old grin and said, "that's what I'm going to do when I grow up."

In the following weeks, when sports were turned on in my house, it was not the games I was looking to watch, it was a chance to see this beautiful, smart woman, who looked like me, doing something (in my eyes) that was incredibly important. She became my hero.

(this was, at five years old and the absolute reason that I decided to become a news reporter)
As time passed, my interest in watching sports waned and life went back to usual, I never forgot about the reporter, but I did start to look for people who looked like me on TV and in magazines... some people might come close, but it was never as much a match as that particular reporter.

Fast forward to High School... Was I still different...? According to society, I was still different... but by this time, I was becoming much more myself, gaining confidence and I had been with the same kids since elementary school, that everyone's parents knew me and the questions about my looks were usually left to strangers... literally, strangers on the street would walk up to me and say, "What are you?"

At this point in time, someone suggested I get into some type of show business since I had a "different" look. So I saved up my money from working retail after school and had some professional pictures taken. I sent out dozens of my headshot to agents around Los Angeles... I ended up getting quite a few requests for me to come in for an interview. I was so excited!
The interviews, how I remember them, were not really about me, but based solely on my looks. Or I should say look. I remember one particular agency I went to... I met with two women and a man.

They were sitting behind a table and I was sitting on a chair in front of all of them. They said hello and wanted to see my portfolio which had more pictures, so I handed it over. They all looked at the pictures and were talking amongst themselves and then one of the women looked up at me and said, you know, you are very pretty... I said, thank you and I thought maybe this means they will take me on as a client and represent me! but then came the "BUT" from the other woman... she said, your look is very different, I mean, what are you? Between the three of us, we can't figure out your ethnicity and If we can't figure out what you are, neither will the audience and it will confuse them, there is no way we will be able cast you. Your look just won't work in commercials or print... maybe if you go take acting lesson and get really good, someone will take you on, but right now we can't help you.Boom! Right to the gut... I had no thick skin at 17 years old and I took what they said and internalized it as something is wrong with me, something is wrong with the way I look.
I left that office and once I got out the door, I cried the whole bus ride home. I hadn't given up completely, but I was not feeling very inspired... I got in to some other agencies and was told the same thing, that my look was not identifiable and so I would have a hard time getting cast for work. After several or I should say at least a dozen of these meetings, I stopped and thought, that is it for me... I will not be a model, nor will I do commercials, story over.

I felt because of my experiences with these big Hollywood agencies that had rejected me, that being myself did not fit in with the images American society was looking for, it really messed with my self esteem and self worth, which was already fragile to begin with for other reasons. Once I let "that" go, I started to think that I still had my dream of my ultimate goal, to be a tv news reporter... If that woman who looked like me could do it, than I definitely could do it to. She was living proof that someone that looked like me could make it in that industry.

To make a long story short... I did end up becoming a television anchor/reporter working my way up the ranks in several cities including Philadelphia and New York City. I have given back to the community by covering stories that gave a voice to those who did not have one, I learned the art of hustling when you have little time to get pieces on air and I have met some of the most amazing people with incredible stories, seen some amazing happenings and have had some of the most wonderful experiences of my life, even being honored with several Emmy's for my work. My career has been beyond anything I ever would have thought possible for me.

This surely would not have happened had I not been so impacted by seeing someone like myself up on the screen...in a world that kept telling me how different I was and that I didn't fit in... just seeing this woman gave me the notion that It was also possible for me.

It is difficult for me to explain in words the powerful impact and feelings of what inclusivity means to me. Seeing this woman on TV changed the trajectory of my life at five years old.

I grew up insanely poor in a very dysfunctional and abusive household and if my life would have been forecasted by someone looking in, they would have said, this kid is going nowhere... but literally that day, watching the reporter that looked like me, at 5 years old, gave me a vision that I never let go of... it never ever left me and when people would ask me, what do I want to do when I grow up, for years, I would always say be a television news reporter.

That dream/vision for myself inspired me to go to college, live abroad for four years and create the career I had said I wanted, at five years old. Images are so powerful and in a world where being labeled different can be good or bad depending on how it is received by the individual, the impact can be destructive or creative and inspiring.

I am lucky to have moved in the direction of being inspired, even with all of the obstacles that fell into my path.

So bringing it back to the Oscars and Hollywood's little regard to notice or recognize the importance of all differences which contribute to our world creatively, big and small. I feel it is important to have as many stories out there with as much representation as possible, as it sparks dreams, opportunities and realities for those who are watching.

Seeing people of color on the screen for me has changed my life, it gave me direction, purpose, passion, creativity and compassion in Media, whether it is movies, television, magazines or newspapers. It is such a huge platform and medium to reach millions of people, It gives the responsibility and the opportunity to connect and share experiences. Whatever we "look" like, we all want to be seen and heard and we can rejoice that we are all different, each in our own glorious way... but ultimately, the same.

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Tiffany McElroy is an Emmy Award winning television journalist, anchor and freelance writer.

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