Sorry, But That's Not the Representation We Asked For
Why people who face isms need decision-making power
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about representation. It’s something Black people and many people who face isms want, but even when things happen that are supposed to offer representation, we’re still not happy.
The reason is because of another lack of representation - behind the scenes where decisions are made.
So when someone decides that a TV cast will feature representation of every ethnicity, there’s no guarantee that the roles people of color fill will be rich and multifaceted. It’s much more likely they will be stereotypical, conforming to overused tropes about this or that type of person. That’s because many of the people who are approving, creating, and casting shows are white, and know nothing about the people they’re trying to show on TV.
It’s similar in the movies, where often characters of color are boxed into tropes that do nothing to reveal our all too human complexity.
The Wrong Kind of Representation? Unpacking the Vogue Cover
Here’s another example: you have Black women on the cover of Vogue. On the face of it, that’s great, but does that really represent those Black women as they are, and Black women in general?
While my first thought was positive, my second thought was: why are they wearing wigs representing European hair? I’m not denying Black women do all kinds of things with our hair, but couldn’t most of them have styles in keeping with our own cultural traditions? I’m talking locs, Bantu knots, big fros, corn rows or short natural hair, to name just a few.
A CNN article summed it up like this:
“many of us want to love these images, but can't shake off a feeling of disquiet that is rooted in deeper issues around beauty standards that have excluded us for so long.”
Someone else made the point that in choosing a photographer known for going dark, as it were, with his shots, it erased the varied beauty of the women featured. Though I didn’t think of that initially, it seemed a valid point. This article from Al-Jazeera goes further, and suggests the cover reproduces fetishized images of Black women.
So, it’s another example of how what’s supposed to be representation can actually be problematic.
Tokenization at Work
In a work setting, this kind of tokenized representation shows up as putting the people who face isms on your company team page, while doing nothing to address the real issues those same people face with racism on a daily basis. There’s a lot of that around, especially in Black History Month. (I share some thoughts about BHM in the new mini-podcast for paid subscribers.)
I guess what I’m saying is that surface representation will never be enough. It’s used to make the white people in charge feel good about how “well” they’re doing, but does nothing for actual Black and Brown people.
The answer is true representation at all levels:
Representation that includes not just being there, but being valued, respected and listened to.
Representation that means that when decisions are being made, those with experience of a situation are listened to and their recommendations acted on.
Representation that means people who face isms can actually make decisions to make things better for everyone.
It’s the only way to avoid further tokenization so we can move forward. Would-be allies, how are you making sure true representation happens in your circles?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Getty Images. Image credit: Grace Cary