Representation matters. Here’s why you should care.

diversity

I didn’t think much about diversity in childhood.

I grew up in a rural Midwestern elementary school district primarily comprised of white middle class students. A portion of the student body was Hispanic and Latino.

Throughout my entire grade school and junior high career, we had one black student. Her family moved to the area, stayed for about a year, and then moved out of the district.

It was easy for me to find likeness all around me. In my classroom, in my community, in literature, in television shows. It took effort to find differences. I never lacked a sense of belonging over issues like my race, religion, gender, physical abilities, etc.

I didn’t know that there were thousands of students elsewhere in the U.S. without that luxury.

Why representation matters

This is Exhibit A for why representation is important.

At first glance, Emma Bennet looks like an average 10-year-old girl. It’s on second glance that you can spot she wears a prosthetic right leg.

Emma’s parents reached out to a prosthetic company to make a smaller scale prosthetic leg so she could have a doll that looked like her. A Step Ahead Prosthetics accepted the request and sent the lookalike doll to her with a note saying the doll was ready to live “without limitations,” just like Emma.

Her reaction says it all. For the first time, she finds herself reflected in a doll. The emotion is overwhelming for her – and, quite likely, for those who see the video.

This is Exhibit B, shared by a friend on Facebook.

starwars

Here’s Exhibit C, a viral anecdote making the rounds on social media.

starwarsaccent

Exhibit D comes from Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Woodson grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, living part of her life in South Carolina and part in New York. Her words let me step into her shoes and take a few baby steps toward understanding what it meant to be a black child in those decades.

One particular passage in her poem “stevie and me” stands out:

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I’d ever seen in a book before.

The little boy’s name was Steven but
his mother kept calling him Stevie.
My name is Robert but my momma don’t
call me Robertie.

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
maybe
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.

I had to set the book down when I read that last stanza for the first time. “If someone had taken that book out of my hand … I’d never have believed that someone who looked like me could be in the pages of the book.” She’d never have believed that someone like her could have a story.

But we all have stories. Every single person who lives has a story. And every one of those stories is important. Those stories need to be told so others can say, “That’s just like my story. I can relate.” And so others beyond them can say, “I never knew your story – it’s different than mine, but it helps me find our mutual ground. It helps me understand you. It helps me respect you.”

Why diversity matters to the already-represented

I mentioned earlier that I never had problems finding myself represented in the community, books, TV shows, etc. So why should I care?

For years, I didn’t know I was missing out on anything. But what I didn’t know did hurt me, in a way. Not as much as it hurt the others who struggled to find themselves reflected in media and community, but it stunted me.

Representation in media builds empathy and understanding. Representation builds perception. It matters to have the Mexican man cast as the hero and not always as the villain so society doesn’t subconsciously (and unjustly) characterize Mexicans. It helps me understand a fraction of what it meant to grow up black in the south during the 1960s and 1970s.

For a long time, “diversity” seemed to be little more than a buzzword. College admissions essays asked for descriptions of diversity in my life. Workplaces discussed how to hire a diverse staff and why it was important. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in children’s literature that I truly began to grasp why diversity is more than a buzzword.

Children need to see themselves reflected in the world around them. They need to know there is a place for them – a welcome place. They need to know there’s a seat at the table. And those who are already at the table need to know it only enriches them to make room. It truly is “the more the merrier.” The more we know of each other, the more we learn about the each other, the happier and more harmoniously we’ll live.

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3 Responses to Representation matters. Here’s why you should care.

  1. trinitygrau says:

    I hate to sound judgmental, but I find something wrong with what you said. Yes, I agree that it’s important that some people, they don’t want them to be portrayed in a bad light. People with prosthetic legs, black people, those people want to be portrayed in a good way. Ok, yes. But here’s the thing. We’re all Americans. We’re not different races! A race is like calling someone a different specie. We’re not a different specie. We’re all human. We (here at least) are American. We are supposed to be one nation under God. By trying to separate people into all these different “races”, we’re separating each other. Why can’t we all just be American? Because at the end of the day, nobody wants to be just American. They have to tack on another name to it, so they can be special. “Oh, I’m African-American.” “I’m Hispanic-American.” Sometimes, I’ve heard people not even use the word American when describing themselves! Yes, we come from different backgrounds and ethnicities that we should be proud of. We were the melting pot. We SHOULD be the melting pot. When my grandparents came to the US, they didn’t keep on speaking Spanish. They learned to speak English and they learned to do things the American way. They’re proud of where they came from. But they’re also proud of where they live.
    As a child, you don’t care about diversity and you know why? Because it DOESN’T MATTER. Diversity doesn’t matter in the media. As a white person, I would be insulted if black people complained about a movie having an all-white cast. Why should it matter? If we’re truly not being racist, we should be able to sympathize with people who are “not our race.” Yes, I appreciate it when we have people who are like us. But that’s only if they’re necessary to the movie or if they were perfect to the part. If the role doesn’t call for a someone with a “diverse background”, we often criticize them. Because they’re white. Because they’re not one of the tacked-on Americans who has to add something to make himself feel special and different. If we’re all not being racist and accepting each other, then equal representation in the media shouldn’t matter. If a black person’s perfect for the role, great! If he’s not, don’t try to cast another black person just to be diverse! This idea that somehow we’re “diversifying” our country by putting “African-Americans” and “Chinese-Americans”, “Cuban-Americans” in media is what’s tearing us apart.
    I am American. I’m proud of it.

    Like

    • I have to respectfully disagree on some points.

      I fully agree that, when all is said and done, we’re all people. But I also think it’s wonderful to acknowledge and celebrate differences among people. I absolutely agree with you that we’re all the human race, but that doesn’t mean being human has to mean being homogenized. Diversity encompasses many aspects — race, religion, gender, sex, age, nationality, ethnicity, culture …

      I don’t find anything inherently wrong with acknowledgment (and celebration of) multiple races, belief systems, gender spectrums, nationalities, heritages, etc. By all means, Native Americans should celebrate being Native American. Blacks should celebrate black history (minus the slave trade era — “celebrate” wouldn’t be the operative word there). Different nationalities should celebrate being Canadian, or Mexican, or American, or British. People with disabilities should celebrate their accomplishments and the adversity they overcome.

      On another thought: I think sometimes people hear “diversity” and they reject it as a buzzword. When I mention diversity in media, I don’t mean “token diversity” like adding a black person just for the sake of adding a minority character — that’s pandering rather than true diversity. I mean actually representing people.

      Perhaps “representation” is a more accurate word than “diversity.” Because I do believe artists have a responsibility to try to represent people of all types. I think we have a responsibility to look for stories to tell of underrepresented people. (And as much as I wish we lived in a truly blended society without prejudices or marginalized groups, that’s not yet the case; perhaps if we continue to blend these groups into our media, they will be normalized and “otherness” will be eliminated.)

      My reason for believing in our responsibility to represent all types of people can link back to the little girl with the prosthetic leg. She’s different from the majority, and she doesn’t see herself represented in many places. That creates a sense of “otherness.” But when she finds herself represented with her doll, it chips away the smallest bit of “otherness.” The same for Jacqueline Woodson as a child. For a long time, she never found herself among characters. But when she found someone who looked like her in the pages of a book, it chipped away at the sense of “otherness.”

      That’s the power of art and media. We can help people feel like a part of culture and society. The more we diversify who we represent, the more we blend society. As counterproductive as it may sound, focusing on diversity now can eliminate the barriers between people in the future and actually normalize our differences. It can allow us to recognize the ways we’re different while also helping us find common ground.

      I know I touched on this in my original post, but I do think it bears repeating that seeking out stories from people with different life experiences and backgrounds furthers our understanding of others and chips away more at that “otherness.” Empathizing with characters who are Islamic, or black, or gay, or mentally ill, or people with disabilities helps us accept them.

      Sorry for the length of this reply. If anything seems muddled, I’m happy to clarify. And perhaps we’ll agree to disagree, but I’m always happy to engage in discussion.

      Like

  2. Yes to all of this. My sister and I are working hard to create stories that different types of people can see themselves in. And if you can’t, it’s good to know about them anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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