When working on diversity and inclusion, there is often a lot of talk about representation. How we want more representation in boards, more representation in advertising, more representation in media, etcetera. While increased representation of minority groups is valuable to encourage awareness and empathy, more and more DEI professionals and activists are acknowledging that representation alone won’t fix inequalities, and that focusing on representation only can actually harm communities and the fight for equity.
Representation is not enough if it is not authentic
Representation cannot be used as a quick fix to ‘diversify’ your branding by increasing visual diversity. We saw this when Barnes and Noble was accused of performing ‘literary blackface’ when they wanted to rerelease children’s classics with people of color on the covers. When you strive for representation, it is not just about showing diversity or ‘tick the box’ diversity, but about striving for authenticity and a diverse representation that makes sense within a wider context. Furthermore, who is being represented today is still highly dependent on existing norms about respectability, or even exceptionality.
Representation is not enough if it isn’t accountable
Representation should not only be authentic but also accountable. How do various stakeholders trust the representation they see. For example, in media representation, how does the disability community feel about the representation of disability in a certain tv series? How well-represented do women feel in conversations about abortion and health care? What about trans and non binary people? Or in organisations, when a company wants to diversify their board, this board will only be diverse enough when employees and other stakeholders trust that the board is representative and accountable.
Representation is not enough without structural change
Finally, representation alone will not have the desired impact without structural change. Representation is incredibly important for increasing awareness, showing what the world is really like and opening up the conversation. Who we see on screen, who gets the mic, who leads the conversation, all impacts how we look at the world. This importance cannot be understated. But if the systems beneath remain unequal, communities will not be supported substantially and sustainably and historical inequities won’t be resolved.
International Transgender Day of Visibility
Today, 31 March, is Internation Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to celebrate trans people and highlight the discrimination they face. Many trans activists have expressed that this day should not be limited to encouraging visibility, especially as long as it remains unsafe to be visible. “Visibility and representation can be deeply affirming for those marginalized from the mainstream. But a politics of identity and its recognition have come to overshadow the ways in which recognition carries unique consequences for some trans people and not for others.” Trans and nonbinary people today face many forms of discrimination, and in the current climate, the community is experiencing more hostility than support. This is largely due to negative representations of trans people, but focusing solely on fixing this representation cannot fix the structural issues beneath.
Because of the negative representation of trans people in the media, for example in the U.K. and U.S., but we are seeing an increased anti-trans and anti-queer movement in Belgium as well, research shows that people are overestimating the actual number of trans people in society. Moreover, people’s assumptions about trans people are so influenced by this negative discourse that most conversations today enormously lack empathy or even basic respect. While it is thus important that these types of negative representation are challenged, by changing the narrative and framing, it is also, if not more important to, beyond representation politics or ‘visibility politics’, focus on finding ways to structurally support trans people. Whether it is about supporting safe spaces where the community can come together, making sure that trans and nonbinary people can access proper healthcare, decreasing workplace discrimination, providing housing, and making sure trans people are being legally protected by overturning discriminatory laws, it is this type of support that the trans and nonbinary community needs today. Simultaneously, it is the current negative representation in media that is preventing trans and nonbinary people from accessing this type of support.
If you want to learn more about this, we highly recommend The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye.
When we talk about representation, we should ask ourselves: what representation are we aiming for? What do we want to achieve by increasing this representation? How are we creating an environment where this representation will be able to be successful and impactful? And what else are we doing to help our cause of achieving equity and justice? Yes, representation is important. But it cannot be the only thing we are fighting for. Let’s aim for both. Representation of all types of experiences, that are recognizable and authentic, and also structural change that increases equity for all.