I See You.
In the fifth episode of Season 5 of Bojack Horseman, Bojack speaks on the importance of being seen. The comfort, joy and relief in someone saying to you "I See You", especially when you feel unappreciated and undervalued. Representation, to me, works the same way. There is comfort and relief in inspiring others, being the reason why someone starts on their path to greatness. There is also comfort, relief and joy in seeing yourself in others. There is so much importance in being able to say or hear 'I see you' and even more importance in being able to say or hear 'I see me in you'. As much as Black History Month commemorates the past, it should also act as planning and hope for the future. Representation ensures that we as black people continue to reach new heights, it ensures that young black kids take steps towards new endeavours that will positively shape society. It ensures we continue to be great.
What is representation?
We call for it all the time, we talk about its importance but what really is it? Oxford Dictionaries defines representation as "the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way" but that definition barely scratches the surface. The definition found in media studies may provide a better explanation. The University of Minnesota defines representation as ways the media depicts certain groups, communities, experiences, ideas or topics based on a particular ideology or perspective. They suggest that we shouldn't understand media representations as reflecting reality but instead use these representations to 're-present' or even create a new reality. I like the term re-present. It allows us to take back control of our narratives. Rather than focusing on how hard it is for black people to break into certain industry, although we still need to address this, we can re-present this narrative to highlight the success of those who have managed to made it and managed to break all the glass ceilings they encountered.
Why do we need representation?
Returning to representation in the media, photographers, videographers, producers etc make choices about can be seen in a picture, film or TV show. These choices have societal outcomes especially in an age where, often, media can be shared to the point that it removes a picture, for example, from its original context or even given a new context contradicting original intentions. Let's take the representation of Africa in the media for example. Africa is mostly depicted as a continent of extreme poverty and suffering. Most people will associate Africa to these images and believe that this all that Africa has to offer. This has implications. When someone introduces themselves as African, society will immediately make a link to poverty and suffering. It seems almost impossible for anyone from Africa to be well off or even in the UK for anything other than escaping the terrible tragedies they see on TV and in advertising. This often causes this person to entangled in stereotypes that determine how they are perceived in their day to day lives, from job interviews to in education, even just in a conversation.
Examining the implications of the lack of representation in the media or the workplace can also highlight how detrimental the topic is. If we do not see black people present in industries, we start to believe that they simply do not exist. It may seem crazy as you may not find yourself thinking about this but if I were to ask you what a doctor looks like, or a CEO or a university lecturer, chances are that the image you get in your mind is not that of a black person. Why? These are the images we've been fed. We've been told that we come from extreme poverty, suffering and despair. We've been shown that we don't achieve much and we are not in top positions in top companies. These images, be they TV shows, films or in day to day life, become ingrained in our minds to the point that it shapes our lives.
Let's take Western countries, particularly the UK and USA, for example. These are such racially, ethnically and culturally diverse countries, yet many industries do not reflect this. The media certainly doesn't. This is a problem prevalent throughout the Western world where there has been, for instance, a rapid growth of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Students from all walks of life are being granted access to learning these subjects with more and more students starting STEM careers. Over the next 10 years, the amount of STEM jobs in the US is expected to increase by 13%, with a 14% increase in computing jobs, which is much higher than the expected growth of 9% for non-STEM jobs (Education Commission of the States, 2017). Although it is becoming a more diverse and lucrative field, with more women and people of colour taking up STEM jobs, black people continue to be underrepresented in the graduate and job statistics.
Statistics on black people in various industries are alarming. Huffington Post reports just over a quarter of speaking roles in 2015's top Hollywood movies went to people of colour. Now think about how many movies Hollywood produces a year. That figure is ridiculous. Not only is this statistics damaging for upcoming and current actors in the industry, researchers also find that these statistics are damaging to the viewers as well. In the article, Darnell Hunt likens our media consumption to radiation and the symptom is feeling that what you see is normal, that that's just the way it is. It then goes on to shape audiences views on other black people and themselves. Researchers call this 'Symbolic Annihilation', making you feel as if not seeing yourself makes you unimportant and your stories don't matter.
What can we do about representation?
This is a tricky question. We could probably talk for hours about what is wrong about society and how it affects us negatively, yet it's difficult for us to put a concrete plan in action. This may be because we simply don't know how we can fix it or our solutions are easy to implement on a small scale but fall flat on a wider and more societal level. The truth is, I don't have an answer either.
Firstly, we should broaden the conversation. I realised that whenever I hear or see talks about representation it's more often than not in relation to the media. It may be a theory from media studies but it can be applied to wider society. This is mainly because of technology's place in society, which allows us to engage in media, particularly social media, on a day to day basis. This means that theories and discussions about representation on TV, in films and in advertising could also be applied to other industries as 'audiences' engage with these industries online. Therefore, we should also give representation in other industries the same amount of attention given to representation in the media. Secondly, we must work to produce our own counter-narratives. For years, we have been asking to be better represented and have seen very little results. Let's take responsibility for how we our portrayed to each other and younger generations, if mainstream media and wider society won't. Let's continue to write our books, produce our own films/shows and hold our own careers and networking events.
It's hard to fix representation on a wider level if we're not being allowed to but we must ensure that younger generations are aware they have access to so many industries, jobs and opportunities that we were led to believe we didn't.