Fearless Futures Podcast Episode 5: Relying on Representation [Transcript]

Cleo Bergman
Nov 18, 2020 · 12 min read
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Hanna Naima McCloskey: Hi, you’re listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. I’m your host, Hanna Naima McCloskey, the CEO and founder of Fearless Futures, and this is the show where we unpack and interrogate mainstream methods for equity and inclusion. I’ll be sharing new perspectives as well as alternative approaches we have developed and deployed working in daring companies across sectors around the world. Each week we will explore a new angle you won’t want to miss, so stick around.

This episode is about Representation: its power and possibilities as well as the pitfalls of relying on it when it comes to doing inclusion and equity work in our organizations. Representation remains a primary tool for organizations and society more broadly when thinking about what inclusion entails. Representation in this context is largely about including certain people who experienced marginalization or oppression in centers of decision-making or on screen and across our wider cultural phenomena. It’s largely what the D relates to (the D of Diversity), that is providing a breadth of who is seen and present within a particular context where they otherwise are as the term says, marginalized, pushed to the side or absent entirely.

There is huge power in pursuing representation of groups of people who experienced oppression and oppressions symbolically. To have present those who have historically and, also in the present, been pushed to the side represents a disruption in many ways — visually within a discourse, culturally from that history, perhaps even as a break or as a crack for opening what is possible. At an individual level, to see people like you in contexts where they haven’t been obviously hugely matters to people and isn’t to be diminished at all. Who and what stories are told and represented also really matters in terms of which ideas are normalized, and the conditions that informs and produces for marginalized people’s experiences.

So for example, consistent depictions in television of Muslim people as dangerous and as terrorists are pervasive. I mean, it’s almost exclusively what is represented and the kind of narratives and ideas that we’re mainly engaging with. The only times that I hear Arabic on TV or in films are from people who are plotting terrorist violence, often in sweaty, sandy rooms where the call to prayer kind of exists in the background, something that is beautiful and emotional and deeply spiritual. They are then turned into something deadly.

And for me, as somebody of mixed heritage, Algerian-British, seeing that kind of singular perspective of Muslim people, of Arabic language, Arabic culture is sad and painful and frustrating and anger-inducing because — of course I know that that isn’t (and it shouldn’t even have to be said) what reality is at all. And that narrow singular perspective is so — is what is in fact dangerous, to be honest. Dangerous because of the conditions that it produces for Muslim people in terms of what people believe they are permitted to do to Muslims in light of the ideas that they’re fed about who Muslim people are. And so, representation creates the conditions for marginalized people and how they’re existing in the world. And when those representations are narrow just like we see for Muslim people, it produces conditions where violence is permissible, and where non-Muslim people believe they have a right to enact violence on Muslim people because they see that as legitimate and valid and right in relation to the totality of the representation that they engage with.

And I also saw this sort of loud and clear in Laverne Cox’s recent documentary that’s available on Netflix called Disclosure, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s an amazing documentary and it charts along with many other dimensions to the relationship between Hollywood and trans and non-binary people’s experiences. It shines a light on the dehumanizing depiction of trans and non-binary people in TV and film. And it demonstrates that representation does indeed matter because it determines the bounds of who and what is permissible in our society.

So for example, you know, the laughter at trans and non-binary people that is depicted, the division that is targeted at trans and non-binary people on film and TV as well as the expectation set. For example, around the kind of work and lives that trans and non-binary people do all comes together to — again, much like in the case of Muslim people on film and in TV, creates the conditions that permit violence against trans and non-binary people. And as such, I guess by definition on the other side of that, we therefore have to acknowledge that being present and seen through the breadth of one’s humanity, both having the possibility of innocence and creativity and enjoyment and joy alongside experiencing pain or suffering. Both have it being able to be represented as tricky and complex and maybe angry is not the be all and end all because there are so many other varieties and versions and expressions of the narratives and stories told about a group of people.

Representation therefore is super important and those possibilities are real for what it can offer, but we do need to also engage with the failure or the limitations I should say, instead of relying on representation. One of those kind of limitations is that it can lead to a sort of one-and-done phenomena. The idea that one singular person has been represented and now, we can move on — a tokenizing, if you will, over particular experience in order not to engage in broader work. So, for example, we might say that a person of a particular race is represented in this decision-making body. And therefore, the work here is done. The fulfillment of representation is all that needs to happen for a wider equity to be lived out. And so, there’s a kind of obscuring, an obfuscation of what’s really required by this idea of a singular person “representing.” The other limitation within this idea of representation is that it has a reductionist and essentialist notion and idea of who a group is, what a marginal identity means, and what that experience is as well.

Of course, a single person can never represent all people from a particular marginalized group. And of course, we would never expect that of those who don’t experience an oppression and the idea that one singular person can capture the essence of that experience is of course, like, it’s just ridiculous. And so, this idea — this kind of essentialist idea that to experience an oppression is a kind of singular — there’s a singular truth within it that can be distilled down — it has this purity idea within it about a person’s marginalized identity. And I think we see this even when it’s often used and intended positively. So for example, women leaders have been hailed, or at least a number of them have, in terms of how they’ve dealt and managed the COVID pandemic, and their decisions and their behaviors have been attributed to the fact that they are all defined as women.

Now, I think — and sort of bear with me on this, but we can potentially end up in some really dangerous territory here where we essentialize decision-making on this kind of “Je ne sais quoi”that makes a woman, a woman. And I think it has the danger of creating some very narrow — narrowly-defined parameters of who gets to belong in that category of women. If we’re talking about this category of womanhood in this essentialist way, because the question is, who then is a woman? What are the ways women have to behave to prove their womanhood? What are these essential characteristics that women apparently have? Where did they come from? And of course if we are engaging in this idea of this essence of being a woman, we’re obviously going to come up against, and I would say, for many people this is probably unwitting, but we’re going to come up against some…We’re going to be engaging with, not even coming up against, or indeed perpetuating some potentially sexist ideas or transphobic ideas about one’s gender and where our gender comes from and how and who gets to decide the legitimacy of one’s gender, who we believe, who we don’t believe and so on. And this is because we’re in this space where we think there’s something that we can distill down from a person’s experience of oppression that has some sort of wider, broader meaning. And of course just to go back, when it comes to women leaders, this has been intended as a very positive thing, almost another justification to say, look, we should have more women leaders because — look how well they’ve done because of their womanliness, look how well they’ve done in managing COVID in their respective countries.

But women don’t — the rights for women to be in decision-making is not based on them being really, really good at managing COVID. People deserve to be involved in decision-making around their lives because people deserve to be involved in decision-making around their lives, and women as anybody have a right to be involved in decision-making. Their subordination and disenfranchisement is not in and of itself legitimate. It’s an illegitimate premise and we need to be extremely clear about that. So, whether they’re good or bad at managing COVID is neither here or there, and again as one of these other distraction techniques that means we have to go around proving why women should be in leadership roles. And apparently, it’s because they’re very — there’s something essential about their womanliness that means they’re good at managing pandemics.

The other limitation with relying on representation is that it seems to assume that being somebody who experiences a particular oppression means that you’re by definition aligned with values and ideas that are about challenging the ways in which bad oppression exists. Now, time and time again, we see that there are of course, people who belong to a group that experience oppression and oppressions who do not live out the values or take the action that would challenge that oppression at a broader level. They in fact perpetuate harmful ideas and policies in the world that — when taken to their logical conclusion, harm other people with whom they share that oppression. We see this consistently around the world that that is a thing that does exist, that living within the context of an oppression does not mean that a person has an analysis of their oppression or is indeed rooted in principles that are to challenge inequities and systems of oppression. And I say this because I think it’s a really kind of important point for us to kind of engage with here, even if the person in question at an individual level isn’t going to accrue the benefits of that oppressive system in the way that the system was designed to serve do. They can still be aligned with and perpetuate ideas that might further harm in line with that system.

So again, we need to move out of this kind of notion of purity that comes from living within a site of oppression and seeing that that existence alone is enough really, in pursuing equity and inclusion. What we know is that it isn’t sufficient. There needs to be something more that comes from an analysis that’s rooted in unpacking systems of oppression and also a commitment to a wider goal that’s rooted in equity and inclusion aligned with that analysis. Being a woman alone does not make one anti-sexist. And again, there are countless examples of how that’s the case, and I think where we need to kind of think about — okay, well, why might that be the case that just by being a woman, one isn’t necessarily anti-sexist. But also therefore that to be somebody who is represented at a decision-making table, for example, doesn’t mean that you’re going to then enact anti-sexist policies.

Well, we might think about, what does it take for a particular person, for example, in the context of decision-making circles to get to be there in the first place and to get to be represented? When we think about how inclusion operates, it relies on those who already have that position of power and afforded the access and resource to reach out and bring in to include as the term says, somebody who is on the margins into that central position. And so, we have to think about who is somebody who’s benefiting from the status quo likely to make room for, and to have represented in certain decision-making contexts.

It’s probably, but not always, likely that the person that gets to be represented in certain contexts is going to be someone that most closely aligns with the preservation of the status quo, which might be why it is then that they get to be represented, and to represent and to have their voice acknowledged in that context. And that isn’t an individual on the margin’s fault, but it is reflective of a dynamic that can in fact play out. And for that person who experiences oppression to be granted, I’m going to use that language specifically, granted the right to represent. They may not have the space or the permissibility to share the views that they have in actual fact. Views that might be aligned more broadly with principles of equity that might be a thing that happens even when they are represented because of the way those dynamics will play out in real-time in those decision-making contexts. So, there are kind of two sides to it:

One, we need to kind of release this idea of an essential, pure, distilled, reduced version of an experience of oppression that means that somebody who lives within that particular site is somehow by definition aligned with broader goals and is enacting them. So, that’s the one hand. And then the other is, maybe they are. But is there the space for that to be voiced in the context of certain places where they are to be the representative and to represent the wider collective views of what it means to kind of live out equity from a kind of action and policy perspective. What this ultimately boils down to unfortunately is that we do have a tension.

There’s a tension here between what representation at a cultural and discourse level can open up, the possibilities it presents, the power it has for individuals to see people like them in ways that kind of stretch our imaginations beyond what we’ve already seen aren’t the narrow images or the harmful and dangerous images of people like them. That has huge power.

We also know that seeing the breadth of people’s humanity, their failures, their mess-ups, as well as them enjoying an adventure and creativity can alter the conditions of what is made possible and permissible. It can be a counter and a challenge that mitigates violence to certain marginalized communities. So, that’s on the one hand. And then we have the other, which is that to rely on representation, and I would say maybe rely on representation alone has significant limitations because at its core, it reduces and centralizes an experience of oppression that isn’t possible because of the breadth of, firstly interlocking oppressions, but also the interaction of privileges and impressions. And also the fact that there is no monolithic or single experience of oppression in any case. So, it’s limited by suggesting that to represent particular oppression is even possible. And it reduces people to a group which we would never ever indulge as an idea for those who don’t experience oppression and in fact benefit from the status quo. We would never subscribe to some sort of universal set of ideas to that group. They get to be who they are in all of their difference, which of course is — one, perhaps measuring dimension of freedom.

And so, these are ideas that are in tension. And when they are in tension, it means that there’s no single answer to this, rather we more just need to be very, very conscious of the tension, seeing it in action and consistently negotiating in our own decision-making and the ways in which we kind of engage with the idea of representation, who’s represented, how and whether that’s even a rightful pursuit. We need to be constantly in negotiation with all of those things. I’m questioning, what is it in service of? And I think once we have that end goal clear, it might give us a useful framework on our day-to-day basis.

Thank you for listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe, rate, and share this episode with a friend. If you’re interested in learning more about the work that we do at Fearless Futures, please visit our website, fearlessfutures.org. ’Til next time.

Fearless Futures

Unlearn inequity. Transform the world.

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.

Cleo Bergman

Written by

US Corporate Programs Coordinator @ Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.