What power lies in a story?
On pushing Representation to the forefront
[TL;DR — Tricia Jose and I have created a new initiative for young Canadians called WE REPRESENT. Check us out here to learn about what we do (Hint: we love accurate representation and want more stories, realities, and opportunities for people of all backgrounds. OR read below for the scenic route as told by me, thanks!]
The Simpsons are banned
My parents never let me watch The Simpsons growing up. I was largely left out of most references to the worlds favourite dysfunctional cartoon family — and would only occasionally drop a Lisa Simpson saxophone joke here and there as my sole quip. In fact, it wasn’t even until my last couple of years in high school that I learned about the character of Apu.
You know Apu — he’s the caricature of the Indian immigrant in America: corner store, heavy accent, exaggerated in every way, the whole nine yards. When I recently discovered that Apu was voiced over by a white man, Hank Azaria (who has, to be fair, acknowledged Apu’s problematic nature) and was written by a predominantly white writing room; I was, frankly, not even a little bit surprised. (P.s. Comedian Hari Kondabolu created a documentary called The Problem with Apu, for your thoughtful pleasure on this whole topic).
We’ve seen this before — when one story can cut through the noise and nestle itself into the hearts and minds of millions. Apu is but a mere example of The Danger of A Single Story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it. The hard part is to undo the bite of a single story and to un-train the world from believing it to be the reality of one group: the only way to do it is to fill the world with a thousand accurate stories from a thousand different perspectives.
The campfire element that exists at the crux of every good story is what brings me in: here we are, a bunch of people engrossed in a narrative that reminds us we’re all human.
Whether it was reading about a young British boy heading off to Hogwarts (still waiting on my letter, by the way), or watching the common and uncommon lives of people on big and small screens — a good story has never failed to grip me. Yet when I reflect on growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the stories I saw didn’t look like the world I grew up in. And the few adaptations I did see have found their way into the minds and subconscious of millions in the Western world — and continue to live on many years later as the one narrative that has been told about Indian-origin people. I have a hard time remembering even a handful of stories about brown-skinned folks growing up that weren’t riddled with stereotypes — rather than three-dimensional, complicated, nuanced, and intelligent humans that we all know people of colour to be.
The year is 2002, I’m 9 years old and go to watch a movie that would have a profound impact on me at the time. That movie? Bend it like Beckham.
I know what you’re thinking — can she get any more cliche than being a brown girl who references Bend it Like Beckham when talking about representation?
Probably not, but this movie remains to be a classic for a reason: it seamlessly hit themes that this somewhat gangly looking, awkwardly chubby, avid soccer-playing kid could relate to. Living and growing up amongst pre-dominantly white friends, I never felt a blatant discrepancy or lack of opportunities — but I was reminded of my “otherness” in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. That’s why being a 9 year old kid watching the main character Jess being recognized and celebrated for excellence in a realm that isn’t seen as the “traditional domain” for Indian-origin people was, for lack of a better word, gratifying.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Is it reasonable to say, that the opportunities that entered my brain as a young elementary school patron, or even in high school, were a reflection of what I thought was possible? Hindsight may very well be 20/20, but if our imaginations are unavoidably influenced and shaped by the imagery presented in the classroom, in the media, and in everyday life: you’re bound to develop some subconscious bias as well, despite what colour pigment your skin happens to be. After all, when I would think of greatness and of limitless possibility, only a select few of the people who looked like me would have a seat at the table.
Growing up the default successful entrepreneurs I knew looked like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, the default movie stars looked like Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock, the default tech tycoons looked like Mark Zuckerburg and Evan Spiegel, and the default world leaders looked like Paul Martin and George Bush (yikes, eh?).
So you see this pattern, the pattern of one story being represented time and time again as the benchmark for success, can bleed into the psyche of young kids when they need to hear is that they too, are seen, are valid, and are important. The tragedy is this: if in the story of your life, a person who looks like you is not the mind’s default of ultimate success, then we certainly do have a problem.
This is the power of accurate representation — or in my experience, the lack thereof.
Who’s on your home-team?
In my home, however, I had what I’d describe as a tribe of role models to look to — in my older sister, in my mom, in my dad, and in my grandmother, and of course my entire extended family; a squad of support and the epitome of success lived under the same roof — and for that I’m truly privileged. Upon reflecting, I’ve come to understand how pivotal my “home team” was in shaping my ambition, and never allowed me to doubt my own ability. So whenever I would waver on whether I was worthy of going for a certain job, or applying for a school, or putting myself out there to do something terrifying— I had a choir of people who would practically sing to me “Why not you? ”
That feeling of “Why not me?” was amplified every-time I would encounter a story or experience that I felt validated my existence:
I felt it when watching Bend it like Beckham; when discovering and reading Jumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, when seeing Mindy Kaling on the small screen, when seeing Priyanka Chopra on the big screen, when I would hear Nora Jones on the radio, when I would see news anchors on GlobalTV or CBC who looked like me — these experiences are fuel, and every kid deserves to look themselves in the mirror and instead of leading with doubt through a question like “why not me?”, instead lead with certainty and say “It’s my time now.”
Even further, if you don’t have a tribe of support in your own home- you tend to look for it elsewhere. You tend to look for it in the programs you join, in the activities you get involved in, in the people you surround yourself with. For kids in their formative years, breaking detrimental and systemic patterns can start with knowing what’s possible.
When you see someone who looks like you, it reveals what is possible. Suddenly, becoming a prime minister, a CEO, a visionary artist, a professional athlete, a leader — all become much more real.
In times of late, representation on and off screen has seen some strides. A shift of the tides, an awakening across the board — numerous initiatives, movements, and people have sprung up over the past few years under the umbrella of one resounding truth:
A diverse, and representative group of people are inherently more likely to succeed.
However, we’ve all heard the statistics:
- Women make up only 5% of all CEO’s and founders of tech companies in Canada
- Only 10% of graduate degrees earned by women are in STEM fields, compared to 24% of graduate degrees earned by men
- According to a 2017 study, roughly 30 percent of speaking roles in film were given to people of colour (13.6 percent black, 5.7 percent Asian, 3.1 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent other)
Now we have seen immense success in popular media through representative stories, I will remind us that these are only the tip of the iceberg.
A brilliant blockbuster success like Black Panther exists at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement; Crazy Rich Asians has filled theatres this summer, yet Asian Americans are now face the most income inequality in America; Wonder Woman has shattered perceptions of what a superhero star looks like, yet Time’s Up was still needed.
To me “diversity” is sometimes a word we hear too often these days and when we’re talking about diversity — it’s not a box to check, it is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us: black, white, brown, mixed, and everything in between.
Diversity is not an obligation, it is not a quota that you put on your annual report, it is not a line in your company mission statement: it is simply a reality we need to work towards, and I mean work, because we all believe in its power.
What We Represent
We believe that “If you can see it, you can be it.”
We Represent creates powerful storytelling and leadership opportunities to shift the mindset of young people. We do this through our annual creative competition, in-class workshops, and powerful mentorship.
How might we change the mindset of our young people so that every board room, every movie, every government, and so on — represents the world we all live in?
Through WE REPRESENT, we’re tackling a representation and a pipeline problem. We’re not only telling diverse stories of real role models, we are making young people aware of the opportunities available to them, and in turn shaping what all of our futures look like. We strive to create a generation where young kids look in the mirror and don’t want to be anyone but themselves.
By putting young Canadians in the driver’s seat of telling these stories, we’re planting seeds of possibility and creating a community along the way.
This is only the beginning of our journey, so we invite you to help us on this ride and get involved in one of three ways:
A future where world leaders, game-changing CEO’s, inspirational athletes, the faces on our big and small screens all look like the world I walk through every day: That’s what WE REPRESENT.
More to come,