From forth the fatal loins of the 2016 Presidential Election, an unforeseen breadwinner has emerged: empowerment. The turbulence of the Trump administration has impassioned minority groups and allies alike, resulting in nationwide protests and millions who have pledged to #staywoke. This effect is not exclusive to isolated pockets of the US, but is rather a small piece of a larger international movement aiming to address systemic discrimination and embrace diversity. In a world that has become media-centric, the issue of representation has risen to the forefront of this movement.
As many of you are aware, despite representation being so.damn.important. diversity in the media and within branding and advertising campaigns is severely lacking. This issue existed long before 2016, but in recent years, marginalized groups have worked collectively to end this injustice. Brands have responded to these efforts through alleged “diversity campaigns,” which in truth, are nothing more than glorified reproductions of the age-old practice of placing a token person of color in a crowd of cis, white, able-bodied models. If you haven’t figured it out already, this is not enough.
It is more than a buzzword. It is more than a cry for fairness and equity. It is so, so much more than I will ever be able to fully articulate. Representation is everything, which is why we need to make inclusivity the standard. To do so, the way in which we address representation must change.
Diversity is not a trend, and we cannot allow brands or companies to continually treat it as such. The economic benefits of representation are clear; Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line generated $72 million within its first month, with its sole point of parity being that its foundation shades expanded beyond one definition of “nude.” There is clear economic benefit to a diversity campaign, and although capitalistic intentions may not be as admirable as moral chagrin, they are not an obstacle, but merely a byproduct of our economic system. They do, however, underscore a very real threat to representation efforts: commoditization.
In allowing companies to treat diversity as an opportunity to gain social relevance, the entire movement is undermined. Rather than a vehicle of empowerment, representation campaigns become a manifestation of the shallow activism that our generation has become known for. This past January, H&M was thrust into the spotlight over a controversial advertisement, featuring a young black male modeling what has been considered to be a racist sweatshirt. While the validity of this claim can be argued, the truth to the situation is that if people of color were equally represented in advertisements, this would not have been an issue. However, the marked absence of those that are not white, cis, and able-bodied within these spaces makes acts such as these seem deliberate. The basis for the ad’s backlash is not rooted in the sweatshirt’s slogan, but rather the body that inhabits it. It has become the norm for a company to be lauded for the decision to cast a Latinx person, but it is still not the norm to cast Latinx people, and in this situation lays the heart of the issue. In treating diversity as a trend to capitalize upon, companies are incentivized to do what is not even the bare minimum of what is necessary. In turn, they are rewarded for treating members of minority groups as means to fill a quota. So long as brands and companies continue to commoditize members of these groups, no impactful change can occur.
Representation is rooted in the absence of power in minority groups, and the simple solution would be to equally distribute said power. ..
While necessary, the change that I am calling for is not easily accomplished. This is something that I acknowledge, as it is clearly evidenced by the mountains that were moved in order to make even this current state possible. The most important thing to understand is that a lack of equal representation is a systemic issue. Although it would be preferred, equally representative casting is not the answer to the problem, as the matter itself is much larger than that. Mistakes like the H&M scandal are products of a lack of representation within the companies themselves, not just with their public faces. When cis, white, able-bodied men are making the decisions for a marketing team, they’re not going to pick up on the racial subtext of a black child in a sweatshirt labeling him a monkey. They don’t recognize it because it is not their experience, which is the fundamental issue behind a lack of equal representation in the first place.This is not an attempt to excuse their behavior, nor is it an attempt to liken the two experiences, but rather to explain the extent of the issue. Representation is rooted in the absence of power in minority groups, and the simple solution would be to equally distribute said power. Unfortunately, this goal is so abstract and difficult to accomplish, it is almost fantastical.
Note the use of “almost” in that last sentence. As I’m sure you’re aware, a lack of diverse representation in the media isn’t something that will resolve itself in the next month, but it is a reality we should expect from our futures. Drastic change will forever be the goal, but it is our responsibility to see this goal come to fruition. A simple way of addressing the issue is by simply changing the way we talk about representation. We cannot let “Representation Matters” simply be a buzzword, or something we nod our heads to when other people say it. In allowing “Representation Matters” to be the start and end to our conversations, we are only hurting ourselves.