When representation isn’t enough
Over the past year, minorities have finally been represented in multiple highly acclaimed movies. Films such as Girls Trip, The Big Sick, and Get Out not only were critically acclaimed and financially successful, but told stories written by and about non-white characters. This representation has been evident in mainstream media beyond film, too: “The Bold Type,” a new show on ABC channel Freeform, featured a multi-dimensional depiction of a Muslim hijab-donning lesbian. Halima Aden became the first Muslim woman to don a hijab on the cover of Vogue and took Yeezy and Alberta Ferretti catwalks by storm during fashion week in New York and Milan respectively. H&M, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nike have all featured hijab-wearing characters in their advertisements this year.
For the first time, there’s a chance that I might see someone who looks like me—a Black Muslim woman who wears a hijab—on my screen. But as exciting as this is, it also reveals that representation might not be enough, or reflective of reality. While the visibility of PoC, LGBTQIA+, and Muslims in mainstream culture is an exciting development for individuals who have never seen themselves reflected on screen, it’s also somewhat misleading to other viewers, who may falsely believe those representations accurately reflect how minorities are perceived by much of the country in real life.
The same year that Muslims and other minorities have become more visible than ever in mainstream media and culture, a recent report revealed that anti-Muslim attacks are up by 91 percent from the previous year. It’s undeniable that this rise in hate crimes correlates with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election as president. These events have set loose a slew of bigotry and hate targeting minorities such as American Muslims, LGBTQIA+, immigrants, and PoC in this country. This phenomenon proves that even despite the many social and legislative achievements minorities have made towards achieving equal rights in this country, many American communities still have not adequately addressed the reality of the discrimination and bigotry ingrained in U.S. history.
Take the recent conversations spurred by the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many Americans, including our own president, believe that removing “beautiful” Confederate statues symbolizes “ripping apart” America’s “history and culture.” While Confederate leaders were undoubtedly a part of American history, keeping their statues up goes further than recognizing their existence, but actually honors their work and the ideologies that they represented. White nationalists and those who continue to defend keeping Confederate statues refuse to recognize the consequential magnitude of white nationalist ideology on Black people and other PoC throughout American history. Comments like these show how polarized Americans’ views are regarding race and that a considerable portion of Americans have yet to come to terms with the growing visibility and advancement of PoC in the United States.
This phenomenon was also evident last year in terms of the disparity between media representation of trans individuals and their lived reality. Despite the increased visibility of trans people in the media, from magazine covers like National Geographic and Men’s Health to TV shows about their experiences, 2016 was one of the deadliest years for transgender individuals. Twenty-seven people were killed, the overwhelming majority of whom were trans women of color.
Representation is great, but we need to be conscious of what such representation is actually doing. For example, H&M, Gap, DKNY, and Dolce & Gabbana were likely aware of the 2015 study that estimates Muslim consumers spend $243 billion on clothing when they featured hijabi women in their ads. Many TV shows and films include “diverse” characters as little more than token props because they believe they will be profitable.
Beyond the mere physical appearance of minorities in our culture, we really need stories that revolve around their experiences. In our current political climate, many feel comfortable ignoring the experiences of people different from them—people who are threatened by this administration—because it is easier for them to feel comfortable than it is to feel unsettled. We have become a far less empathetic culture, and stories have the power to create that empathy and shift people’s perspectives. Ultimately, representation must be genuine and authentic in order to truly shift perceptions at the community, institutional, and governmental levels—and we’ve never needed such a shift more.
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