Race Against the Odds: Representation Matters


Representation matters.

It’s important to point out that everything written in this piece and in all my pieces is from my personal experience. I cannot, and do not, try to represent all Black people.

Have you ever questioned your very existence?

I started to question my existence when I did not see myself reflected in the media. Not seeing, learning, or hearing stories about people who look like or have similar identities to you feels lonely.

Representation is the act of speaking or acting for someone, or the description or portrayal of something in a particular way. Representation matters because it motivates inclusion that helps people feel seen. It provides a source of hope and guidance, a feeling of visibility, and a sense of belonging in the world.

When Black Panther came out in 2018, my Black friends and I were so excited to watch it. The film means a lot to me, not only as a Black person but as an African as well. To some, it may just be another superhero film, but to me, it was a source of comfort and hope that challenged negative stereotypes around Black people. It portrayed Black people as educated, cultured, kind, and happy, which felt like a first. Seeing Black characters of different skin tones at the centre of a story that was set in ‘Africa’ (although Wakanda is a completely fictional country, I know people who think it’s a real place) was revolutionary. Usually, the media’s representation of Africa is primarily of impoverished, starving children desperately in need of a white saviour, which has heavily influenced the Western perspective of African countries.

When I told a white girl in one of my university classes that I had just moved back to Australia from South Africa, she immediately pitied me and commented, “that must’ve been tough”. She probably heard all the media coverage about South Africa that focused on Black violence and criminals with the ever-present focus on poverty. It is assumptions like this that have popularised phrases like “there are starving children in Africa” which is recited almost like a mantra for when someone is being ungrateful or doesn’t finish their food. These representations created by the West help perpetuate the divide between “the West and the rest”, which ultimately serves to maintain Western imperialism, power, and dominance. 

A white teacher once asked me “would you rather have bad representation or no representation?” To his shock, I answered “no representation”. I explained that I would rather not see Black people on screens or in literature than see negative or badly represented Black characters because at least this way there would be fewer stereotypes and insults to my identity. What counts as bad representation is somewhat subjective, but I classify it as overly negative depictions of Black people as consistently violent; unrelatable characters. Additionally, bad representation in the form of stories that heavily rely on stereotypes, and media that chooses to only focus on race as if Black people are only Black and nothing else.

Bad representation impacts POC (People of Colour) more because we are rarely represented to begin with causing depictions of characters of Colour to carry greater significance for their race as opposed to White characters. This is because POC, even as fictional characters, are not seen as individuals but rather as reflections of their racial group. If all we see of Black people in film and television are violent, aggressive, and helpless characters then non-Black people, particularly those who do not interact with Black people, will begin to believe that this is how Black people are. This is an immense weight that POC, particularly Black people, carry in our everyday lives where our individual actions and words are taken as representative of all Black people. Similarly, this inability to see POC as individuals can have one ‘bad’ Person of Colour code all POC as ‘bad’. However, race somehow becomes irrelevant when the focus is on white people because they are seen as the default. 

Media reaches large audiences and so, representation of all types is important, whether in film, television or social media. Last year, the news media around the world led many people to believe that the Black Lives Matter protests were violent, a narrative built on the portrayal of Black people as ‘inherently’ violent. In reality, the situation was far more nuanced with the police and white people playing a significant part in the reported violence and riots. It’s as Malcom X said, “if you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”. It’s important to be critical of the media we consume and to scrutinise portrayals of minority groups.

Poor representation is also an issue behind the screen. A multitude of important roles are responsible for the final product, from writers to producers, directors, camera operators and many more. Part of the issue around the lack of representation in Hollywood is that the groups of people creating the films are not diverse, resulting in non-Black people producing stereotypical or tokenistic Black characters. It’s not just about feeling seen or being able to relate to stories and characters, it’s also about how a lack of representation on and off-screen means fewer opportunities for POC as harmful portrayals navigate their way back into society.

In this Race Against the Odds diverse representation in all areas of society matters. Attaining good, balanced representation is an ongoing process that we can strive to improve. There are always more stories, perspectives, cultures, and people that can and need to be represented.

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