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Does Representation Matter?
Our culture can't seem to decide if it wants race to be important or not
We’ve all heard the phrase, “representation matters!” This is generally exclaimed in response to criticism of a film or tv show that incorporates some racial minority character(s) in an awkward, contrived way - normally by race-swapping a well-known white character - or incorporating some LGBT characters and subplot or some other social justice-minded crusade to increase so-called diversity and provide us with the sacred concept of “representation.” Disney, specifically, has been adamant about doing this. Most recently, they have presented audiences with a race-swapped Ariel and a race-swapped Tinkerbell in their upcoming films The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan and Wendy, respectively. The criticism of this seemingly intentional focus on race has been written off as racist, itself. Apparently, it isn’t racist to make casting decisions on the basis of race but it is racist to criticize those decisions. It seems many people in our society can’t decide whether they want to embrace our common humanity or whether to make collective identity, like race, the most important aspect of consideration.
While the representation arguments span the spectrum from race to gender to disability (although progressives see my race as a disability, but I digress), I want to mostly focus on racial representation in this piece. It isn’t clear to me why racial representation should matter or what benefits are derived from it. It isn’t clear to me that it is helpful and not harmful to make decisions and judgments based on race. It also isn’t clear to me that hyper-focusing on race at all is in any way a healthy behavior for our culture and society. In other words, if we are to define racism as “the belief that races possess different characteristics, abilities, and qualities and that people should be treated differently on the basis of their race” then we must consider this kind of quest for representation to be definitionally a form of racism. And I am well aware of the progressive perversion of the word, “racism” in an attempt to rationalize certain racist behavior. I reject it. The meaning I provided is and has always been the definition of racism whether progressives like it or not. So, the only question remaining is, “Does racism ever have utility?”
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The answer to that question seems to be an unequivocal “yes” in the world of woke progressivism. Ibram X. Kendi has said explicitly that the remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination and the remedy for present discrimination is future discrimination. That means that racism can and should be used to combat racism or perceived racism. That kind of statement is hard to sell so it is no wonder that progressives attempt to alter the definition. The fallacious argument seems to be that you cannot possibly engage in racism if you are fighting against racism. In this sense, racial discrimination is not only seen as a moral good but is seen as a vital aspect of progressive ideology as long as the discrimination is done in the service of the ideology. Therefore, intentionally casting a black actress because she is black and excluding white actresses from consideration because they are white is not deemed to be racism, simply because black actresses were excluded in the past and white actresses have white privilege or something. The notion is that we must now engage in racial discrimination to remedy racial discrimination. If we buy this, then we must then believe that racism does, indeed, have utility.
“But Leonydus, representation matters!” Does it? We are often fed stories about excited little brown girls watching the trailers for The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan and Wendy. “Finally! A mermaid who looks like me.” “A fairy who looks like me!” Such stories bother me for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that race seems to be the only aspect of identity that matters to these children (at least in the way the adults proudly frame it). That is a testament to their parents and the other adults around them and what sort of things get emphasized in their household. Now, kids do clearly notice differences and similarities, but there is something nefarious about putting such substantial weight and importance on those differences, particularly differences in skin color. I am reminded of a story about two kindergarteners who wore the same shirt to school, got the same haircut, and declared themselves to be identical twins without a hint of irony. One was black and one was white. I am also reminded of my own kids and their descriptions of their friends by their hair color (brown, yellow, black). Children have an innocence and purity about them when it comes to these issues of identity that inevitably get completely distorted and destroyed by jaded adults. It’s a travesty. It’s a generational curse. Our kids are telling us something extremely important about race and racial identity, but we adults are apparently too foolish to listen.
Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t think representation matters at all in the sense that everything need be uniform and lack diversity completely. A kid may like dolls who have the same hair color as they do or the same eye color or whatever it may be or maybe even the same skin color. I don’t necessarily disagree with that or think that is a bad thing. The problem comes when we put substantial weight on these differences and make them far more important than they should be. And the ultimate problem with attempting to force the issue of representation is that you end up reinforcing the same dysfunctional psychology you are purporting to combat. Our country has grappled with racial discrimination in the past, but the answer to that is not to engage in racial discrimination in the opposite direction. It is the exact same behavior and creates the exact same problems. The reason for racial discrimination in the past was a hyper-emphasis on the importance of race and racial identity. The entire premise was that race made the man - that you could know something about a person based on his skin color and that judgments could and should be made with race at the forefront of consideration. That was the premise then and it is the premise now when you demand that decisions be made to “increase representation” or to “increase diversity.” It is the exact same problem to deny a Supreme Court appointment to someone like Ketanji Brown Jackson while appointing another on the basis of race and to appoint Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and deny another on the basis of race. It is the same. There is no difference between the two. If emphasizing race was the driver of discrimination in the past and your goal is to eliminate discrimination, then the answer is to deemphasize race altogether, not to make it the most important aspect of a person’s identity. When you stop caring about race, then you will simply appoint the best person for the job, admit the best students to your university, and cast the best actress for the role. Racial diversity will occur automatically if race is not guiding the decision-making. Racial diversity is a natural consequence of removing race as a variable, not a lever by which you try to manipulate outcomes.
This is most clearly seen in the realm of professional sports, where non-white players tend to be heavily overrepresented. Take the NBA, for example, where 83% of its players are non-white. Incredibly, there are no calls for increased representation or diversity. It is because most people understand that professional basketball is based on talent and skill, not race, and that it is comprised of the best players in the world regardless of their skin color. The diversity (or lack thereof) that exists is a natural consequence of that. But if representation is so vital, shouldn’t white people complain about the lack of representation in the NBA? Should people who are 5’6”? Should blind people? Should women? Although, I should be careful about that last one as that is probably coming down the gender equality inclusion pipeline sometime soon.
But, this brings me to my last point of consideration - the innumerable aspects of identity that make up an individual. This is one of the reasons I am a staunch individualist and why I adamantly reject collectivism. The idea that you can and should reduce someone to their immutable characteristics and categorize them into a collective identity group is egregious. Think about all of the aspects of your own identity that make up who you are. There are innumerable traits that combine and wind together to create a wholly unique human being. There is not a single person on this planet who is exactly like you. Maybe you like to draw and paint. Maybe you like to dance. Maybe you’re an introvert. Maybe you love sports. Maybe you’re obsessed with anime. Whatever it may be, there are many, many things that make you, you, and the complex combination of all those things together make you unique. And on that endless list of characteristics, race should be so far down the list that it is hardly worth even mentioning. The Civil Rights Movement worked very hard to make this point. Race should not matter. Being a human is what’s important. People should not be seen as or see themselves as racial collectives who carry some kind of intrinsic value or set of inherent characteristics rooted in their skin color. There are so many other integral aspects of your personality and quality as a human being that give you value and tell the world who you are as a person and race just is not one of them.
So, if representation matters, wouldn’t it make more sense to look for things that align with our personality and who we are as human beings? Can you not see yourself in a mermaid who longs to leave behind the mundane and go on an exciting new adventure in a strange new world, regardless of what she looks like? Or in a fairy who is willing to fight and die to protect her family and friends? Or in a fish who is willing to cross the entire world and encounter all sorts of danger to rescue his son? Or in an old man who lost the love of his life and is willing to do anything to protect her memory and what he has left of her? Or in a robot who longs for love and companionship? Or in a toy who is forever loyal to his kid but must eventually learn to say goodbye and move on when the kid grows up? The beauty of well-told stories is in how universal they are in their essence of humanity and the human experience. They tug on your heartstrings and make you feel something on a deep level, not because of the way the characters look on the outside, but because of who the characters are on the inside, all of the adversity and challenges that they go through to try to get what they want, and the person they eventually become because of it.
When it comes to characters in stories, I do believe representation matters. I believe characters should represent the commonality of humanity, of having wants, desires, insecurities, hopes, and dreams, and the universal aspects of being human. They should remind us that we are what exists internally (and eternally for Christians), and not our external, immutable characteristics and that we are not collective identity groups, but we are individual human beings who love, yearn, dream, hope, fight, suffer, win, lose, live, and die and we all share a common human experience. That’s what makes great characters. It’s what makes great stories. And it’s what connects us and brings us together.