The Power of Representation
On January 20th, Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into office, becoming the first woman, African American, and Asian American to hold the position. Just two weeks earlier, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof became the first African American and Jewish senators, respectively, to represent my home state of Georgia. In addition, President Joe Biden has committed to the most diverse Cabinet in history, with about half of his nominees being women. If you have always had a plethora of examples of people who look like you and share your story, you may not understand why this is such a big deal. For the first time, millions of Americans (including myself) are seeing themselves represented at the highest levels of government. This got me thinking more about how representation affects us because having diverse representation, particularly in government and media, is important for establishing how others see us and how we see ourselves.
While diversity is about who is allowed in certain spaces, representation is about who is given a voice and the opportunity to tell an authentic story. These voices and portrayals affect how groups of people are perceived by others and define what issues are deemed important. Lack of representation does not simply mean that there is a lack of diversity, but that diverse voices go unheard and contributions go unnoticed. When there is a gap in representation, those gaps are filled by our preexisting biases about what people are like and who can hold certain roles. If we have no exposure to other people’s stories, how can we empathize with them?
When you see portrayals that feel true to your life and that of those around you, it expands the horizon of what you feel is possible because you can only be what you can see. And as actor Riz Ahmed said, “we all want to feel seen and heard and valued.” Lack of representation can lead to imposter syndrome, which I wrote about in a blog post in November. If we don’t see people we identify with doing something, we may not feel that we can do it. And if no one values contributions from people who look like us, we feel like no one should value ours.
**There is an encore webinar on Imposter Syndrome at AHA International Stroke Conference 2021 on 3/17, you can register for the conference here**
There are a few traps to avoid when thinking about representation. Tokenism occurs when we expect one person to be the voice of an entire group of people, and stereotyping occurs when we oversimplify our representation of a group of people. Often, portrayals of minorities, especially Black people, are in the role of the victim. While these can be important, victimhood does not encompass the full lived experience of most minorities. All of these pop up when diversity is lacking, and when we don’t acknowledge that even within a group of people, there is an infinite number of individual experiences.
Aside from the recent progress in public politics, there are many examples of good representation in the media. That list is ever-growing, and these positive representations have noticeable effects. The character of Agent Scully on The X-Files, an FBI agent, and medical doctor, prompted an increase in the number of women studying and working in STEM fields, a phenomenon coined “The Scully Effect.” Doc McStuffins, the Disney Junior show about a Black girl who is a doctor for toys and stuffed animals, was a hit among children and adults, helping kids get over their fear of going to the doctor and leading to members of the Artemis Project starting the We Are Doc McStuffins campaign to inspire more future doctors. In current news, women of color have been widely sharing photos and videos of themselves being vaccinated against COVID-19 to help overcome the deep mistrust of medical institutions, which Dr. Aubrey Grant wrote about in a previous blog post. Also, be on the lookout for Dr. Mary Branch’s upcoming blog post with more on diversity and representation in medicine.
I’m assuming that most people reading this aren’t in the fields of politics or television, but you don’t need a public office or a prime time slot to promote representation. Everybody has a platform, whether that be in-person conversations with friends or a Twitter following. You can use your platform to promote other voices, especially those of people more marginalized than you or when addressing issues that you do not have personal experience with. Also, think about whether there is an issue that could use your voice or a story that you can authentically tell and be that representative for others.
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