With the election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, we have seen history before our eyes. Kamala Harris becomes Vice President, with a long list of “firsts”:
- First woman
- First black woman
- First Indian woman
- First Jamaican woman
And the list goes on.
We have heard the cheers around the world, and they are understandable. This was long overdue. Having women of colour at the top of the political hierarchy is still unfortunately, a novelty.
However, with the cheers and the congratulatory chants comes a myriad of questions, at least for me. What does representation mean? Is representation the holy grail that will bring equal opportunities, hope and sense of belonging for future generations? Is representation yet another poor attempt at masking rotten roots of a system, often built on the back of the very people they’re pushing aside?
What is representation?
According to the Cambridge dictionary, representation is “the fact of including different types of people, for example in films, politics, or sport, so that all different groups are represented”.
Often, representation goes hand in hand with visible diversity. It means that, within spheres of influence such as media, government or the corporate world, you see people that look like you, come from the same social and economic background, or share the same belief system.
That’s the theory.
In practice, what does representation ACTUALLY do? Does it really change the world, as it is supposed to?
To me, we should divide representation into two categories: representation of style (also known as tokenism) vs of substance. The difference between the two resides in the objectives and ideologies of the person who reached the circles of influence. Whose interests do they have at heart? Do they really have a real influence or are they just there to make it look like change is underway? What about the communities they are supposedly representing – do they feel like them?
To illustrate this representation of “style”, I have a couple of examples.
Let’s start with Margaret Thatcher – first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom. She held the position for more than 11 years, from 1979 to 1990. Her legacy has been one of neoliberalism, austerity, massive privatisation with downfalls of numerous workers communities in Wales and Scotland. Her very strong stances on economy, state and meritocracy made her one of the most divisive politicians in the UK – she was either loved or hated. However, her stance as “first woman” was not what you would expect from someone climbing the ladder of politics on the back of the suffragette movement, the women’s right movement and the work of many great activists before her. She did not consider herself a feminist, did not help raise women issues in the political arena, and, most importantly, she was known for promoting her men colleagues and left many very accomplished women aside during her time of influence.
Her legacy in the political arena was only as a person with different genitalia. Her womanhood did not elevate the situation of women, not one bit. Does this then count as “women representation”, or does it count as yet another fierce politician climbing the ladder?
I couldn’t write this without at least mentioning the unique, the one and only… Hassan Chalgoumi.
Who is he? He’s an Imaam (muslim priest) in Drancy, France. Who does the French government want him to be? They want to make him THE representative of the Muslim community in France. To do so, they have put together an exceptionally big communication machine; he is invited everywhere, on every single TV show to talk about social and religious issues. However, there’s a big problem: nobody feels represented by him. But here he is, the golden boy of Islam in France.
What would be his legacy? In the eyes of a lot of people, he is THE definition of tokenism. Nobody takes him seriously, nobody wants him, yet he’s everywhere.
By fighting tokenism, we allow real representation to take place. When we elect, follow or praise the people that share the same belief system, values and world views, even if they do not look exactly like us, it is the biggest flex and win against a system based on inequality.
Taking away the pretence of “care” and “understanding” and going deeper into the needs and wants of communities, is the only way forward.
As an example of real change through real diversity, we have to look at New Zealand and the amazing work done by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Following re-election in the month of October, she appoints Nanaia Mahuta, first Indigenous woman, as foreign minister. Mahuta was, among other things, Minister of Local Government and Minister of Maori Development. Her political rising, hand in hand with Prime Minister Ardern, is paving way for more visibility and a real political recognition for the Maori populations.
The difference between tokenism and representation often lies behind what’s really visible. Looking at someone’s heritage, economic background or religious views is not enough to determine if they truly represent the people they come from.
If they look like you, try to dig deeper and see if they think like you.
Feeling happy to see a brown or feminine face in a male, whitewashed environment is not enough anymore. Not in 2020. Demand more from your representatives. Demand to see true inclusivity and diversity.
And if you don’t see it, become it. Empower yourself, push yourself, explore your strength on all levels and become that representation we all crave.