Why Representation in the Arts is so Important

Photo by Michelle Terris

I am going to start this with a story. I am South Asian, from South Africa, born the year Apartheid ended. As a result, I was put into a majority white (as in myself and my brother were the only non-white students) school by my parents – for our own safety. Around about the time I was in Grade 5, the Spice Girls were at their peak and every single girl wanted to be them, every guy wanted to be with them. The point is that everyone had their girl. But when it came down to friend groups, as the only non-white, I HAD to be Scary Spice. Because she was the black one and I was the closest thing to it in the school. My favourite was actually Baby Spice, but when we had to participate in talent shows and the such, where every single group performed a Spice Girls hit, I had to be Scary Spice and our group had that ‘edge’ of actually having a person of colour to represent Mel B. It came to a point where I was not allowed to even like Baby Spice anymore because I was not white. This is the box people of colour get placed into when they suddenly have some form of representation. They cannot NOT like their person. It’s like a concession. We gave you Mel B. Now be Mel B.

It didn’t matter that the Spice Girl provided multiple facets of ‘acceptable’ feminism for mainstream consumption – you could be like Baby, you could be like Posh, girls can be these different things and it’s okay. But Scary Spice was just… black. That was her special characteristic. Dear White Girls, you can now have a black friend. Dear Black Girls, if you can be like Mel B, you can hang out with the white people. That’s how it felt, being shoved this one role model over and over because Hollywood wanted to self-congratulate itself on showing some colour. And this is the reality for people of colour. We do not see ourselves represented in the mainstream. Simultaneously, white folk do not see us represented in the mainstream, and so we sit on the outskirts of society, being told over and over that we do not belong unless they say we do. As the criminal, as the terrorist, as the manicurist, as the token friend. This is why we make such a big deal out of representation, and that it is done correctly.

It is all fine and well to include a person of colour in a  film, but they need to come with the history and culture. Far too often, we see skin tones but we experience ‘white-ness’. In the cult classic hit “Bend It Like Beckham” the lead South Asian, Jesse, was trying to hide her indian family from her prominently white soccer team because she was ashamed of them, scared of being further ostracized for being different. Her culture became a punchline for ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘uncool’ until she needed help getting into her sari and her team had to pull together and help her get dressed. The implication of white people thinking her sari was pretty then made it acceptable, and therefore enjoyable. A recurring theme in non-white, western culture, is that something is only cool when it is accepted by white people. Bindi’s are cool because they make great accessories at festivals. Headdresses are amazing because they look awesome on Instagram. But put them in their actual cultural position – at a wedding, at a council, and it suddenly becomes a symbol for ‘outdated’. We can only have these things if mainstream says so.

This is why Black Panther made such waves in North America. For an entire section of the population to finally see themselves as good, bad, pretty, ugly, complicated on screen is huge. It ascends the notion that African-Americans can only have a story in relation to white people. It shows the complexity of culture and the pain of it’s loss. The sacrifices people make to hold on to what is taken away from them for the sake of being accepted, safe and ‘normal’. And then conversely, the emptiness of not knowing where you belong if you do not conform.

As creators, it is within our hands and power to accurately depict the world we live in for what it is, and not what it ‘should’ be. We have acknowledged the colonial past and are in a position to move forward. This is why art is so important and why representation in the arts even more so. Every movement begins and ends with the creative.

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