Representation is no substitute for systemic change

Representation is an important force in the liberation and inclusion of marginalised groups. Being able to see yourself in a diverse range of settings is powerful and can make a lot of difference to someone’s self-image. At the same time, seeing people who do not look like you also has a positive effect, as it reinforces the fact that humanity is diverse and that diversity is what makes us beautiful.

January 24, 2022



Representation is no substitute for systemic change

But what often seems to be forgotten is that representation is just the first step. Representation is not the end goal, and getting it right is a very important nuance to keep in mind when seeing or developing another ‘diverse campaign.’

As discussed in chapters 4 and 5 of Mariam Khan’s book "It's not about the Burqa", representation in a capitalised context can take away from real progress. For example, when Nike launched the Performance Hijab, it might have been a huge representation, yet it took business away from Hijabi-owned businesses that for years had already held and sold these products. Has this representation really contributed to the liberation and empowerment of the marginalised group being represented? Or has the representation mainly contributed to the pockets of large corporations?

Representation should not be seen as an anti-racism and anti-discrimination tool. It is an easy way for a company to make more money and 'cleanse' its name. Yet when the real work of creating policies for all employees, paying the communities they showcase, and standing up for the rights of all the people of the community they represent, “representation” doesn’t seem to ripple through to real change. And it turns out to be yet another empathy marketing bubble, only benefiting the non-marginalised people on top.

Being able to see yourself reflected in a wide range of settings, industries, roles, and environments can be an enormously powerful way to better understand yourself and find community. However, representation without real action that contributes to systemic change for all people is nothing more than a beautiful image.

Being seen is not the same as being included, being protected, being held up, being respected, being seen as equal, and being treated and protracted as such.

Seeing yourself represented is powerful. Yet it should not be seen as a goal. Representation is a means to an end. Individuals and companies must work much harder to achieve the systemic change needed. Too often, the benefits of representation go to the privileged people instead of the marginalised communities that are being “represented.”

So what now? Should you stop creating campaigns where representation is one of the key aspects of the concept? No, definitely not. In my opinion, representation and diversity should be part of any concept, no matter what the leading story is. But this is not where the work stops.

Make sure to think beyond the visual aspects of the concept you have created. Look at how you can actually have a direct impact on diverse communities and what improvements you can make within your company for all employees. Don’t use representation as a check-box for brownie points as a corporate, use representation because you know that diversity should be celebrated and you will do anything you can to contribute to a safe, inclusive, equal, and fun world for all.