Since it comes up again and again, today I’m going to talk a bit more about representation – and about why people making noises about how they “don’t see” a given thing are betraying their own ignorance of what it means to ask for representation.
First, to be perfectly clear: I am white. I am agender, answering to xe/xer/xyr pronouns, but am so visibly coded as male that everyone assumes I’m a he. I’m asexual. These things are a part of my identity, tags that can be used to describe me as a shorthand. We all have them, and their usage matters.
If someone claims not to see gender (or, more often, sex, because they don’t know or care that sex and gender can be different things), what they’re saying is that they’ve never been in a situation where their gender has been a problem. This is why you’ll mostly see men saying this line; being a man means you’re assumed to be the default. They will never have been passed over for a job or promotion, catcalled by total strangers, or had to weigh the chances that the person asking you out will try to attack them if they turn the advance down. They’re safe from these effects. They don’t see the impacts of being a different gender, and so they assume that because they aren’t overtly a sexist, all of it must be made-up stories being blown out of proportion. After all, if it was that bad, surely they’d hear about it. (They do, but dismiss it as made-up stories.) Media always paints them as heroes and champions, stuffing every story full of people just like them even when the role doesn’t make any sense.
The same thing is true of people who say they don’t see color, or sexuality, or that their insert_adjective_here friend proves they don’t see adjective. They don’t have to deal with the effects of whatever it is, because they’re the socially accepted default, and so they think that references to it are the problem, dragging up things that aren’t really that bad because otherwise they’d know about it and be doing something about it. We get representation by tokens, isn’t that enough, look, there’s that one actor, right?
One actor – or two or three or five – doesn’t make representation. Representation is when major characters aren’t white, or men, or straight. Representation is when people can go to a movie and have major characters that are women, people of color, and queer folks. When major characters that were written as non-white are played by non-white actors. When characters on-screen are visibly queer, not just vaguely referenced in a book some months after the fact as being such according to the author. When women get to get front and center on the screen, kicking ass and having their own agency, rather than needing to be rescued or falling into a swoon at some grizzled dude’s biceps.
Representation is the recognition that the world is made up of people who aren’t white, aren’t straight, and aren’t male. Representation is putting that knowledge into effect by acknowledging those people. Companies like Paizo do it, and openly describe their commitment to diversity and inclusion to make sure that people understand that this is an issue to be dealt with. Movies like Rogue One, with a cast where the only white man is the actor voicing K2-SO and one of the two main characters has a solid Mexican accent, are important. When you make a point of telling people that they belong, they listen. They start bringing their stories to the table, instead of trying to fit in by retelling the same boring shit that we’ve heard with a new coat of lacquer on top.
Those stories are spaces we’ve never gotten to hear before, because they’e been crowded out by all the stories about handsome and muscular straight white men. The stories about those men aren’t going anywhere; we’re just trimming them back to the space they belong in, so that the rest of us can have the space we need to tell our stories.
I don’t know about you, but a world where I can hear the stories of Jyn, Bohdi, Cassian, Chirrut, and Baze being heroes, where I can see a movie like Moana without needing a Great White Hero injected into it, where I can read stories like Throne of the Crescent Moon – an Arabic fantasy story by an Arab-American author – and a world where stories can be told about queer folk without casting them as deviants to be saved or fixed is worth far more than a world with a hundred more stories of grizzled white men with troubled pasts and gravelly voices.
Representation lets people know they belong. That’s a more precious gift to give people than those who’ve been at the heart of the story all along can even begin to imagine.