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Riz Ahmed and the limitations of representation

9 Mar , 2017  

By  -  
Amit is the co-editor of Consented

Riz Ahmed gave the Channel 4 annual lecture to Parliament earlier this week. Ahmed’s speech was much praised, as was Idris Elba’s similar speech last year – both coming as a result of Channel 4’s drive to publish its own diversity record and to improve upon it.

Ahmed, like Elba, spoke about the need for greater representation not just within the media, but also beyond, declaring that so far “we have failed”. Ahmed is right and it’s undeniable that there is a gross lack of representation on our TVs, in our cinemas and in our politics.

The arts and the media, like Parliament, are overwhelmingly white, male and representative of a specific class. This is certainly not a good thing and British society would benefit from greater representation. Greater visibility for different groups would also give confidence to people from these communities.

Seeing brown and black bodies in high places can give people hope that they too can reach these heights in a way they perhaps would not have otherwise.

Growing up seeing so few brown faces certainly did not fill me with confidence or high self-esteem. Many people of colour and people from other minoritized communities are not used to seeing themselves reflected in popular culture.

In fact, the representations of people of colour are often caricatured, stereotypical and negative, rather than representing the complexity and nuances of everyday life that many people experience. So more diversity and representation might make a bit of progress.

However, discussions within the media and beyond tend to talk about representation as being the end goal. Ahmed said “we’re talking about representation not diversity”. Ahmed’s talk went further than this and was a lot more nuanced (touching upon themes such as the white curriculum and false narratives) but broadly speaking there is a huge focus on representation as the ultimate solution to our problems.

Also, such discussions can be incredibly limited at times, particularly if representation alone becomes our sole focus. We’ve seen multiple times before how adding brown and black faces to key institutions does not change the institutions themselves. The police is a perfect example of this, with non-white officers pushed up the ranks in order to try and improve its terrible reputation. Yet, the Metropolitan Police is still institutionally racist.

Having more black and brown officers will not and has not changed this. The same is true in the media, where figures such as Trevor Phillips do not exactly provide counter-narratives, but instead aid and abet mainstream representations of people of colour that play into the hands of an already right wing and xenophobic press.

Indeed, blind diversity targets can end up being dangerous, with members of minoritized communities being co-opted into oppressive apparatus, which only serves to legitimise the status quo.

Representation for what then? To share the ability to contribute to negative stereotypes and ally the fears of white people by confirming many regressive stereotypes?

The problem here comes back to who is setting the narratives. Phillips or other non-white journalists who churn out articles contributing to anti-migrant narratives are not the decision makers, but mere cogs in a wider system.

This is why representation must go hand in hand with whole scale, structural changes. With specific reference to film and the arts (as touched upon by Ahmed), we often focus on what we see in front of the camera or on stage, without asking whose directing, producing and writing the script.

People have been asking for more representation for generations and in some places it has come (for instance in the police force), or at least it has been presented as such. The crux of the problem is that the issues affecting marginalized people go far beyond the language of representation and diversity, these issues are structural. This is something we need to remember when calling for greater inclusion in public culture.

We must start acknowledging that British society (and much of the world) is structured to position some bodies as marginalized and others as dominant. These dominant bodies are the ones who are drastically over-represented in the media, in art and in government.

Ahmed did provide some examples of how to do this, namely to diversify (read decolonise) the curriculum at schools, as well as opposing university tuition fees which are a barrier to entry into higher education (until fees are scrapped it is clear that certain groups will always be positioned to succeed whilst others are forced out of the competition) to name but a few.

Whilst greater representation is a positive thing, it is a very small step to actually bringing about structural changes that will have a deep and lasting impact on shifting the way in which we see different cultures, bodies and ways of living. Until then, the language of representation will remain mere empty rhetoric.

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