“Liberal” American institutions–whether it is schools, fashion, Hollywood, business, etc–love to brag about how “diverse” they are. And we, too, celebrate diversity. After all, being exposed to a variety of perspectives, worldviews, and experiences, is probably net good compared to being stuck in a bubble of regurgitated ideas.
However, as much as a diverse range of perspectives offers a positive experience, in some situations, we must distinguish between “diversity,” “tokenization,” and what minorities truly want: representation. The issue is that many of these institutions utilize minorities–especially persons of color– as ways to make their product or service more desirable, without truly equalizing the platform. Often, this process is used to alleviate white guilt. Think “I’m 1/1024 Native American so I understand your struggles” as a similar kind of mindset. While this comparison is a bit of a stretch, on a truth level, they reflect the same phenomena: inclusion of minorities for a neoliberal purpose.
Although inclusion is a first step, it cannot be an end goal, especially when inclusion does not give equality. Including one Asian in a top-grossing Hollywood film to occupy the role of the “kungfu master” or “computer science nerd” does nothing but continue to perpetuate and molding Asians into the same stereotypes. In the fashion industry, Asians and Black folk are included for their “exotic features” and smooth skin. Yet, the West still promotes beauty standards that center around high nose bridges, large eyes, and the “Kylie Jenner” look. Models that look like Gigi Hadid succeed much more easily in the industry compared to others like Deddeh Howard. How, then, can minorities feel completely satisfied when their people are included because they are exotic and different, but in the real world, those features are mocked and jeered?
What, then, is the end goal? What is the alternative to diversity? One possibility, I believe, is representation.
What does representation look like?
Although representation might not look the same in every situation, it is an evidently possible scenario. Mainly, representation requires minorities to control and create their own narratives for themselves and produce their own knowledge. It is nearly impossible for a dominant group to create knowledge for a minority when their experiences are entirely different. For example, only Asian American authors can truly create an Asian American character. Not as a side character that fits nearly into a trope, but a main character with full complexity. Otherwise, the author is vulnerable to recreating harmful stereotypes.
My favorite real life example of representation is Crazy Rich Asians, which involves an all-Asian cast, author, and director. Crazy Rich Asians includes a plethora of multi-faceted characters that do not fit into traditional stereotypes. Each character is included not because they are needed to create the illusion of “diversity,” but because of their interesting personalities that add to the complexity of the story. Additionally, watching the movie as an Asian-American myself was an experience that no other group can replicate: I do not have to look at the subtitles when the script switches to Chinese or when Chinese songs play; I can relate to the experiences of making dumplings with family, the cultural dichotomies of traditional Asia, the West, and Asian-Americans, and eating street for in Asia. My tears were not only a product of the sentimental ending, but because Asian-Americans were crying before watching the film when it was announced that there would be an all-Asian cast.
Films like Crazy Rich Asians proves that representation is a realistic goal, one that we should strive for.
Note: Even though Crazy Rich Asians is not perfect in its diversity of “Asian” (i.e. lack of south asian characters), I believe that its still an immense improvement from the stereotypical Asian side characters (nerd, friend, gang member, etc) and is still something that must be celebrated in order for more future improvement!