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Representation Matters

All stories should be told. Does it matter who tells it?

Representation is a vital light, one that is needed to illuminate the dark of homogeneous settings and the problems that often accompany them.

In the recent decade, there has been a growing awareness to matters regarding representation and diversity as many industries have seen a greater prominence of women, people of color, religious minority groups, and LGBTQ communities.

Despite this growing presence, there is still much to be achieved across work settings, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) based professions, across college campuses in terms of greater visibility of minority groups, and across other industries such as entertainment where people of color and women lack a strong presence in directing, screenplay writing, and other visual sectors of the arts.

How representation is chosen to be displayed across these settings have tremendous effects on culture at large along with various feelings of equality, visibility, and importance. It’s important for all groups of people in any culture to feel embraced, protected, and accepted.

Time has shown that one of the best ways to do this is to increase the appearance of these groups in daily culture through news articles, storylines of TV and films, along with their inclusion in various forms of literature, whether fictional or autobiographical. In this way, communication comes to play a major role in not just representation itself, but the way it is received in physicality. The more familiar people are with the visibility of different groups along with their stories, the less foreign and threatening their appearances become.

The beneficial effects of diversity are vital. In any setting, diversity allows for the spread of ideas and values, perceptions of the world and daily life, along with greater tolerance of different people. However, increasing diversity and representation, particularly in the domains of entertainment and literature, can be complicated.

An especially prominent concern, is who has the right to tell these stories? Can a fictional experience of a black man or women in 1815 American South be told by a white individual from the 21st century? Would it make a difference if the experience was factual rather than fictionalized?

Representation
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Authority grants power to the storyteller, a visual artist capable of bringing to life individual accounts from varying backgrounds – sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, religion, and gender. In relating the accounts of differing individuals, should this authority of storytelling be granted to certain groups of people whose experiences more closely align to that of their characters or focus groups?

The question is one of importance, as who tells and controls the story often determines the portrayal and outcome, with certain biases, perceptions, and messages of importance reflecting the storyteller’s own sense of understanding.

Though there is certainly a greater sense of awareness in the media’s portrayal of people today, it can be hard to control for implicit biases unknown to the storyteller themselves. News articles and factual accounts may differ in the respect that facts cannot be molded into one’s own viewpoints. Yet, the potential for certain facts to be included or withheld from an account still holds danger in depicting and representing various groups of people in a certain light.

Therefore, it is necessary to consider who has the authority to relate various accounts of representation to a wider public, whether that is in media and literature, news, or other communicative formats.

Profiting off the pain of certain people, such as a non-HIV positive person writing a fictionalized and romanticized account of an HIV character, should not be done. Or a non-Muslim individual writing about the hardships of their fictional Muslim character in American culture. Perhaps more appropriate, and less problematic if it is nonfiction, and if a true account is being told or represented. Perhaps not.

A potential remedy is for those writing and depicting accounts of marginalized or unrepresented groups of people to be aware of their own biases whether explicit or implicit. It’s imperative to relate stories in a neutral light depending on the goal of a given account. Another includes asking members within the group if the work constitutes a form of legitimacy and works in painting the narrative or account in a credible way.

That is not to say that writers, directors, news reporters and others alike should not speak or write about those who are different from them. Rather, being conscious of the potential to do injustice should me a necessary part of taking on the task.

Stories and news relations hold a tremendous amount of power in telling the experiences of different groups of people and the individuals within them. It is necessary to be thoughtful and act with a sense prudence for the greater good of diversity and representation, for the way in which people are depicted can influence the way they are embraced and accepted in certain settings. Depiction and inclusion are two of the strongest ways to promote diversity. It’s important that they are served well.

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Also published on Medium.

Isabelle is a senior at Cornell University minoring in English and...