As it Happened: Harvard President Claudine Gay’s Inauguration


A Proposal to Merge Harvard’s Small Language Programs Has Fallen Flat. What’s Next for the Humanities?


Cambridge Public Schools MCAS Scores Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels


‘Celebrations Come to Life’ for Harvard Students Celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur


Harvard College Suspends ‘Senior Gift’ Campaign Amid Falling Buy-in from Students


The Limits of Representation

If we want social progress, we need to demand more than just seeing people like us represented.

By Jenna M. Gray, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jenna M. Gray ’19 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

If you’re a person of color, you’re probably familiar with the classic “diversity shot” (and you’ve very likely been in one). It’s the photo on a brochure or a website homepage that features people of various races and ethnicities, smiling and embracing one another. Universities, companies, and other organizations love featuring these photos on their publications. They intend to communicate that hey, we are diverse! If you want to interact with different types of people, come here! If you are white, you will get to inhabit the same space as exotic people, like a human zoo! If you are not white, you will be happy here, just like these smiling people!

No harm, no foul, right?

Well, such images present the reality an institution would like you to believe exists. Here, we see ethnic and racial minorities being used as pawns, tools in the organization’s marketing campaign. The diversity and inclusion is merely a superficial image.

In social justice-oriented circles, we often exclaim that representation matters. Personal experience as well as academic research confirms it certainly does. Seeing people like ourselves represented — particularly when we belong to a minority group in terms of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or ability status — shows us what’s possible. It affects children’s self-esteem as well as workers’ sense of belonging and productivity.

But representation matters only to an extent. The reasons representation matters to a marginalized person are far different from those of an organization, who are invested in image knowing that it is used as a proxy for others to judge them.

Using the exclusive, high tech tool of Google, you will find that one definition of representation is “the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented.” How do we decide who among a group of marginalized people will speak or act for the whole? For the organization benefiting from the representation, that doesn’t really matter; they’d take a Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas without batting an eyelash.

Having marginalized people present in a board room or in an organization doesn’t inherently do anything to change the culture of that space, particularly in terms of creating inclusivity or promoting more diversity. In part, it’s because holding an identity that makes you a “minority” doesn’t inherently mean anything; it doesn’t automatically mean that you care about the people of those group or are invested in their success. Cue the phrase “not all skin folk are kin folk.” As a minority, you could very well use opportunities reserved for people of your group for your own advantage, regardless of how you feel about them, and never do anything to promote the socioeconomic or political standing of your group. You can be a person of color, gay, or have a disability and still actively do harm to your and other communities.

The hyper-focus on representation also serves the needs of the dominant group or institution. For many an organization, having a leader or team member from a minority group puts them off the hook for all issues related to that group. They might say: accusations of racism? But our president is black! We hate women? Tell that to our CEO, who is a living, breathing woman!

In order to be the representation within an organization, you have to be the appropriate type of minority — the person who is happy to appear on their promotional materials and willing to refrain from making too much noise or dissenting from their practices. This may require sacrificing your own ideals for the sake of appeasing the status quo. If you’re concerned with your own status above all else, serving as the token employee presents a clear route to success.

This attitude relates to a classic phenomenon, what I have decided just now to call “conservative or contrarian special snowflakes.” Such a snowflake belongs to a marginalized community but espouses an opinion contrary to that of most people in that community. They then would loudly argue that opinion and put their community down in the process, screaming, “I’m special! Give me a cookie!” And the people who agree with them would say, “This guy gets it. The rest of you are irrational.” Some of The Crimson’s finest opinion pieces make this case.

One of the realms in which we hear the greatest calls for representation is media and entertainment. Sometimes I prefer no representation, particularly when watching reality shows about searching for love and sex comedies about white ladies with problems.

We can still celebrate representation, but we’ll be far better off if we demand more. If anything, we can consider representation as a starting ground. Our fundamental concern can shift to the way an organization runs, the systems underlying it, and the rules governing it beyond just the faces presenting it.

We can look for differences in outcomes based on the metrics we focus on with representation — race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability status — and analyze whether some people have advantages that others don’t. We can demand that people’s basic needs are being met, from healthcare to access to clean water. We can ask who is able to participate and whether people feel and know they belong. Our top priority can become assuring that everyone has what they need to survive and succeed.

Jenna M. Gray ’19 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.