A reintroduction to representation

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This is part of an ongoing spotlight created by Black@TED, TED’s employee resource group for staff who identify as Black.

This is a reintroduction for anyone, anywhere.

There’s a bad habit in desperate need of breaking.

A narrow understanding of representation, watered down to mean simply a face or a voice (without weight, like a ghost) only relevant when a specific topic is brought up, then dismissed when people grow tired, bored or disenchanted — no more humored than an actual ghost would be.

The conversation suddenly sounds like complaining to the ears of people who wake up to the fact that swooping in as a savior and doing the actual hard work of true allyship doesn’t stroke the ego in the same way.

The once-heralded, deemed-necessary faces and voices are regarded with looks and tones that say: Why are you still haunting that old topic? As if they’re unable to move on and speak about brighter, less traumatic subjects, when the reality is people only want to hear from them when their trauma and grief is forced to be center focus. Until it’s inconvenient.

Unless it’s repackaged as entertainment and sold as education at the expense of the lives and narratives of those depicted. Books, films and television shows — not for us, and rarely truly produced by us — telling the same stories with the same endings because people are still profiting from the past and a pain that’s never known peace.

How can one embrace brighter, better tomorrows if they’re surrounded with experiences — both real and imagined — that reinforce the cruelties of today and yesterday?

There is space for multiple conversations, many of which may have little to nothing to do with identity, and that is the secret to representation. Zoom out. See the forest and the trees. Representation shouldn’t be a palette cleanser or a one-note offering, but a spectrum of flavors. Retire the monolith and elevate narratives by creating a more holistic view of what it means to be.

Representation isn’t just familiar narratives, but familiar faces in unfamiliar narratives removed from exoticism or exceptionalism when it strikes a balance between novelty and nuance. Not a check box, but a celebration of the endless ways a human being can exist in the world.

You need to know where you’ve been to understand if you’re going in the right direction — or you could easily end up going in circles. To successfully break a cycle or bad habit, is to first acknowledge its worn paths and lazy trappings.