Mainstream representation lacks quality

In the ongoing struggle against institutional racism in the U.S., oftentimes what is first and foremost discussed is the lack of representation of people of color, whether that be in the workplace or media. More representation is indeed vital — in fact, according to Psychology Today, increased media representation is beneficial to the self-esteem of those who are being represented. However, another dilemma that needs to be discussed is the quality of that necessary representation. Berkeley High School has a great track record of encouraging diversity and equality, but must encourage teachers to spark conversations in the classroom about the difference between true and false representation and incorporate materials to discuss marginalized groups in less mainstream ways.

All too often movies and shows are being created with casts consisting of mainly white characters, with perhaps one person of color as a side character. In fact, according to the 2020-21 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, 72.7 percent of the lead roles for broadcast scripted shows were played by white actors. In these cases, it seems as if the side character is there just to check a box — so the filmmakers can say they have “representation.” It’s similar to the defensive “I have a Black/Asian/LGBTQ/Jewish/ (insert marginalized group here) friend” statement, meant simply to make the speaker feel better about themselves.

This is not true representation. True representation in media is meant to be a thoughtful portrayal of a complicated character, whose personality is not only defined by their ethnicity. Over and over again, media representation is solely based on stereotypes. True representation is the acknowledgment that no marginalized community can be boiled down to one or two personality traits. When this acknowledgment is lacking, it’s called tokenization, not representation, and it’s just as harmful as having no representation at all. Tokenizing is at its most obvious when seen in media, but it occurs in real life too. Whether it’s an Asian student being disproportionately called on during a reading of “American Born Chinese”, or an employee being shown off as if to prove a company’s diversity, tokenization is a pervasive problem that hurts many.

Tokenization can also mean your identity being reduced to one aspect of your identity, like your ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, etcetera. According to the 2018 study “It’s Not Black and White: Toward a Contingency Perspective on the Consequences of Being a Token,” being tokenized in the workplace leads to higher levels of depression and stress, and makes those affected significantly more likely to be discriminated against.

In the ongoing fight against tokenization, it’s crucial to acknowledge the damage done by people who believe the stereotypes fed to them by media, and spark discussions about ways to end it. BHS’ commitment to diversity lays a strong foundation. Still, it must be built upon through the encouragement of conversations in the classroom that are action-forward, motivating students to consider the “representation” found in the movies and shows they watch.