“My mum insisted on only buying me kids’ books with little brown kids on them so I knew I existed,” revealed pop artist Rowan Edwards, aka Gozi, at last week’s dBs Dialogues. And the anecdote really hit home. Whatever our race, religion, gender or sexuality, representation equals belonging – and belonging fosters opportunity.
Does your story need to be told? With so much cultural and creative diversity, how do we make sure all voices are heard? Can all the voices be heard, and if so, whose responsibility is it to ensure this? From community to the media: in the third and final discussion of our panel series on diversity, we explored some crucial questions.
Joining Rowan on the panel was fellow Electronic Music Production & Performance student and multidisciplinary artist Samaquias Lorta, and founder of Berlin Feminist Film Week Karin Fornander. The talk was facilitated by writer, content strategist and co-founder of Berlin’s DADDY Magazine Kemi Fatoba. With all of our panellists both personally and professionally invested in identity politics, it made for a fascinating dialogue. Check out the top five things we learnt below.
Representation is about more than fairness
“If you don’t see yourself in the things that you engage with all the time, your brain tells you that you don’t exist, you’re not important.”
It goes without saying, fairness is super important in all contexts. But, as we touched on in the intro, for many of us, representation can mean the difference between feeling worthy or invisible; a door being open or shut. Karin shared an interesting sociological perspective. “There is a theory called symbolic annihilation,” she said, “which means if you don’t see yourself in the things that you engage with all the time – you’re never represented in that – your brain tells you that you don’t exist, you’re not important.”
Feeling unrepresented can damage self-esteem – especially in kids’ developmental stages. “Children of colour and girls felt like they got lower self-esteem the more TV they watched,” Karin told us of a 2011 study. Kemi summed it up fantastically: “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Nepotism is diversity’s enemy
“What happened very quickly was that minorities stopped being in the show and the stories got much less interesting.”
Nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. As Rowan pointed out, even if the privileged don’t mean to discriminate against minority groups, their affiliations or conditioning may cause them to exclude them anyway. He used cult British TV series Doctor Who as an example.
“Doctor Who was run for a while by a gay man called Russell T. Davies,” Rowan explained. “He made the infamous and brilliant TV show Queer as Folk before being given Doctor Who on BBC – which was a very big deal. He did a lot for increasing minority representation… Steven Moffat then took over the show… and literally filled the entire production crew with his friends and family. What happened very quickly was that minorities stopped being in the show and the stories got much less interesting… Subconsciously, he ruined what could have been a really exciting show.”
Quotas are the way forward
“By putting quotas in place in all of these institutions, you’re forcing people to think about the unconscious bias they have.”
Quotas are, of course, an extremely divisive topic. A common criticism is that the system goes against meritocratic principles. However, our panellists all agreed that the opposite is true; the diversity afforded by displacing the majority of White, heterosexual men essentially leads to more interesting and dynamic spaces, and higher quality content.
Furthering his point on nepotism, Rowan said, “by putting quotas in place in all of these institutions, you’re forcing people to think about the unconscious bias they have towards themselves and people who look like them.”
If Karin’s superbly curated festival wasn’t proof enough of the efficacy of diversity, she also cited the politics of her home country. “The Swedish state film fund is run by a woman who imposed a quota… She wanted to make sure that 50 percent of the money was given to women. She did that and actually now more films are made by women in Sweden. It did make a difference.”
The internet has changed the status quo
“People were always willing to see themselves on screen; you just never tested it to see.”
“Failing the destruction of the White-supremacist, homophobic patriarchy and the rebuilding of a queer, multicoloured utopia,” Rowan wryly remarked, “underrepresented people need to continue to represent themselves and support each other. Because, as time has told us, no one is going to speak for us.”
Rowan explained that the internet is the perfect platform for self-representation. The digital age has given us unprecedented access to communities, strengthening and loudening the collective voice of minority groups. Kemi cited the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and the Times Up campaign as two great examples. And thanks to this rising demand for diversity, the gatekeepers of the industry are finally starting to pay attention.
As the triumphant Black Panther proved, the market is not only there, but it’s huge. “We are in a strange age where big, studio-endorsed minority stories are like these big shock hits,” Rowan added. “It would have always worked, people were always willing to see themselves on screen; you just never tested it to see.” Karin added, “I think there’s a misconception that normative White, male stories appeal to everyone; that stories about women only appeal to women; and stories about people of colour only appeal to people of colour.”
Allies and mentors are invaluable
“I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for crowdfunding.”
In the creative industries, talent isn’t always enough. Coming from an unprivileged background, Samaquias learnt early on that in order to achieve his ambitions, he had to harness the power of community. Whether it was rallying together with his friends to hold yard sales or using crowdfunding platforms, he has financed music classes, orchestra, band touring and his current school fees. “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for crowdfunding,” Samaquias enthused. It turns out that Samaquias’ Stateside friends are quite the allies. Seeing a gross lack of diversity in the orchestra business, they recently worked together to unionise a local philharmonic.
Mentorship is also invaluable. “It’s allowed me to level my game up,” Rowan said of the mentorship initiative at dBs Berlin. “My mentor is a White gay man in America. As a White man, he has access to things in the industry that I do not, and has been able to climb the ladder somewhat faster than I conceivably could.”
Follow the panellists:
Karin Fornander: Berlin Feminist Film Week