Saturday, June 14, 2014

Representation Matters, Part 2

I thought I had said what I needed to say about representation in fiction in my first post on the subject last year.

But I realized today that there's something else that needs to be said. Or, rather, that I need to say. Because when I was writing about representation before, I was writing about it from the point of view of the minority. We want to see ourselves within the text in some way, we want to know that we are not alone, even in a fictional world.

But as a white, straight person, there's another way that representation matters, and it has nothing to do with what I already am, and everything to do with what I could become.

First, an example. Schindler's List is a masterpiece of a movie, but one of the most striking images in the whole film has nothing to do with the big stars. It's the scene with the little girl in the red coat.



In this scene, Schindler, a well-off non-Jewish German, sees the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto by the Nazis. The movie is almost entirely in black and white, but this scene features a little girl in a red coat, hiding during the horrific chaos around her.

When I was a teacher, I often showed my students this movie in conjunction with Elie Wiesel's Night. And this was the scene we always talked about.

"Why is that one little girl in red?" a student would always say.

And the answer is surprisingly simple. In the scene, you see so much terror and cruelty. But our brain has an enormously difficult time processing something as huge as mass murder. We can understand it on a theoretical level, but we don't truly get it. We cannot comprehend what the loss is, we cannot process the magnitude of it all.

But we can sympathize with one little girl.

Representation matters because it puts a face to the world. It reminds us of the humanity of the "other," and it reminds us of our own humanity as well.

Growing up, I lived in a bubble of a community. All of my friends--in fact, everyone I personally knew, friend or not--were white, like me. They were all Christian. They were all (as far as I knew at the time) straight. Anything that was different was--not reviled so much as mocked. Stereotypes were extraordinarily common--not just for "the other," but for myself as well. People were defined by the boxes they existed in, and if they didn't fit into the box, they were "other," and strange and...

...and not quite human. Not in the eyes of my community.

If you had asked me, as a young teenager growing up in this limited community, if a black person or a gay person or someone "other" than me was human, I would, of course, had said yes. I knew on a conscious level that people were people, obviously.

But at the same time, I didn't understand. I didn't know anyone personally who was a different color, a different religion, or a different gender/sexuality type from me. And because I didn't know anyone different, I didn't really think of them as people. They were the faceless masses, the ones I knew were real but couldn't comprehend. It was far from me, removed, and easy for me to not care.

But it was in literature where I started to change.


I cannot remember the first time I became aware that the world was not a mirror of my self, but I think it may have started with the brilliant poet, the late Maya Angelou. While I knew the facts of the civil rights movement and racism, I understood--at least a little--the emotion behind it through reading her works. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God was another key book for me, and The Color Purple, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and the works of Langston Hughes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and so many more. Books I never would have picked up on my own, books my teachers assigned or cajoled me into reading.

Books that changed the way I looked at people.

Books that helped me to see the humanity in people I did not know and was not like.

Books that reminded me how easy it was to forget my own humanity.

When I entered college, I had become a little more aware of how limited my upbringing was, how little I truly understood. Socrates said that, "I only know that I know nothing," and he meant that if you want to be truly wise, you have to first understand that impossibility of understanding everything. As a slightly older teenager moving to a large city two-hundred miles from my home and everything--and everyone--I had known, I was only really smart enough to know that I didn't really know a lot. I had gained enough perspective to realize the flaws in my prejudices, and to attempt to change myself, but I was still floundering.

Travel helped. Living in a city with more diversity helped. Getting to know people as people helped. Defining people not by how they were different from me, but how they were similar to me as well as different, helped.

But, as before, one of the biggest agents of change for me was in fiction.

In fiction, you can get to know characters on a different level as you know people. You see them as they are, you're privy to their thoughts, to their feelings. You understand more, and you can't fall back on your assumptions, because the truth of the matter is there before you in black and white.

It is often within the pages of a book, or the images on a screen, or the characters in a play--it is often, in short, through art that we see our own humanity, and how it has failed us. That we see the humanity of others, and how it has only been the fault in our own eyes and hearts that prevented us from seeing it before.

Understanding characters helps us to understand people. Discovering the individuals--like the little girl in the red coat--helps us to see the humanity beyond the people like us.

Representation matters not just because we have an inherit need to know we are not alone, that others look and feel and think like us--but because we also have an inherit need, too often denied, to know that we are not alone, that others look and feel and think not like us.

I'm still changing. I'm still identifying my flaws--still discovering them. I only really know that I know nothing....and that representation matters.
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