Why representation matters in your workplace and beyond – Lessons from Wakanda
Freelance writer, Mental Health at Work
Role models can change the course of your life – but what if nobody at the top looks like you? In her first blog for Mental Health at Work, Sabrina Bramble explores the power of Black role models, how organisations need to start making a stand, and how one film brought her so much hope.
When Star Wars came out, I was a kid. I remember the playground being filled with children fighting with sticks like lightsabres, saying in their deepest prepubescent voices ‘I am your father!’. I have to admit, I didn’t get it. However, unbeknownst to me, I wouldn’t understand what all the fuss was about until decades later when Black Panther hit the cinemas – and I would go to see it ten times!
To not see the usual Black and ethnic tropes – characters being either villainous, hopelessly knee deep in criminality, or killed off before the second scene – was intoxicatingly refreshing. Instead, we were shown fully fledged characters, performing outside of their skin-tight stereotypes, acting just like they would if they were indeed superhuman.
It was more than exciting - it was a movement
The frenzied passion that I once saw Star Wars drawing to its faraway galaxy had now become ‘Wakanda Forever’. It was more than exciting, it was a movement; a movement that showed a movie with a full Black cast – and a Black director – could shine not due to, not as an experiment, not through a tale of slavery, but through a mainstream Marvel blockbuster.
It highlighted the undeniable thirst we have to see more of ourselves in film, on stage, or filling seats in the boardroom, and quite frankly we couldn’t get enough.
Space scientist and educator Maggie Ebunoluwa Aderin Pocock, actor Idris Elba, entrepreneur Karen Blackett, author and activist Akala, Actress and Playwright Michaela Coel – they are all brilliant in their own right. They are sending powerful messages of positive representation which paves the way for others to reimagine themselves as something beyond what their murky history presents.
But, if your future is yarns of media spin depicting destruction, blame, and death when scrolling down the papers in the morning, how else can you be convinced of anything different? This misrepresentation can be the catalyst of self-hate or, worse still, silence to avoid being put into a certain box.
But not speaking up is a high price to pay for a peace of mind – it can beand only cajoles the oppressed into a corner of submission, never to question the ‘norm’.
Is it really so important to be visible?
So why does positive representation matter? Is it really so important to be visible, for someone to lead by example, to see yourself in others with a similar background, culture, class, or skin colour to your own? Is it that much of an uphill battle in a system that, according to the Equality Act, is there to benefit all?
Well, it would be nice if was easy, but there are structures within the system that can be challenging. And if you’ve got something to shout about, you’re probably being affected by an unconscious or conscious bias. For instance, women in football still struggle to be paid equally to their male counterparts for doing the same job, disabled people might be getting paid less in comparison to their non-disabled colleagues, and the majority of Black and Brown people are penalised for the melanin in their skin when applying for certain schools, or looking for work in high powered positions. I believe your answer lies there.
It is incredibly important to realise that when someone flies the flag in the face of adversity, exposing problems in the status quo, it can open up doors for marginalised groups to have more than just a dialogue. It allows others to strive for better, like a beacon of hope. Those representations soon become pillars of confidence, creating space for the underrepresented, harbouring what has always been to them a mere possibility of a proper chance of being seen. It provides courage to go for that promotion or become a leader in their department, all because they were inspired to go beyond what they thought was possible for them.
We’re in dire need of a strong systematic shake up
However, it would be naïve to think that just because a small percentage of diverse excellence slipped through the net that we are all given the same chances. We’re in dire need of a strong systematic shake up to make significant differences across the board, especially at senior level where diversity will need the support of initiatives to even out the White privileged playing field.
I’m not suggesting companies offer an easy way in, but it’s common to see certain groups dismissed as lazy, unqualified, less talented or, for want of a better expression, taking someone else’s job. But giving a fair advantage to the minority – the very word depicts a subtraction from the majority rule – can help to substantiate real change.
There has to be growing, evidential access to opportunities, which is more than just a fair crack at the whip. This is not to be confused with box ticking and throwing someone a bone.
I understand it would be unrealistic to rely on a single superhero to do all of this much needed work. We’ll need many Chadwick Bosemans to step forward who have the power to increase systematic change higher up the ladder. It has to be said, post-lockdown many companies, from glossy mags to advertising, are trying to readdress the balance in the way they do things, which is a great start.
Perhaps when more of those progressive connections are met in the workplace or otherwise, our vision of who we think certain groups are and who they actually end up being will be less alien and more human. You really can’t get better representation than that.