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Why Representation Matters and Why It’s Still Not Enough

Reflections on growing up brown, queer, and Asian American.

Key points

  • Positive media representation can be helpful in increasing self-esteem for people of marginalized groups (especially youth).
  • Interpersonal contact and exposure through media representation can assist in reducing stereotypes of underrepresented groups.
  • Representation in educational curricula and social media can provide validation and support, especially for youth of marginalized groups.

Growing up as a Brown Asian American child of immigrants, I never really saw anyone who looked like me in the media. The TV shows and movies I watched mostly concentrated on blonde-haired, white, or light-skinned protagonists. They also normalized western and heterosexist ideals and behaviors, while hardly ever depicting things that reflected my everyday life. For example, it was equally odd and fascinating that people on TV didn’t eat rice at every meal; that their parents didn’t speak with accents; or that no one seemed to navigate a world of daily microaggressions. Despite these observations, I continued to absorb this mass media—internalizing messages of what my life should be like or what I should aspire to be like.

Ron Gejon, used with permission
Filipino American Artists, Academics, and Activists
Source: Ron Gejon, used with permission

Because there were so few media images of people who looked like me, I distinctly remember the joy and validation that emerged when I did see those representations. Filipino American actors like Ernie Reyes, Nia Peeples, Dante Basco, and Tia Carrere looked like they could be my cousins. Each time they sporadically appeared in films and television series throughout my youth, their mere presence brought a sense of pride. However, because they never played Filipino characters (e.g., Carrere was Chinese American in Wayne's World) or their racial identities remained unaddressed (e.g., Basco as Rufio in Hook), I did not know for certain that they were Filipino American like me. And because the internet was not readily accessible (nor fully informational) until my late adolescence, I could not easily find out.

Through my Ethnic Studies classes as an undergraduate student (and my later research on Asian American and Filipino American experiences with microaggressions), I discovered that my perspectives were not that unique. Many Asian Americans and other people of color often struggle with their racial and ethnic identity development—with many citing how a lack of media representation negatively impacts their self-esteem and overall views of their racial or cultural groups. Scholars and community leaders have declared mottos like how it's "hard to be what you can’t see," asserting that people from marginalized groups do not pursue career or academic opportunities when they are not exposed to such possibilities. For example, when women (and women of color specifically) don’t see themselves represented in STEM fields, they may internalize that such careers are not made for them. When people of color don’t see themselves in the arts or in government positions, they likely learn similar messages too.

Complicating these messages are my intersectional identities as a queer person of color. In my teens, it was heartbreakingly lonely to witness everyday homophobia (especially unnecessary homophobic language) in almost all television programming. The few visual examples I saw of anyone LGBTQ involved mostly white, gay, cisgender people. While there was some comfort in seeing them navigate their coming out processes or overcome heterosexism on screen, their storylines often appeared unrealistic—at least in comparison to the nuanced homophobia I observed in my religious, immigrant family. In some ways, not seeing LGBTQ people of color in the media kept me in the closet for years.

How representation can help

Representation can serve as opportunities for minoritized people to find community support and validation. For example, recent studies have found that social media has given LGBTQ young people the outlets to connect with others—especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person opportunities. Given the increased suicidal ideation, depression, and other mental health issues among LGBTQ youth amidst this global pandemic, visibility via social media can possibly save lives. Relatedly, taking Ethnic Studies courses can be valuable in helping students to develop a critical consciousness that is culturally relevant to their lives. In this way, representation can allow students of color to personally connect to school, potentially making their educational pursuits more meaningful.

Further, representation can be helpful in reducing negative stereotypes about other groups. Initially discussed by psychologist Dr. Gordon Allport as Intergroup Contact Theory, researchers believed that the more exposure or contact that people had to groups who were different from them, the less likely they would maintain prejudice. Literature has supported how positive LGBTQ media representation helped transform public opinions about LGBTQ people and their rights. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the general US population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriage in just 15 years—with 60% of the population being opposed in 2004 to 61% in favor in 2019. While there are many other factors that likely influenced these perspective shifts, studies suggest that positive LGBTQ media depictions played a significant role.

For Asian Americans and other groups who have been historically underrepresented in the media, any visibility can feel like a win. For example, Gold House recently featured an article in Vanity Fair, highlighting the power of Asian American visibility in the media—citing blockbuster films like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Asian American producers like Mindy Kaling of Never Have I Ever and The Sex Lives of College Girls demonstrate how influential creators of color can initiate their own projects and write their own storylines, in order to directly increase representation (and indirectly increase mental health and positive esteem for its audiences of color).

When representation is not enough

However, representation simply is not enough—especially when it is one-dimensional, superficial, or not actually representative. Some scholars describe how Asian American media depictions still tend to reinforce stereotypes, which may negatively impact identity development for Asian American youth. Asian American Studies is still needed to teach about oppression and to combat hate violence. Further, representation might also fail to reflect the true diversity of communities; historically, Brown Asian Americans have been underrepresented in Asian American media, resulting in marginalization within marginalized groups. For example, Filipino Americans—despite being the first Asian American group to settle in the US and one of the largest immigrant groups—remain underrepresented across many sectors, including academia, arts, and government.

Representation should never be the final goal; instead, it should merely be one step toward equity. Having a diverse cast on a television show is meaningless if those storylines promote harmful stereotypes or fail to address societal inequities. Being the “first” at anything is pointless if there aren’t efforts to address the systemic obstacles that prevent people from certain groups from succeeding in the first place.

Ron Gejon, with permission
Filipino American Artists, Academics, and Activists
Source: Ron Gejon, with permission

Instead, representation should be intentional. People in power should aim for their content to reflect their audiences—especially if they know that doing so could assist in increasing people's self-esteem and wellness. People who have the opportunity to represent their identity groups in any sector may make conscious efforts to use their influence to teach (or remind) others that their communities exist. Finally, parents and teachers can be more intentional in ensuring that their children and students always feel seen and validated. By providing youth with visual representations of people they can relate to, they can potentially save future generations from a lifetime of feeling underrepresented or misunderstood.

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