Visibility is VITAL
When I was a mere nipper, just becoming aware of the people around me and the judgements made on everyone, I remember vividly being conscious that I have a number of moles and freckles (although I didn’t learn the difference until embarrassingly recently) on my body. I did not see women represented with moles on their bodies in the wider world, certainly not women who were assessed to be beautiful. I therefore believed that my moles and freckles were ugly, and that I was ugly. It was not until the acceptance of Cindy Crawford as a ‘beautiful woman’ that moles became visible and I understood that they weren’t hideous blemishes to be covered and hidden at all costs.
The lesson I learned was that moles are ugly.
This might seem very minor to most of you, but when you are judged on your physical appearance, and all women are, it is huge. As a child learning this lesson, it sinks in and it stays there. Even now, I know I have this belief in my ugliness, for having moles and for the many other reasons that means I do not conform to the westernised standard of female attraction.
Leaving aside the argument as to the value of ‘beauty’ as a tool of assessing human beings, this lack of visibility had a profound effect on me at a very early age, and *coughmanycough* decades on it still does. So, lets extend that out, shall we?
I, as a white child, was well represented in all other aspects of my life. My upbringing was in a predominantly white area with only 5 students of colour in a school of 1,200 for the five years I attended the secondary school; we knew who they were because they were so few and that in itself brings its own problems for those students and the weight of societal expectation laid on them. I had many role models around me to identify with, the TV I watched showed white people doing all manner of things, and it was not something I questioned
As a white adult, I am still represented. My colour is highly visible. I see criminals and lawyers, teachers and politicians, housewives and detectives, all of the ‘normality’ (to a given value of normal, and that is defined by what is seen and accepted) represented by people who are of the same colour as me. That imbues a sense of the possible, the attemptable. That no path is blocked because of my colour. Furthermore, I don’t even think about the possibility that my colour may affect my future.
Same goes for heterosexuality, cisgender identity, able-bodied representation, religion, gender conformity and so on. I have some but not all those privileges, and the privilege means I don’t think about the fact I am not represented, because I am.
This is where empathy is important, and for those people who are privileged in the extreme – the white educated non-poor middle-class able-bodied heterosexual cisgender male – such empathy is harder to come by because they do not experience a lack of privilege. I will never experience such privilege, so my voice is easily dismissed. So much more so the voices of those even less privileged than I.
That is where visibility comes in. It is a representation without words that strikes down to the soul for everyone, not just those who are now seen in the wider context of society. It is not just those who are discriminated against who benefit from the visibility.
I was watching a programme called Wildlife Reunions (I just got a rescue cat, I’m totally animal-mad at the moment, it’ll pass [no it won’t]) and it featured elephant caregivers all of whom were black. Educated, African, well-rounded black men in good long-term jobs exhibiting a deep level of caring and empathy. I thought to myself, when is the last time I saw such a representation, and I could not think of a single moment of television in which such an image was depicted. When we do see Africa, it is framed as a war-torn conflicted continent filled with starving people, who suffer disease and famine and require the intervention of benevolent first world charity.
Same with disability. Much as I love Grand Designs, and Kevin McLeod, he made a comment in a recent repeat, and I paraphrase, in that he forgot someone who was building a house was disabled because he rose above it and adapted himself to the world around him. My goodness, how I found that patronising and ignorant. I know it was meant kindly, but it clearly stated that disability was something only the disabled person had to deal with and manoeuvre around. All this whilst building a house with adaptions built within the walls because he could not live in a ‘normal’ house which, as all houses are, do not allow for the potential of disability in anyone.
Other than that, disability is people in wheelchairs, specialised comedy programmes, the odd soap opera character, The Last Leg and the Paralympics. There is a reason why disability is invisible, and that is the lack of accessibility and the exclusion from mainstream media representation.
I could go on, but I would ask you all to take time to really see what it is you are exposed to around you. For example, how are BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) people represented? Compare to white people; is the representation as broad and well-rounded? What does that mean to you, to your personal identity? These things have a subliminal effect. We retain a definition of ‘normality’ even when we try to fight against it, and we must fight against it.
A simple example that many are aware of is the representation of youth culture in the media, particularly 16-24-year-old age group. Is there a difference between representations of BAME youths as compared to white youths? Be honest with yourself, it’s the only way to move past the guilt that you may feel (because I do, very much so) that you have accepted and ignored the damage unequal and non-contextualised representation does to ourselves and our society.
There is a reason black people are far more likely to be shot and/or involved in violent crime than white people, and it is not ‘black-on-black’ violence (a reductive dismissive and ignorant statement which really should be banned).
Now stop for a second. When you read that sentence, did you assume that the black person was most likely male and most like the criminal rather than the victim? Be truly honest with yourself and examine your initial thought. It’s okay, no-one’s reading your mind.
That is what representation of black people in the media brings to you. It is systematic oppression tied into the expectations we all hold of how a black person will behave. That form of discrimination is one that kills.
Privilege is a curse as much as it is a, well, privilege, because it means we are blind and we miss out on the experience of so much of life. Accept that you will have racist thoughts, you will have suppositions about disability, you will retain ideals of gender-stereotyping and so on, if you are in the privileged sector of that social grouping. That’s not your fault.
If you don’t see all that you know exists, be aware that the invisible is just as valid, and the experiences of the invisible need to be heard, shared and shouted. Step outside the privileged comfort zone. It is not the job of the discriminated against to teach you, they have enough to do fighting for their visibility. It is your job, and my job, and everyone’s job, to learn and research and remove oneself from the platform of privilege to give space to those whose voices are by the very essence of experience more important that yours (and mine).
Visibility is vital. It’s for all of us to fight for it; the privileged even more so than those not. You won’t lose anything and you will gain so much. But even if you didn’t, are you really content to achieve and profit on the backs of those who you are stepping on and pushing down simply because they don’t have the same skin colour, physical abilities or gender as you?