Paradox of Representation

Posted by hanjeno.o
2016.11.09 21:15 EDITORIAL/사회 :: Current Issues


Written by Columnist Jinwan Cho


A couple of weeks ago, student demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley blockaded Sather Gate for several hours to protest the apparent lack of effort from the school to retain and support minority students, including those of color and LGBTQIA+ individuals. An extension of the protest that granted them the Fannie Lou Hammer Resource Center for African American students a month prior, this particular protest demanded further support for student groups who feel that they are not valued by the school, as well as a relocation of the aforementioned resource center. At the core of this protest was one of a concept that has been so vital yet paradoxically absent in this nation’s history: equal representation.


Before moving on, I’d like to clarify what I mean by “representation.” Though it has many meanings, in the context of this article, representation means “the depiction of the individuals or values of a certain predefined group within a specified community or sphere of life in society.” So, with the above definition in mind, we can easily see that this protest is not alone in its fight for representation. In fact, this very nation owes its founding to the Thirteen Colonies’ outrage against the British Parliament for taxing them without representation. Ironically, the United States have since failed to provide its citizens with the very ideology this country was established to protect. To this day, many protests regarding civil issues all boil down to representation trying to get minority individuals and opinions to have more sway in government, schools, and other facets of life. Underrepresented groups naturally have less influence on how the community moves as a whole, and as such society is far more likely to continue to undervalue and misinterpret their viewpoints, just as the British Parliament did to their overseas compatriots. So, as long as a society marginalizes certain groups in any way, this battle for representation will persist.


However, representation alone has no value; it is simply a means to an end, the best possible way of achieving the one goal that minorities in the United States have push toward for centuries – equality. Some may be confused about this distinction between equal representation and equality. It seems logical that in an equal society in which individuals from every races and ethnicities are treated identically, most spheres of society – every level of education, above and below the corporate ladder, and throughout governmental institutions – should also have proportionate representation, so that the proportion of each race or ethnicity present in the larger community is comparable to the proportion of said groups within the entire population. In truth, being treated equally does not mean that each race or ethnicity – distinctively molded based on cultural and societal influences over hundreds of generations – are to be equitably distributed in the diverse aspects of society.  


That is to say, we do not need to be represented equally if we are treated equally. To understand this claim, let us first assume that in a truly color-blind society, all races are treated equally, but each racial or ethnic group are still culturally distinct owing to their historical influences. Now imagine a hypothetical university in such a society. Assuming that Asian cultures puts a much greater emphasis on academics compared to other cultures do – a stereotype, but not an unfounded one – it seems reasonable that in the absence of any program that can skew admissions based on race, Asians would be much more common at this university than other races (Of course this is a gross oversimplification of how universities select its students, but as of today it is also true that policies such as Affirmative Action greatly reduces the chances of admission for Asian males as opposed to individuals from other races). In other words, this school would not enrolling individuals from each ethnicity or race based on their proportion in the population, even though everyone is considered equal. In our current society, we would look at this skewed distribution toward Asians as an injustice, a flaw in the education system that does not give enough representation to certain groups that did not historically have the resources to attain higher education. However, in this theoretical society, we would look at these schools without feeling the need to protest for representation for African Americans, Native Americans, or any other marginalized race or ethnicity. We wouldn’t need to, because equality in treatment does not imply equality in representation.


To illustrate this more concretely, I will provide a modern example: Irish Americans. Irish Americans were at one point despised due to their immigrant status and their perceived threat as job-stealers and clearly misrepresented in American society. However, we do not see any major activism for more Irish American representation on campuses, at jobs, in the media because they are now considered and treated essentially the same as other “white” ethnicities. Granted,  many cannot visually distinguish Irish Americans from other white ethnicities after many generations of coexisting, and their cultural assimilation has been far more drastic compared to Asian Americans or African Americans. However, the essence is that Irish Americans do not need to demand equal representation everywhere not because they are actually equally represented in every social sphere, but rather considered equal – they feel represented. In a color-blind society, the situation should be the same for all races and ethnicities that were once marginalized. They may not be equally represented, but they will feel no need to be.

So, as we inch closer to this hypothetical society, we must realize that our current attempts at enhancing representation may not be the final objective. Rather, having representation is simply a channel guiding us toward fair treatment, a way through which minority individuals can expose their point of view to the larger community and collectively pull our community toward equality. However, once we realize this goal at some theoretical point in the future, the cultural influences that affect each ethnicity and race will still be intact, shaping individuals within those groups to be more attracted to different fractions of society, so that it wouldn’t feel unnatural to see a skewed representation. In any case, I hope that equal treatment of all races become such an indisputable norm that we could watch a popular television show with five heterosexual caucasian male casts and not feel the need to ask for a gay, Asian, or female actor. I wish one day, we wouldn’t need representation.

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