Why representation matters and why we need to look beyond it

Why representation is important

I was recently at a conference in Philly reading a paper on inequality, anti-Blackness, and Latinx communities, when I realized something I hadn’t experienced before.  

Usually when I have material in Spanish from a de-identified case, I’ll read it, then translate it into English for the audience. 

I didn’t need to do that at this panel. 

Before I translated anything, the audience was already responding, reacting, empathizing, and where appropriate, laughing. That’s when it dawned on me—this audience was predominantly Spanish-speaking and Latinx.

Anda pal carajo , I thought to myself.

For the first time, I was reading a paper in front of a majority Latinx, Spanish-speaking audience that “got the jokes” without my needing to translate or “water down” the meaning of the words. And that blew my ever-loving mind. 

Uno se siente como en su propia casa 

There was a sense of camaraderie, fellowship, and familiarity, and one I don’t often experience in academic and professional settings. But there it was. Then it dawned on me—the audience symbolized representation for me, but I—a Puerto Rican psychologist showing his work in an academic venue—likely symbolized representation for them. That was both intimidating and humbling.

Representation matters because it normalizes existence for communities that have historically been excluded from society, history, and even the public eye. It makes us feel included and part of society at large. It creates space for us to imagine we can be all be doctors, nurses, lawyers, movie stars, superheroes, senators and presidents. The image of seeing someone who looks like you, sounds like you, carries themselves like you feels wonderful and empowering. But there’s a catch. 

Why representation is limited

That audience was made up of a diverse group of people, including straight and LGBT Latinx men and women. But these represented Latinx people who had achieved a certain level of class, professional, and economic privilege—we were psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists, graduate students and professionals. Clearly, we did not represent every segment and subgroup of our communities. Many of them do not have the access, resources, and privileges to be at that conference, or even in the mental health field. 

To add another layer of complexity, the overwhelming number of Latinx professionals gathered, myself included, were light-skinned. To put it another way, there were a limited number of Afro-Latinx professionals present, both in that particular conference, as much as the mental health field in general. Partly this is due to the intersection of colorism, White privilege as it applies to lighter-skinned and “White” Latinx people, as well as economic privilege and access.

On the one hand, this would seem to signal a need for more inclusion and more representation because, again, representation is important. And more representation of Afro-Latinx professionals would also add to that experience of diversity and inclusion that is so important for people of color—in this specific case Afro-Latinx professionals and graduate students—to feel supported and empowered to thrive in one’s field of study. However, to only focus on representation risks ignoring the very issues that give rise to a lack of representation to begin with.

Beyond representation, toward justice

Consider three sets of questions:

  • How do we bring in more diversity body into our field/program/school/faculty?
  • How do we make it possible for people from marginalized communities to have the resources, tools, and access to our field/program/school/faculty?
  • How do we make it possible for people from marginalized communities to live and thrive in their communities with equity, justice, and respect?

The first question touches on diversity and inclusion, and is very focused on how to build representation within a particular field, program, school, or faculty. 

The second question is concerned with how to build a pipeline that makes a given field, program etc accessible to people from marginalized communities. Its concerns lean toward representation, but is also concerned with questions of equity and access.

The third question is real broad and wordy, but comes down to this—what needs to happen for marginalized communities to, uh, not be marginalized economically, culturally, and socially? This question is centrally concerned with social justice and equity, and indirectly with questions of representation. 

To put it bluntly: hiring a person of color for a particular job affects representation (which again, is important), but does not, by itself, change the structural, economic, and social inequalities communities of color face. Similarly, having a fellowship or grant that facilitates entry into a field or job is great for those who already have the access and privilege to be able to apply for them—but they do not by themselves impact the broader communal health of disadvantaged communities. 

It’s great to have people of color in the room. Let’s just not forget about those who aren’t in the room.

Let’s keep building representation and embracing diversity.

Let’s also never tire of seeking justice and equity.

Daniel Gaztambide