Since its premiere in 1994, the TV sitcom Friends has earned millions of dollars for its creators and cast. However, in recent years, the white homogeneity of its central characters has been placed under the spotlight. With the co-creator of the series announcing that she will donate $4 million to fund African and African American Studies, let us examine why on-screen representation matters now more than ever.
Representation helps us find a sense of place
According to the US Census Bureau, 59.3 percent of Americans are white and non-Hispanic while 18.9 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 13.6 percent are Black or African American, and 6.1 percent are Asian. Yet, when watching mainstream media, the vast majority of actors are white and non-Hispanic and you can often find white actors portraying colored characters.
Most of the time, underrepresented people come from marginalized groups who face systemic discrimination and microaggressions daily. When characters on the screen cater to the homogenous majority, the underrepresented feel that their stories and perspectives are not only less important but that their daily struggles are silenced and ignored.
Whether it is a superhero like Black Panther or gay high school students trying to find their way through life in Glee, it matters that we can see people who look like ourselves in positive roles. Media representation fosters a sense of normalcy and belonging. It reminds us that there are others like us and that society has a place for us.
Representation breaks stereotypes
Too often, what passes as representation is negative. Characters portraying people from marginalized groups are given predictable and problematic traits that reinforce harmful stereotypes. For instance, white people are cast as police officers while Black people are cast as criminals—a dangerous stereotype that is complicit in countless real-life casualties.
And it is not only race in question. Gender representation is similarly problematic in much of mainstream media with women being cast as eye candy with scant clothing and an even scanter contribution to the plots. From King Kong to James Bond, beautiful women have been used ad nauseum as mere movie props for heroes to swoop in and rescue.
Proper representation breaks this mold of shallow typecasting. It allows space for different people to take on multifaceted roles that reflect the lives that real people lead. Through challenging stereotypes, representation can help audiences expand their understanding and allow the people that they typecast to envision opportunities outside of their prescribed roles.
Representation brings perspective
We travel and watch television to experience things that are interesting and new to us. When a single group of people creates the media that we consume, the limited point of view does little to expand our horizons. Diverse casts and characters bring creativity, vibrancy, and unique perspectives that allow us to grow and learn as we are entertained.
Media is a powerful platform. When marginalized groups are empowered to speak their truth to the world, the effects extend far beyond the screen. As audiences watch stories from different perspectives, they build the capacity to reassess their worldviews and become more aware of existing inequalities. This transformed perspective can help to change society for the better.
Representation creates opportunities
When we center representation in the media, we also center the people that create this media. Today, it is no longer acceptable for an actor to portray someone of a different, marginalized race. Likewise, it is not okay to have a movie or TV series that features a full white cast. Therefore, people of color are gaining access to job opportunities that they were previously denied.
Representation matters behind the camera as well. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are being extended to the cast and crew. Companies are taking care not to exclude people of color, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities from job opportunities. With show creators and writers coming from diverse backgrounds, inclusion improves and communities are uplifted.
When is representation not enough?
Representation is a hot topic and media platforms are hopping on the bandwagon. But, instead of putting in the actual work, many shows are resorting to tokenism. Most non-white or non-heterosexual characters are still confined to bit roles—or worse, comic relief. Such superficial casting choices are far from representative and can do more harm than good.
Similarly, media depictions that reinforce stereotypes can negatively impact identity development and add to the frustrations of marginalized groups. Representation must be genuine and intentional. It should come from a place of understanding and experience. Hence, any representation of a marginalized group must be written by someone with the same credentials.
The ultimate goal of representation is equity. People from all walks of life should be empowered to represent their identity groups and gain a rightful share of voice in the media. By appointing marginalized people into senior positions, media groups can ensure that they develop diverse and inclusive programs and content that create a culture of belonging.
Representation will be enough when we no longer have to think about it as a deliberate act but a natural one. Until then, we should continue to build up the visibility of marginalized people by portraying as many authentic examples of them as we can.
What does an average American look like? It is getting increasingly difficult to answer this question as our country becomes more diverse. Yet, some company dynamics have not changed since the 1990s. Here is why workplace diversity is a vital issue that business leaders need to consider.
Diversity encourages creativity
Having a diverse team means that your employees bring with them a range of perspectives and worldviews. They are more likely to bring fresh ideas and more innovative solutions compared to a homogenous group of people who think and view things in completely the same way.
When faced with problems, teams with diverse members can get out of their comfort zones and consider issues from a different standpoint. Your employees will be able to come up with creative ways to resolve conflicts and solve issues without requiring external input and assistance.
According to the Josh Bersin company, inclusive companies are 1.8 more likely to respond quickly to change and 1.7 more likely to be leaders of innovation in their field. Research by the Harvard Business Review also found that cognitively diverse teams solve problems faster.
Diversity allows you to access new markets
As international trade becomes more common, you want to be ready to connect with a varied clientele. If your customers are of all backgrounds and cultures, your employees should reflect their diversity. When your team looks like your clientele, it improves communication and expedites progress.
Another obvious benefit of hiring a diverse team is language. With major buyers coming from other countries, there is no greater advantage than being able to speak the language of your clients. Customers will be more willing to deal with someone they can communicate with easily.
Cultural awareness is important as well. You do not want to risk committing a cultural faux pas when meeting with customers from a background that you are not familiar with. Team members with diverse life experiences will help you to navigate different cultural expectations.
Diversity helps you hire more talent
You may immediately dismiss someone because you think they are too old for your team but their extensive life experience may be invaluable. Similarly, you may be reticent to hire someone with an uncommon faith even though they might be the most qualified for the job.
Unconscious bias in your hiring team can cause them to dismiss talent based on their age, gender, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, or any other ‘challenging’ factors. This can result in a homogeneous team of employees that are limited in their range of experiences and ideas.
Glassdoor found that 76 percent of employees and job seekers weigh diversity as an important factor when choosing companies and jobs. Furthermore, Deloitte found that 83 percent of millennials are actively engaged in their workplace when the work culture is inclusive.
Diversity improves your brand
Diversity enhances your company culture. Having a wide range of people to work with makes life more interesting and helps your team members to build empathy and respect for others. This affects the way they interact, perform, and resolve conflicts daily.
With so many organizations pledging to improve diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, companies that do not keep up with change are doing so at their own risk. Clients and consumers seek forward-thinking brands. If you fall behind on important issues like diversity, your brand reputation will suffer.
Meanwhile, if you take action to improve DEI, your brand demonstrates its commitment to fair employment practices and progressive ideals—two issues that are vital to millennial audiences. You will enjoy a boost to your reputation that can set you apart from your competitors.
Here is how to build a more diverse workplace
To go-to process for companies to address DEI is to send their employees for DEI seminars or training. While this can help to change the viewpoints of your team members, top-down systemic changes that affect the whole organization are the best way to improve DEI.
An inclusive employee journey starts before they are even hired. One significant change to build diversity and inclusion is to implement blind hiring procedures, where HR evaluate job applicants based on their skills and qualifications instead of their personal attributes.
Another way to create a more welcoming workplace for employees is to consider their diverse needs. For instance, single parents may need more flexible working hours and child-care options. Strong pregnancy and parental support can help female employees to stay in the workforce.
Provide the appropriate healthcare coverage that is tailored to the needs of your diverse employees. Most generic employee healthcare packages are designed for white, non-Hispanic people and do not consider the health risks experienced by people of color and LGBTQ people.
Finally, strengthen your anti-discriminatory policies. You may be surprised to find that many of the existing policies (and people) in your company are engrained with bias. Be sure to conduct a thorough review and implement a direct feedback system that allows employees to report discrimination.
The world is getting smaller and it is time to embrace diversity. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace increase your company’s creativity, productivity, and cohesiveness. When looking to make your company more diverse, start with the executive team and lead by example.