Representation -simple as it is, is one of the most challenging thing for organisations yet so easy and simple to put in place. Recently a friend of mine who finished her PhD, swore not to even think of working for the institution she did her course. When I asked her why, she told me – representation. Being the only black woman in that department, she never saw anything that represented her in a positive light. She said to start with, there was no one she could call a mentor, people around her didn’t seem to understand her and as if that was not enough, everywhere she looked had negative images of Africa. She felt lost, insulted and belittled. All over the notice boards were images of thin black children with mucus on their faces and eyes covered in green mucus like stuff. The image that everyone has of Africa! She said how can I respect myself let alone be respected in a place like that. What are those pictures doing anyway in a science department of a good well known university, as if students will donate their so cherished grants and loan to poor Africa! Something is grossly wrong with continuing to enforce the rhetoric of the dirty, helpless, needy black child and the sweet saving white woman or man who rescues him or her. And unfortunately most philanthropic efforts play on this one rather heavily whether deliberately or incidentally as they may like to argue. All this further feeds into the denigrated view of black people everywhere – that we’re too uneducated, poor, or otherwise helpless as a whole, to attain success without the assistance of the descendants of our colonial slave masters, or that we are all somehow innately bad.
She said she had intended to stay around and work and help develop some science that might save people but she thought not in that toxic representation. Sure enough I am now aware of what she meant than before. Every country has poor people. Every country has people sleeping rough, but the way things are portrayed on poster , on TV and some other platforms, you would think only Africa has the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people should not be helped, but there has to be place and space. Putting such images in learning institutions only helps to denigrate people from that part of the world. Like my friend said, would stop and donate their grants and loans? How much money then has been collected for charity work from students in these universities?
Recently I was having a conversation with a bright Sixth former whom I will disguise from this article but all I can say is he is at a state school. They had a representation from one of the high and mighty universities in the country coming to talk to them about their prospects of applying to go to this university. The person started talking about the dress up and rig ma role that they have to do when going for dinner etc. Obviously for kids used to a simple dinner at school, this all sounded intimidating. Now the sixth former and a group of friends are thinking of alternatives. One would think, if the idea was to have kids from state schools applying to this elite university, one would have been more careful in how they explain things. So again, mission unaccomplished ! As far as the representative of this university is concerned job done but really?
As progressive, modern and inclusive as we’d like to think today’s world is, we still have a far way to go. Representation remains a valuable tool in the hands of influencers where they may either choose to provide validation and to be honest in telling people’s stories or they may choose to do the opposite, even if it isn’t said in as many words.
Disclaimer: These are my thoughts based on conversing with people and observation.