On the Limits of Representation

Years ago, in high school and college, I read a few books by South Asian authors that, like yoga, mehndi, bejeweled bindis, and other subcontinental fads popularized by Gwen Stefani in the late 90s, were gaining visibility in American culture. I remember reading especially Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, all as a way to connect with a culture I knew little about. But that feeling of connection eluded me, for reasons I’ve only recently explored. Though I appreciated these books as works of literature, they didn’t depict anything familiar to me. Instead, they fleshed out a world to which my mother once belonged, “over there” and, I suppose, on-and-off-again over here, too. In the years since, I’ve found my truer psychological portrait primarily in the violent prose of an Elena Ferrante, or the rapid-fire stream-of-conscious writing of Anna Burns. In other words, I found my familiar in the savage writing of suppressed women, thereby locating a self defined by the strictures of gender in a patriarchal world.

I was reminded of that literary quest for self-discovery in recent months, as I came closer to “seeing” a version of myself, a self marked by ethnic and cultural difference, in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. It’s a raunchy, punchy, and often darkly comedic coming-of-age tale narrated by Karim, a mixed-race boy from South London navigating both adolescence and a tumultuous family life in the 1970s.  Karim describes a world that, while pointedly absurd, was nevertheless recognizable: his Indian uncle’s threats of procuring an arranged marriage for his cousin Jamila blur seamlessly into his father’s extramarital affair with a posh-ish white woman, and all of it adds up to his ongoing struggles growing up “black” in a racist society. It’s not a perfect parallel to my life, of course, but there was something in his depiction that spoke to me. Above all, and this is key, India, though everywhere present, was not the center; British society, in the throes of a multicultural sea change, was. In Kureishi’s work, I heard faint echoes of my own confused adolescent journey as a first-generation American in search of a center.

As I read, I grew giddy at seeing this me-who-was-not-me, and I wondered if it’s a peculiar, even banal kind of narcissism, that pleasure in seeing yourself reflected back at you. A more generous interpretation, and one that is currently on the rise, is that hearing one’s story echoed by another makes us feel less alone, less strange in a world in which so many of us are taught to imagine ourselves as quite strange. In her Ted talk, “The Danger of The Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie discusses her own early encounter with her seeming strangeness through the medium of British and American children’s books. Replicating the stories told by authors she read growing up, as a child, she, too, first wrote about blue-eyed protagonists in ponytails who talked endlessly about the weather while sipping on ginger beer. That is, she wrote stories that bore little resemblance to her own actual existence growing up in eastern Nigeria, an existence made strange by its absence from “the canon.” Impressionable, as all children are, this had the predictable result: “I did not know that people like me could exist in literature,” she confesses, a state of affairs only remedied by her later discovery of African writers. Adichie is not despairing, though. “Stories can break the dignity of a people,” she admits, “but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” We need more stories, she says, and only different voices can tell them all.

That belief in the importance of representational diversity has permeated our cultural consciousness in recent years. Recall, for instance, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2015, which caused the Academy to commit to doubling the number of women and people of color among its members by 2020. From Crazy Rich Asiansto MCU’s Black Pantherand Captain Marvelfilms – it seems like Hollywood is slowly coming around. Of course, there’s been talk of the importance of diversity in corporate settings for some time now, too (Lean in, ladies!). And higher education is no different. The painful lack of representation of faculty of color in many departments across the country is increasingly understood as a structural problem in need of remedy. The future lies in representational diversity, we are told. Diverse people will contribute diverse stories, and more diverse stories will change who we are for the better. 

Part of this narrative appeals to me. As I was writing last month, I thought of a handful of times when I was either reduced to a stereotype or called to account for my ethnic background in ways that I couldn’t quite manage at the time. And though it’s not a popular opinion, and certainly not the express purpose of representational diversity, I can’t deny that in those moments, I so wished that other versions of myself – or a self like me – were more well-circulated. Today, like other Westerners of South Asian origin, I live in a time of abundance. Praise be to Mindy Kaling, Hassan Minaj, Aziz Ansari, and Jameela Jamil. You see, sometimes representational diversity isn’t just about seeing yourself and hearing your story told, though of course such things are dignity-making. Sometimes it’s about othershaving seen your not-quite self, their having been exposed to your not-quite story, their having learned enough-ish about your more-or-less self that you need not educate them about the origins of your difference. It has been precisely when I am accounting for my difference that I have been made to feel the most strange in this world, by this world. 

That said, there is a dark side to being reduced to a representation, not least of all that your body, your image, can be co-opted by others, providing them with the requisite “diversity camouflage” needed to prevent any deeper structural change. Scholar-activist Sara Ahmed points to precisely this phenomenon in her work on the institutional function of “diversity work” within higher education. In On Being Included (2012), Ahmed traces how, over the last several decades, higher ed institutions in the UK and Australia have increasingly framed their various commitments to anti-racism and social justice in the blander language of diversity and inclusion, manifesting an institutional impulse to diminish difference, or at least fixate on its softer edges. Today's diversity work, Ahmed argues, can often be boiled down to nothing more than a multicolored aesthetics provided by different bodies appearing in glossy university prints and posters.These bodies are then put in service of institutions, providing evidence of their newfound moral rectitude, helping them break with their racist pasts. As Ahmed puts it succinctly, “Diversity changes perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations" (34).

In my own experience as a diversity practitioner, I admit this has not been my experience, but only because, unlike some of my colleagues, I have always accepted the fact that our bodies can and will “do” some of the diversity work on behalf of our institutions. For me, it’s part of the job, particularly when it’s literally in the job title and thus something for which we are explicitly remunerated. This is not to say that there haven’t been moments when I have been keenly aware of being used as diversity camouflage by others. But this was more likely to take place in academic rather than administrative settings.Indeed, I recall participating on faculty roundtables – the invitation to participate arriving just days before the proposal deadlines – after which I couldn’t help but wonder whether my body served to make the panel appear more “diverse” than it really was. Far more problematically, I came to suspect that my participation was used to help shore up the “inclusive” credentials of its purportedly “woke” organizers. In these instances, part of the pain of the experience as a woman of color was the shameful knowledge that I had facilitated a process in which my image was co-opted.

Representational diversity promises us that a diversity of images will spark a more diverse imagination and eventually lead to total system overhaul. But “diversity,” when it’s emptied of meaning and reduced to mere representation, can defeat the purpose of itself. In those instances, representational diversity can sometimes become more about changing theimageof a thing, rather than changing thethingitself. And it can be challenging for people of color to avoid getting co-opted in the process, especially when their career advancement depends on a system that feeds off them. It’s a fine balance after all: to lend your voice, your story, your image, in the hopes of altering imaginations, all while retaining some semblance of control so that, on the off-chance it doesn’t quite work out as planned, you have not sacrificed too much of your self in the process.

The Mentorship That Wasn’t

South/Asian/American: In Search of an Identity