Riz Ahmed is not into diversity. The actor – who was the first Muslim and South-Asian to win an Emmy for acting in 2017 – recently told Trevor Noah that he didn’t like the word “diversity”. “I don’t like to talk about ‘diversity’,” he explained. “I feel like it sounds like an added extra. It sounds like the fries, not the burger, you know? It sounds like something on the side – you’ve got your main thing going on and, yeah, you sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that.
“That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture, and from our politics. We all want to feel represented; we all want to feel seen and heard and valued.”
The difference between representation and diversity might not seem obvious. On the surface, they seem to have the same goal: greater equality in terms of ethnicity and race. But, all too often, diversity becomes the buzzword. It is an HR value that businesses aim towards, something Hollywood claims it is doing while only using the same handful of actors of colour in various movies, and a goal that parliament one day hopes to reach.
Representation is different. It’s about the cold, hard reality of whether people are being represented right now. Do people of all colours and backgrounds and races feel represented by the films they’re watching? The politicians they’re voting for? The magazines and newspapers they’re reading?
All too often, the answer is no. While society has made huge strides in embracing diversity, often that means just ticking boxes. It means creating Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians – but then realising that a whole host of other Asian and South-East Asian cultures haven’t been present in a major Hollywood films for years.
Seeing yourself represented sends a message that you matter. That you're valued. And that's something everyone needs
As an Indian woman, I’m always looking for myself, to see if I’m being represented. It’s something I’ve done unconsciously since I was a child, and something I still do today. It’s human nature. I want to see if I can see people like myself in the films I watch, the books I read and even at the parties I go to. Unfortunately, I rarely do. As a child, the only brown person I ever saw on the telly was Konnie Huq on Blue Peter (I was obsessed with her and still am). It got better when Goodness Gracious Me came out and then Bend It Like Beckham. But then there was absolutely nothing until Bride And Prejudice. I’m still waiting for an equivalent this decade.
Most people of colour will relate to this – including Ahmed. In a speech at the House of Commons, he joked about his family screaming out, “ASIAN!!” if ever they see one on the telly. He’d turn off his video games to go and have a look. It’s mad that, in 2018, the same still happens. We might be more used to seeing people of colour in our films and TV shows, but it’s still rare to have a person of colour in the romantic hero/heroine role – especially if the other love interest is white. It’s why people were so obsessed with Netflix’s summer hit, All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and it’s why two young Muslims recently came up with a test to see if films portrayed Muslim people in a fair and positive light ,or fell into racist stereotypes. Fittingly, they named it the Riz Test.
Diversity doesn’t cover these problems. It doesn’t stretch wide enough. It was a good place to start and, thanks to diversity, it is now considered legitimate for people to campaign for more people of colour in the media and workplaces. But now, it’s time to ditch diversity and reach further, towards full representation. Because when people don’t feel represented, they switch off from society, and, as Ahmed suggests in his House of Commons speech, that’s when they turn to fringe narratives and stop engaging with their country. In extreme situations, it could lead them to join dangerous and violent groups.
Representation is the only way that people grow up feeling part of their country, and that they’re just as worthy and valued as everyone else. Having more people of colour in our parliament and in our entertainment isn’t just about hitting diversity targets or quotas – it’s about making sure that every single person in the UK can see themselves, somewhere other than from within their family home.
As Ahmed says: “Seeing yourself represented sends a message that you matter. That you're valued. And that's something everyone needs.”