A lot of what passes for empowerment these days is within the facade of symbolic representation. That means we have a lot of people from under-represented and oppressed communities who are told to live vicariously through the lives of the ‘best’ of them.
Whether it is recognition in the arts and academics, or political appointments, a lot of it sadly comes down to token representation, rather than substantive transformation. We are told to look at a person like us that belongs to us in positions of apparent power, and are told that we must be free now; empowered now. We are asked if that is not a beautiful thing?
However, the point of representation is not symbolic; it is about fundamental transformation. It is not a matter of looking for that one individual who represents but a matter of connecting that representation to fundamental transformation. If there is no fundamental transformation, we end up with a whole generation of peacocks. That falls directly into the culture of superficial spectacle. The last thing historically oppressed communities need is just spectacle with no substance.
What we have ended up with is a system of empowerment that seeks to satisfy people with obsessions of smartness and richness. It tends to put the stress much more on access to middle-class status and making that access more diverse––rather than attacking real issues.
Symbolic representation can inadvertently create a veneer of progress, obscuring the ongoing struggles faced by marginalized communities. When we celebrate a few individuals who have achieved success, it can lead to the dangerous assumption that systemic issues have been resolved or that representation in a few spheres translates to equity and justice for all. This myopic perspective not only ignores the lived experiences of the majority but also perpetuates the erasure of intersectional identities and the struggles they face.
To truly address the limitations of symbolic representation, we must shift our focus towards substantive systemic change. It requires a commitment to redistributing power, resources, and opportunities equitably. This entails dismantling oppressive structures and creating policies that address the root causes of inequality. Symbolic representation, while a valuable component of this endeavor, should be accompanied by tangible actions that challenge the status quo and uplift marginalized communities in a meaningful way.
Comments can be sent to [email protected]