Representation Matters: Countering Implicit Bias
Amy Nam (Canada)
When I was younger, like many other children, I did everything I saw others around me do. When I saw Hannah Montana sing on my living room TV, I wanted to become a singer and would subject my poor parents to my off-key vocals and awkward bravado. When I saw intricate paintings in the museums that my family visited, I wanted to become an artist, filling blank sheets of paper with colourful doodles of Crayon and marker. When my school librarian read my class stories, I wanted to write my own. And while I eventually retired the nonsensical song lyrics and drawings, I never stopped writing.
I typed all of my stories on the big computer in my dad’s office. I wanted my characters to be like me, so I made them play volleyball, wear voguish clothes, and have a sassy attitude. They liked math and boys and ice cream. But they also had peach-pale skin, aqua blue eyes, and wavy brown hair. They ate salad for lunch and burgers for dinner. My characters did not reflect who I was; rather, they were who I wanted to be.
My first doll was a Barbie with thick blond locks, magenta lipstick, and white skin. My favourite TV character was Miley Cyrus, who had brown eyes, thin brows, and white skin. My teachers throughout elementary, middle, and high school had white skin. But the background characters in the Disney shows I watched were not white. The antagonists in the books my librarian read were not white. The janitor and lunch staff at my school were not white.
What did this mean? It meant that, as early as nine years old, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, poking and prodding at the skin above my eyes to create double-eyelids, pushing up my nose to make it more prominent. It meant that, on family movie nights, I chose to watch Beauty and the Beast over Mulan. And it meant that, whenever I sat in front of my dad’s office computer, I wrote stories about young girls with sparkling blue eyes and pale skin.
We live in a society that seldom celebrates our differences and instead discriminates against them in the most subtle of ways. I can name numerous examples off the top of my head: I have to add “for Asian people” to the end of every Google search to get more accurate results; others have complimented me by saying I don’t “act Asian”; and people don’t hesitate to ask me, “But where are you really from?” after I tell them that I was born in Canada. From the moment we’re born, we learn to idolize only one type of face, one type of body, and one type of lifestyle.
My story is neither unique nor special. Countless people of colour can attest to despising their non-Eurocentric facial features and interests. Multiple scientific studies have found implicit biases in children from as early as ages two to four, and that white and non-white children show similar levels of racial biases. This is nothing new. It has been the same story for decades, and that’s where the true problem lies.
We can start provoking real change in many spaces, in many ways. We can lobby people in positions of power, such as teachers, principals, school boards, and government officials, for educational reform. We can demand compulsory courses in ethnic studies, diverse arrays of texts read in classes, and recurrent training sessions on cultural and racial sensitivity for school staff. We can start conversations with our family and friends on misrepresentation and underrepresentation, racial bias and racism, white supremacy and white privilege. We can educate ourselves, and uplift others, and work together. Instead of remaining passive recipients of society’s messages, we must become proactive challengers of what we see and what we think. We must commit to doing this work every single day, without hesitation, and with love.