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On Diversity and Representation

In my blog post from the 2nd of November 2020, I talked about representation and human rights in connection with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, noting that “to move forward in human rights, representation is key” but “representation alone is not sufficient to make a meaningful difference.” With the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, attention has now turned to his cabinet, which is on track to be “the most diverse ever”, despite criticism of a lack of Asian-American and Pacific Islander representation. There have also so far been no appointments of persons with disabilities, despite the call by RespectAbility for leadership on the issue.

Diversity and representation matter because, no matter how hard we try, we can never really understand what it is like to live another person’s life or see the world through their eyes and experiences. A wide variety of different perspectives on an issue or problem makes it easier to find a solution, and also identify any potential issues with the solution itself.

Representation also matters because of how it challenges entrenched notions of who should wield power. In particular, there is a stubborn idea that men - particularly white, straight, cisgender men from upper middle class families, without disabilities - are better suited to be in these positions of power. Leaders should be “strong”, and all these attributes are perceived to reflect strength. There are a number of firsts in Biden’s appointments that have helped shatter this glass ceiling – the first openly gay cabinet member in Pete Buttegieg, the first woman as Secretary of the Treasury in Janet Yellen, the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate in Dr Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health, and of course the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President, who is the first woman and the first black and Asian American person in that office.

There is some irony in Joe Biden, almost the archetypal idea of who a politician should be (straight, white, old), choosing such a diverse cabinet – but this shows the importance of representation and collective government over investing all power into one person. True representation can never be achieved with only one person – representation implies teamwork, collaboration, and collective decision-making. Representation is at the core of democracy because it shows that regardless of who you are, what you look like, and whatever your life experiences have been, your voice can be heard.

For true diversity, however, it is essential to not be limited to tokenistic appointments and representations. Quotas can be problematic in this way, as once they are met there can be a perception that the job of diversity is done, which can encourage simply the bare minimum of representation. We also have to be careful not to accept representation based on ideas of specific interests and expertise aligning with identity. For example, too often calls for the inclusion of persons with disabilities are limited to appointments to talk about “disability issues”. This may make a group look more representative as a whole, but if the person with disabilities in the group is only ever appointed to talk about so-called “disability issues”, then this is not true representation or diversity, and limits the opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate meaningfully. This would simply be changing the old idea that white men are best at everything to certain types of people are best at certain things – both are untrue! Worse, it links responsibility for low-status issues to individuals with lower status, making it even harder to achieve change.

In my own experience, I have worked in many committees and groups where this has been the case. Of course, in my situation, I have built my career as an expert on human rights and the rights of persons with disabilities – so expecting me to talk about these issues is not simply because I am a person with disabilities. However, I have seen many people make assumptions that I, or other persons with disabilities, do not have contributions to make on other issues. This is just as bad as the opposite error - assuming that a woman will automatically be able and willing to contribute meaningfully to changing gender structures, just because she is a woman.

Of course, true like-for-like representation of the entire population at the level of government is not an option – mathematically it is impossible to capture such diversity in a few dozen people at any given moment. But over time, as governments change, new lawmakers are elected, and officials appointed, aggregate lists of historical figures will begin to look more and more like the country they represent. And this is perhaps the most important aspect of representation –a child can see someone who looks like them in a position of power and think “this could be me one day too”.

Chavia Ali

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