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Representation—Everywhere—Matters

Representation is becoming a huge talking point. Like respectability politics, notions of what minorities can and cannot do paired with breaking cultural infrastructures are molding conversations in American culture. We’re taking active steps toward equality—and representation is a big part of that.

We’ve seen the matter discussed a lot recently, particularly at the Olympics with Simone Biles and Simone Manuel and Gabby Douglas and Ibtihaj Muhammed, a group of women among many athletes that have inspired future generations of athletesf. Just like seeing Zendaya getting cast as Mary Jane in the new Spiderman, the faces you see matter because they represent a normalcy of and for a type of person. The more you see, the more acceptable you feel are and are perceived to be. There’s a weight to this.

And this conversation literally needs to be taken outdoors, as Carolyn Finney explained in Outdoor earlier this month. This sounds so small since the outdoor community is so niche—but who do you think when you think “outdoorsy person”? You think of the “outdoorsman,” the straight white man, probably from Vermont, probably white haired and probably fit and probably well off enough to not be at work. You don’t see a woman of color because that is not the representation that we’ve seen.

This sense of rarity for minorities and persons of color outdoors represents the surprising fact that non-whiteness outside is somewhat tokenized and confusing to some. Finney explains.

I have always been astonished at how often white people are surprised by my presence in these spaces. For the most part, people are not unkind. I’ve been asked more than once to have my picture taken, and people want to know where I come from. Still, it never ceases to leave me with a deep-seated feeling of discomfort, of being different, and feeling decidedly out of place in these outdoor settings.

Finney relates this to the myth of “Black people don’t ______.,” which she points out as absurd. Why? Because anyone can do anything and they could see anything.

That’s why representation matters: to see someone represented in a place, doing something, means that you can too. This diversity isn’t just good for persons from small groups but great for everyone because it adds a richness and a nuance to all communities. That all starts with bringing someone else in to share and tell the story in a new way.

Finney continues.

I believe that people tend to write and create what they know. You want a different story? Let’s get different people to tell it! Part of the challenge of representation is understanding who has the privilege of being part of these structures—and who does not. It’s pretty simple: More diversity at the table means more diverse experiences, knowledge, and ways of seeing the world.

Exactly. Let that soak into the lake of your mind.

The impact of this is huge and something we’re all talking about now: Why is Hillary Clinton important to the future of politics? Why is seeing different types of black experiences on Black-ish important to the future of television? Why are queer mechanics important to the future of hetero-masculine industries? Because they show that, yes, these experiences are possible and valid and worth celebrating. That’s huge.

Finney writes this out so wonderfully and, while we don’t talk about the outdoors often, she highlights how every industry needs equal representation in mind. You can read her (great) story in full here.

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