Generic salsa music and a drop of sabor in a sea of beige. Whiny new age sitar and a flippant namasté (spelled with an accent over the e, of course). Where does that place your message when it comes to minority representation? As far as my little blended family and millions of others are concerned, staunchly in eye-roll territory.
As a US born Latina married to an Indian Muslim with a little girl who is all those things in one small package, it is important to me that she grows up with a strong sense of self and pride in her identity. But I know all too well that when mainstream media portrayals erase minority experiences in favor of one-note tokenism, it can affect the way you are viewed by others, and even how you view yourself. You don’t have to be a PR expert to know when a media campaign misses the mark trying to appeal to your demographic. It’s a strange sensation—feeling hyper visible and yet at the same time so profoundly othered.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that nowadays there is more representation for my girl than Apu’s wife, action movie terrorists and oversexualized fiery Latinas. But we still can, and should, do better. So what is it exactly that separates campaigns that speak to real people and those that fall back on two-dimensional stereotypes?
They delve deeper.
I’ve often thought about what the emotional draw can be in celebrating one’s ethnicity and identity that keeps cultural practices alive for centuries. Some say that it is an urge to be a part of the whole, to belong, to be submersed in a group where you feel at home. But I think this is only part of the story.
To participate in a tradition that has a long history in your family or community is to form a connection with those who have come before you, and ultimately, with your own deepest self. In doing so, you echo the ways of being of your ancestors who live on in your blood and bones. It’s a sympathetic resonance that touches you to your core. Through these traditions, and even through rejection of the ones that no longer resonate, we can learn who we truly are as individuals in relation to the greater whole.
When media portrayals only speak to the aesthetics of this profound experience, no wonder they fall flat. The trappings of cultural diversity—clothing, decorations and minority bodies—are only the first step in representation. People want to see themselves reflected in media in a way that faithfully represents their lives through a lens of respect, matter-of-factness, and warmth.
They stand by their message.
These days “the personal is political” has never rung truer. For some, simply existing in a public space can be interpreted as a political statement. It wasn’t too long ago that people got their panties in a bunch seeing an interracial couple in a Cheerios ad, and in 2018 things unfortunately aren’t much better. When a very limited reactionary audience gripes about a campaign that portrays minorities because it doesn’t reflect their reality (for once), what should you do? Have our backs.
Nothing destroys hard-built trust with a community like a mealy-mouthed almost apology for supporting them in the first place. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say something, say it. Clever clapbacks on social media are always fun, but standing firm and not going back on your message also speaks volumes.
Does this pay off? Ask Nike.
They don’t assume. They ask.
One of the best ways to generate reception for your message is to address a problem your audience has and propose a thoughtful and creative solution to it. You can’t do that if you don’t know what the community is facing. If you aren’t a part of that demographic (or even if you are!) it pays to do your homework. Figure out what people are concerned about, what keeps them up at night, and what would actually make their lives better.
You also can’t reach people if you’re defining them by arbitrary categories imposed on them. By “Hispanic” do you mean Latin Americans or the diaspora? 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants? Afro-Latinxs or indigenous people? Catholic or Jewish Latinxs? People from Spain? By asking people how they define themselves and what matters most to them when it comes to identity, you can learn a lot about how they see themselves and the world.
The risks of overgeneralizing are often disastrous. My phone’s language is set to Spanish. Guess what a lot of the “targeted” advertisements that I see on social media look like?
¿Buscas trabajo? *picture of a faceless woman mopping a floor in a maid’s outfit*
NB- I mean no disrespect to trabajadores that work hard every day doing the important jobs that aren’t given their due in our society. But stereotypes are gross.