Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.
The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.
This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.
What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.
As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.
I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)
Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.
When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.
This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”
Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.
My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.
I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.
One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”
The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.
Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.