Gather round, children. Auntie Jules has a degree in psychology with a specialization in social psychology, and she doesn’t get to use it much these days, so she’s going to spread some knowledge.
We love saying representation matters. And we love pointing to people who belong to social minorities being encouraged by positive representation as the reason why it matters. And I’m here to tell you that they are only a part of why it matters.
The bigger part is schema.
Now a schema is just a fancy term for your brain’s autocomplete function. Basically, you’ve seen a certain pattern enough times that your brain completes the equation even when you have incomplete information.
One of the ways we learned about this was professional chess players vs. people who had no experience with chess.
If you take a chess board and you set it up according to a pattern that is common in chess playing (I’m one of those people who knows jack shit about chess), and you show it to both groups of people, and then you knock all the pieces off the board, the pro chess players will be able to return it to its prior state almost perfectly with no trouble, because they looked at it and they said, “Oh, this is the fifth move of XYZ Strategy, so these pieces would be here.”
The people who don’t know about chess are like, “Uh, I think one of the horses was over here, and maybe there was a castle over there?”
BUT, if you just put the pieces randomly on the board before you showed it to them, then the amateurs were more likely to have a higher rate of accuracy in returning the pieces to the board, because the pros are SO entrenched in their knowledge of strategy patterns that it impairs their ability to see what is actually there if it doesn’t match a pattern they already know.
Now some of y’all are smart enough to see where this is going already but hang on because I’m never gonna get to be a college professor so let me get my lecture on for a second.
Let’s say for a second that every movie and TV show on television ever shows black men who dress in loose white T-shirts and baggy pants as carrying guns 90% of the time, and when they get mad, they pull that gun out and wave it in some poor white woman’s face. I mean, sounds fake, right? But go with it.
Now let’s say that you’re out walking around in real life, and you see a black man wearing a white T-shirt and loose-fitting jeans.
And let’s say he reaches for something in his pocket.
And let’s say you can’t see what he’s reaching for. Maybe it’s his wallet. Maybe it’s his cell phone or car keys. Maybe it’s a bag of Skittles.
But on TV and movies, every single time a black man in comfortable, casual clothes reaches for something you can’t see, it turns out to be a gun.
So you see this.
And your brain screams “GUN!!!” before he even comes up with anything. And chances are even if you SEE the cell phone, your brain will still think “GUN!!!” until he does something like put it up to his ear. (Unless you see the pattern of non-threatening black men more often than you see the narrative of them as a threat, in which case, the pattern you see more often will more likely take precedence in this situation.)
Do you see what I’m saying?
I’m saying that your brain is Google’s autocomplete for forms, and that if you type something into it enough, that is going to be what the function suggests to you as soon as you even click anywhere near a box in a form.
And our brains functioning this way has been a GREAT advantage for us as a species, because it means we learn. It means that we don’t have to think about things all the way through all the time. It saves us time in deciding how to react to something because the cues are already coded into our subconscious and we don’t have to process them consciously before we decide how to act.
But it also gets us into trouble. Did you know that people are more likely to take someone seriously if they’re wearing a white coat, like the kind medical doctors wear, or if they’re carrying a clipboard? Seriously, just those two visual cues, and someone is already on their way to believing what you tell them unless you break the script entirely and tell them something that goes against an even more deeply ingrained schema.
So what I’m saying is, representation is important, visibility is important, because it will eventually change the dominant schemas. It takes consistency, and it takes time, but eventually, the dominant narrative will change the dominant schema in people’s minds.
It’s why when everyone was complaining that same-sex marriage being legal wouldn’t really change anything for LGB people who weren’t in relationships, some people kept yelling that it was going to make a huge difference, over time, because it would contribute to the visibility of a narrative in which our relationships were normalized, not stigmatized. It would contribute to changing people’s schemas, and that would go a long way toward changing what they see as acceptable, as normal, and as a foregone conclusion.
So in conclusion: Representation is hugely important, because it’s probably one of the single biggest ways to change people’s behavior, by changing their subconscious perception.
(It is also why a 24-hour news cycle with emphasis on deconstructing every. single. moment. of violent crimes is SUCH A TERRIBLE SOCIETAL INFLUENCE, but that is a rant for another post.)
I love a good lecture.
I think @wintergrey talked about this last year when we were discussing fandom racism bias.