There is no one way to be part of a group — whether that be ethnic, LGBTQ+, religious, or any other group — and it is time that society and media recognise that.
We have previously written about the problems with colour-blind casting and the importance of representation in media, and with the release of the In the Heights film, another issue of representation has once again become apparent: that of recognising and accepting multiple, intersecting identities.
The In the Heights film is an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (who most will know as the creator of the musical Hamilton) debut musical, which tells the stories of multiple people, most of them Latinx, living in Washington Heights in New York. When the musical first ran in the early 2000s it was seen as ground-breaking for its representation of the Latinx community, and many Latinx viewers were emotional about seeing themselves reflected on Broadway — which often lacked (and still often lacks) representation of ethnic minorities. However, the film adaptation has been criticised for its lack of representation of Afro-Latinx people — especially because Washington Heights is a predominantly Afro-Dominican neighbourhood.
The experience of Afro-Latinx people watching the In the Heights film is unfortunately only one of many. Other groups which are often made to feel invisible are Black Muslims, Muslim Latinxs, people of colour in the LGBTQ+ community, and disabled people in any group — and this is not an exhaustive list by any means. The lack of visibility can lead to feelings of loneliness, lack of acceptance, and being questioned for their presence.
While there are many issues at work here, including colourism and inter-minority discrimination, the central issue is that identities tend to be defined in relation to the norm of white, male, non-disabled, cis-het, and Christian. For example, Black people are defined in relation to Whiteness, Muslims in relation to Christianity, and so on. This creates a very simplistic framework for identity as it paints minorities with broad brushstrokes, and has its roots in racism and imperialist thinking. In other words, it puts minority groups into “Others” and society then has difficulties comprehending when someone belongs to more than one “Other” group.
Unfortunately, when these labels and stereotypes are imposed on minority groups by the majority, they often become internalised. So, for example, a Latina woman is supposed even by her own community to be a light-skinned, black-haired woman who speaks Spanish fluently. This can create a certain blindness within communities towards those who also identify with the community but do not have those stereotypical characteristics. Bi- and multi-racial people can suffer particularly from these internalised stereotypes, as they often visibly belong to several groups.
Bi- and multi-racial people have spoken about struggling to feel a sense of belonging and feeling like they need to choose a group and the Duchess of Sussex is an example most will know of for her public controversy with the royal family. As a young girl, she was told to check the box “White” on a census form, where there was no alternative for a bi-racial person, because that was how she looked — which illustrates how bi- and multi-racial people are not recognised in their intersecting identities.
Historically the effect has been seen in various civil rights movements, which have tended to be split up to target issues specific to certain minority groups: for example, the civil rights movement in the US, the feminist movement, and the LGBTQ+ rights movement. The fact that this split was seen as necessary in order to have a clear message which could produce change is symptomatic of the difficulties society has in dealing with intersections, and many have therefore felt left out, or partially forgotten, within the movements.
Identities are complex and multi-faceted, and there is no one way to be Black, Muslim, LGBTQ+, Latinx, or anything else. While social media helps in lifting the people who belong to intersecting groups, media as a whole needs to do a better job of representing complex and intersecting identities.
At JAN Trust we work with intersectionality in mind to make sure that we can help and empower women from BAME communities and address their diverse and different needs. We also work closely with women from these communities to make sure that they get the help they want, rather than have a top-down approach.