In the immediate wake of David Bowie's death, a piece of footage made the rounds on social media, a bit of video in which an excruciatingly polite Bowie grills an MTV interviewer about the channel's failure to broadcast videos by black musicians.
Having been told by MTV's Mark Goodman that viewers in "the Midwest" would be "scared to death" by Prince and "a string of other black faces," Bowie says: "I'll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye maybe mean to a black 17-year-old — and surely he's part of America as well."
There's a reason this four-minute snippet of Bowie's mid-'80s life caught the attention of so many: In one sentence, he broke down what we're now calling "representation" — the importance of marginalized groups being able to see themselves reflected in the culture in which they live.
Representation and its power is why so many Americans were thrilled when John Boyega emerged from under a Stormtrooper's helmet in The Force Awakens; it's why so many are angry that they can't find Rey-themed tchotchkes for their kids (or themselves). Representation undergirds conversations surrounding Scandal, Fresh Off The Boat, and The Fosters; representation is a cornerstone of Hamilton, Broadway's biggest hit in a generation, the cast of which is almost entirely non-white. "Our cast looks like America looks now," Hamilton composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda has said.
It's generally assumed that the people who benefit from a diverse culture are the people whose skin, sexuality, religion, etc., are rendered visible — indeed, much of the out-pouring of grief after Bowie's death centered on the expression he gave to a range of under-represented populations: Gay folks, the androgynous, or even just self-described "weirdos" found in him a kind of patron saint, someone who allowed them to see themselves in the world — present, valued, and capable of producing beautiful work.
And this is certainly true. The primary beneficiaries of genuine representation are those being represented. There's a reason this grown woman wept a little upon seeing Daisy Ridley assume the mantle of The Chosen One in the latest Star Wars installment. There's a reason trans people have embraced The Fosters, and people of color Hamilton. There's a reason that Bowie brought up that 17-year-old black boy.
But if we think that they're the only beneficiaries, I would argue that we've missed, if not the point, then certainly a big one.
We can only ever be who and what we are. The limitations of physical existence and time spent on this earth, the place and family to which we're born, all serve to trap us inside our own heads. If we want to look beyond ourselves, if we're to have any hope of knowing the people around us, we're entirely dependent on observing their lives — to, as author J.K. Rowling puts it, "think [our]selves into other people's places."
There's always the danger of turning this process into little more than voyeurism. The line is thin, and the importance of marginalized groups being able to represent themselves cannot be overstated — just ask Native Americans how they feel about the "representation" they've long had on their country's football fields. "Representation" that isn't guided by lived reality is ultimately exploitation and not only serves no one but is actively damaging.
But genuine representation — the kind that makes a teenager bob his head or a grownup squeal in recognition — is the stuff from which true democracy is made. To quote John Green's Paper Towns, "Imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way in. It is the machine that kills fascists."
America is not now nor has it ever been a melting pot. It's barely a patchwork quilt, what with all the quilt squares bickering all the time. We are, however, a democracy, and to the extent that we want that democracy to function and become stronger over time, we have to really look at and really listen to each other. I need to hear "What's Goin' On" and see Hamilton not just because they're great works of art, but because our entire social compact depends on Americans of all stripes honoring the experiences of those whose stripes are different from our own.
Here's another thing about that Bowie interview: It took place in 1983. Thirty-three years later — time enough for that 17-year-old to go to college, get married, have children, and be denied a job because his name is "too black" — and we're still flailing about, trying to figure out if genuine representation really matters, or are we maybe being too hard on the straight white men who have heretofore ruled the roost?
There are millions of stories which we've refused to hear, millions of realities to which we've never given quarter. David Bowie was right in 1983 — but now it's 2016. We've cramped and hobbled our lives and our democracy long enough. Time to listen to everyone's songs.