The importance of conversations about race, diversity, and representation in the freelance industry

You may be sick and tired of the phrase “representation matters.” Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. That phrase is thrown around the internet too much it can be irritating to hear or read it. For as long as I can remember, “representation matters” has been a resounding call at work, in the media, you name it. But it is a resounding call for a reason.

Conversations about race, diversity, and representation are important not only for the betterment of our society but more so for the betterment of us as individuals. It’s so easy to be stuck in an old mindset and an outdated understanding of things. It’s so easy to stick with systems even though they’re no longer working or long after they’ve been proven to be more destructive than constructive.

Why representation matters

If you live on the Internet then you probably saw those trending videos of kids celebrating in awe when the animated film Encanto was released. THAT. That is the reason why representation matters. They never saw someone like them in films until they saw Encanto. That movie ultimately made these kids realize, “I can be in movies too!”

While the call for such conversations is not as loud in the freelance industry as it is in the corporate world, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. Thing is, it’s not always easy to step into something when you’ve never seen someone like you doing that same thing. A white journalist cannot tell an aspiring Asian journalist that she can get published in The New York Times too when all she’s ever seen were white journalists in that publication. Of course, NYT has a diverse rolodex of freelancers and staffers, but the prominent journalists we often hear about are typically white.

It’s easy to throw around suggestions and advice, especially from a position of privilege. What we fail to understand is that sometimes, people struggle to follow given advice for a reason. Sometimes, you have to see yourself in someone who looks like you to be able to understand that people like you are capable of such things too!

Why we must take an intentional approach

There is a fine line between tokenism, representation, and inclusivity. For the record, it’s great that more and more brands care less about whether or not you’re a freelancer of color and more about whether or not you can do the job. However, we cannot erase the fact that some clients still favor white freelancers.

Tokenism is defined as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.” Too often, this is what’s happening. People only hire one or two non-white people into the team and then call themselves a “diverse and inclusive company.”

Representation happens when a client or a brand intentionally hires as many freelancers of color as they hire white freelancers. This also applies to studios and agencies. When freelancing began, most studios and agencies were composed of an all-white (and often male-identified) team. Things are changing now. We need to encourage that change to continue.

Impact of lack of diversity in the freelance industry as a whole

These conversations around race, diversity, and representation do not only benefit the community of freelancers of color but also, the freelance industry as a whole. While someone’s ability to write an article or create a website doesn’t depend on their skin color, their perspective does.

Just like any other industry, the more diverse and inclusive it is, the more successful it tends to be. Not just in terms of monetary base, but also in terms of maintaining a more inclusive and safe collaborative environment.

How to create a more diverse and inclusive team of freelancers

This is pretty straightforward—bring in more freelancers of color.

Encourage your team to be collaborative and to have conversations beyond work. It doesn’t matter how big or small. In the freelance industry, healthy conversations matter more than you may think. This industry can be lonely, so encouraging your team to have authentic conversations about things like race, their personal experiences around it, and how they’d like to make the space safe for each other is a great way to start.

It’s also important to remember that inclusivity, diversity, and representation don’t stop within your business. Consider working with brands and clients that champion these things too! The more you connect with such brands, the more it will open your mind as to why things like these matter.

The freelance industry is probably the last place people would expect racism and lack of diversity to exist. But they do. And the best thing we can do is to keep the conversation going, keep an open mind, and encourage the people we work with to do the same.

Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.