Unfortunately, some of us are born without the club colours gene. This biological lack of interest in competitive sport, however, rarely stops us from watching at least some of the Olympic Games. The events don't draw us in—although, once every four years, I do remember that hammer-throwing is objectively awesome—but it’s the sense that we are connecting. Even the worst Opening Ceremony provides us with the best chance to watch the same thing at the same time as billions of people.
Personally, I’d rather eat the discarded uniforms of the Greco-Roman wrestling team than cry “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”. Notwithstanding this aversion, I like the global feel-good indulgence of the Games. Well, mostly. As I watched the ceremony on Saturday morning, I felt some sort of unease when the Refugee Olympic Team made its games debut.
No, silly. This is not because I dislike refugees—I mean, what’s to dislike about a category of people forced by war and unthinkable poverty from the place that they love best? It’s because I dislike the pretence that everything is okay for everyone because a few things are good for a handful.
We have begun to confuse diverse representation for actual equality.
I know we can make the argument that the refugee team “raises awareness” of the hard work of seeking asylum. But, I think we can also make the argument that raised awareness has never once ended a war or a lopsided trade agreement. And for as long as these things persist, there will be more and more persons forced to flee their own borders and no amount of cooing, “Oh, haven’t they done well for themselves” at a group of unusually gifted refugee athletes is going to change that.
Even as we can be very happy for those few flag-bearers whose hardship has ended, we can still feel some unease with a world that laps up diverse representation. And, no silly. This doesn’t mean I object to diverse representation. It simply means that I think we have begun to confuse diverse representation for actual equality.
Now, I totally get why people want to see more women in parliament, more queer people on boards and more brown faces on TV etc. It’s nice for all of us to gaze upon some representation and say, “that one looks a bit like me”. But the Refugee Olympic Team reminded me that the mania we have for seeing diversity at the top blinds us to the fact that the bottom remains unchanged.
It’s pleasant to see ourselves reflected in government, media or elite sport, sure. It is, however, no guarantee that anything has happened, or will happen, beyond that moment of reflection. But, we have largely come to believe that “representation” is essential. The only problem is, representation is not reality.
The mania we have for seeing diversity at the top blinds us to the fact that the bottom remains unchanged.
The clearest illustration of the hopelessness of this belief in “representation” comes to us from the Sheryl Sandberg school of “Lean In”. This Facebook exec famously wrote a book urging all her sisters to excel in business etc. Which is all very well and good for the few people who will excel in business; and in conditions that permit only a few corporations, including Facebook, to thrive, there will only ever be a handful of sassy executives. But, you know, what about the rest of us mugs?
I take no issue with Sandberg herself. She is clearly a person who has used her privilege well in business and must be very good at advancing the success of a big and greedy company. But, her success As a Woman is not my success As a Woman, and we really must remember that success never trickles down.
What does, however, trickle down is the fiction that We Can Make It Only if We Try. Which, as most people on a median wage know and what every refugee ever knows, is nonsense. We Can Make It only if we’re given the chance to do so.
We can look at the Refugee Olympic Team and agree that this is a case of diverse representation. And we can even permit ourselves to say that’s a feel-good thing. What we cannot, however, say with any hope of making sense is that success at the top fixes failure at the bottom.
Diverse representation is not equality. It is not even a step on the way to equality. It is, in so many cases, a thing that actually masks the terrible fact of crushing inequality.
None of which is to say that you should not cheer for the refugees—I will be, and I hope they have a competitor in the hammer-throw. But what, I propose, you must not do is mistake this moment of equal representation for real equality.