The value of inclusivity in images

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about inclusivity in images….

If this blog post was about children’s health, what would be the problem with the photo at the top?

You might suggest the problem is that the children all look happy, and yet sick children are often unhappy. True, but that is not the problem.

In fact, the difficulty is that all three children are white. And blonde. (Or at least blondish.) In the US, only 76% of the population is white (this includes so-called “white Hispanics and Latinos.”) But in specific cities, the ratios will be much lower. In New York, for example, whites make up just 44% of the population and the total is only slightly higher in L.A. where it is 49%.

I live in a city, Vancouver, with a significant Asian population — estimated to be 19% Chinese, 2% Korean and 1% Japanese in 2016. I notice it most when I travel. Other cities appear so much more homogenous to me.

But does an accurate reflection of ethnic makeup ever appear in our blogs or publications ? Or in PowerPoint slides we deliver? No, according to Brad Phillips, in a thoughtful and provocative blog post titled “Public Speaking: An Oversight That Stings.” As principal of Throughline Group, Phillips argues we need to be far more sensitive to the images we use.

Here’s how he describes the problem:

Too often, the photos presenters select to accompany their key points reveal a lack of diversity. Unconscious biases – about race, gender, age, and other demographic factors – are undoubtedly playing into this picture. For example, if we automatically associate a well-dressed silver-haired white man with the term “business executive,” our photo selection may follow suit.

Now, imagine you’re a member of a group that has a history of being excluded (or, perhaps, you are a member of such a group). The speaker has loaded their slides with images that look nothing like you and, worse, seems oblivious to the fact that other types of people exist at all. At best, the speaker missed an opportunity to connect with you. At worst, the speaker might have lost you – and anyone else in the audience who is sensitive to such issues – for good.

I think Phillips makes an important point. And one that applies to all occasions on which we need to use visual images.

So the next time you reach for a photo to illustrate children, don’t assume it’s okay to make them all be blonde and white. You want to be sure to demonstrate inclusivity in images.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 27/19.


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