Thursday, November 20, 2014

Diversity

Some people who have been well represented and unquestioningly included in "majority culture" all their lives are starting to feel attacked by the push for diversity. Suddenly, it's not okay to just surround yourself in the workplace by people who are similar to you, or to write the stories that include people like you without including anyone else, or to basically do anything in your life without thinking about whether you've alienated someone from another group. Some of them feel it means they're being called worthless, or that they're bad for being typical and very similar to "the standard," or that people pushing for more diversity believe they have no problems and have easy lives because of their privilege. They feel compelled to both downplay the importance of diversity since the problems are invisible to them AND emphasize aspects of their lives that aren't perfect to share in the rallying cry of "I'm downtrodden too!"

In other words, instead of realizing that diversity is about other people, they still think it's about them. About shaming them, erasing them, taking away from them something that was theirs. They don't want to be asked to question why they think their spaces are only theirs, and they don't want to examine why a culture that privileges them is still hurting them (and hurting other people more).

To justify their position, some of them are taking potshots at movements that seek to increase diversity--including in fiction--and they downplay the involvement of people whose race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, creed, ability/illness status, or class is different from theirs by claiming these folks are tokens, PC pleasers, Affirmative Action beneficiaries, or evidence of someone "playing the diversity card." It's the assumption that there is no authentic way for those people to participate that is the problem here. Their mere existence in a space is automatically politicized and thought to mean something. If you can't see their presence in your books, your entertainment, your workplace, or your everyday life as anything but a political statement or a quota filled, you still aren't seeing them as people. You're still seeing them as someone who can only be there by taking a slot away from someone you think is more deserving--someone you automatically assume deserves it because they're more like you. Someone whose competence and presence you wouldn't question. Someone you wouldn't accuse of getting a position because she was attractive, or being included because they needed an Asian person to diversify the cast, or being put on the roster because someone wants to be able to point at that person as evidence that they DO hire "their kind."

I can think of three major reasons why diversifying workplaces and media is very important, none of which have anything to do with punishing, erasing, or stealing fire from "majority" culture.

1. Representation is inspiration for the next generation. If you don't see people like you doing a thing, you often grow up thinking it isn't for you. My little sister, writing from a journal prompt in elementary school about what she wanted to be when she grew up, said she thought she might like to be President. It was a hopeful entry about becoming a world leader, and then it ended with some startling awareness: an admission that this probably wouldn't be possible because she is a girl and also Jewish, and none of the presidents have been girls or Jewish. I'm sure nobody ever told my sister she couldn't be President because of these things. Nevertheless, she "knew" the cards were stacked against her if she wanted to be President. And she knew this in elementary school.

Nobody even has to specifically TELL you that people like you don't do that; you figure it out, and you figure it out young. Add to that the fact that sometimes people DO tell you--and the fact that entering those fields against all the adversity leads to people doubting your competence implicitly and explicitly, resulting in an exhausting, demoralizing daily battle against microaggressions that more "traditional" practitioners of that field don't have to face--and the cards are stacked heavily against you succeeding or being happy in those fields. But when you see someone on a TV show, in a book, or holding a position, you get the idea that people of your description can and do do that thing. It might mean more than you think for someone who never sees people like them doing what they'd like to do. It also has the lovely little side effect of everybody else getting the idea that said people can do that thing--getting used to seeing them there and not processing them as exceptions or tokens.

2. Leveling the playing field. Some people think this means we need to make it "easier" for people who aren't as qualified to get these positions, and that this leads to less competence in favor of more diversity, or that we're demonizing people with advantages if we say disadvantaged people should get a leg up. Well, no. Look at it this way: I'm 4'11" tall. If I enter a contest to see how high I can jump, it wouldn't make much sense to grade me on the highest target I can touch if some of my opponents could literally walk over and touch those targets without jumping. Does that mean they're better jumpers? No, it means they're taller in the first place. If I can jump two feet off the ground, that's two fifths of my body. If someone else can jump two feet off the ground, that's less effort for them, but it gets their hand at the end of their longer body much higher. I have to somehow make up the distance just to equal them, which means I actually have to be a better jumper to be seen as equal. Some people who don't have to jump at all are getting the "best jumper" medals, and then they turn around and ask me why I, a short person, would bother to enter a contest that's "for" taller people. (I thought it was for jumpers, but hey, why would I enter the field if it was so stacked against me, right? Why am I even here? It's not that the contest might be grading jumping ability unfairly; it's that I should have understood that I can't hope to compete.)

So, when the critics solemnly intone that they still need people to be able to jump and touch the target regardless of it being harder for some of us, they insist that asking for accommodations would require us to lower the target and decrease expectations, resulting in overall less competence just so we can say we gave people a chance. We're not asking you to lower the target, though. We're asking you to give the shorter people access to platform shoes, stools, or trampolines if that's what we need. Whining about how that's cheating makes no sense, because we're probably already jumping farther proportionately than you are, but all you can see is that I have a stool and you don't, and you perceive that you should have a stool too or nobody should because that is fair. Well, what's "fair" about me living in a world that expects me to touch the same target tall people do but I was born with very short legs? Why is that "unfairness" something you don't want to worry about?

When I was born, my parents weren't rich, but they had the resources--time and money–wise, most of the time--to help me develop a love for reading. They read to me, and other relatives read to me. I entered kindergarten so far ahead of my classmates in reading that they didn't even bother to put me in a reading group and sent me to the computer lab with the fifth graders during reading time. When I was in college, I tutored a little boy who was seven and still having a lot of trouble with basic reading. He lived with his little sister and single mother in government housing. His mom worked all the time and had very little time to spend with him on anything schoolwork-related, and she certainly didn't have time or energy to read to/with him often. I bought some paperback books to use during the tutoring and when I let him have one he said "I can HAVE it? I don't have any books at home." He felt incredibly fortunate to own a book. I had probably a hundred at his age.

We learned to read in very different environments. I was always ahead of the game and expected to excel, and I had resources to push me even farther because my achievements suggested I'd "earned" it. The boy I tutored was sitting there at the beginning of his life already being regarded as remedial. If he ever did "catch up," he probably spent his whole youth being expected to try harder just to achieve that baseline, even though he had fewer resources and fewer people who thought he was worth the investment because he wasn't a huge achiever. And yet, if he ever did get up to average, people would not treat it like the overcoming of adversity it was; they'd just treat it like it was expected, and continue to give opportunities to people who'd gotten objectively farther--attributing it to talent, hard work, creativity, responsibility--and reminding less advantaged people that really, their failure to achieve is just laziness, inherent mediocrity, lack of initiative, and unreliability. What can fix this? Well, sometimes, extending an advantage to people in this situation. Like a scholarship. Or a special opportunity designed to help someone in poverty or from a traditionally less represented demographic. We shouldn't be saying we only want people who came from backgrounds that don't as often lead to success if they overcame waaaaaay more than the rest of us to get on what's perceived to be even ground.

It's not always perfect, but we need to pull away from assuming the world is a meritocracy. People in the majority culture set the goalposts, and they (without necessarily realizing it) rig the game to be more easily won by people from their backgrounds. We're asking for several routes to the goal to be established, assistance being offered to those who need it to get to the goal, and different forms of success to be acknowledged. Not to mention we really want people from the majority groups to stop regarding disadvantaged and "diverse" folks as having only "made it" because someone wanted to check a diversity box. Imagine overcoming all that nonsense and expecting to finally be equal only to be told you must have gotten in on the diversity card.

3. People from "diverse" populations bring valuable perspectives. So, some folks like to frame "diversity" as simply an issue of offering space to less represented people for the benefit of those people, but what they don't often realize is how vital it is to everyone to have a variety of backgrounds. An example: If you have a medical product and you only test it on one gender and one ethnic background, you can't conclude at the end of the test that it's safe for everyone just because it worked appropriately on your experimental group. There is a dangerous tendency to generalize the straight white cisgender able-bodied man as "standard," and it's dangerous in way more contexts than stuff like medical tests. When we take that perspective and present it as the baseline experience, everything else is compared to it and viewed as a deviation. Issues that primarily affect men become news; issues that primarily affect women are "women's issues" (and perceived to need a corner column on page ten because they're a special interest group). Transgender women of color experience violence at a much, much higher rate than the overall female population, but it's still primarily white cis women's experience of violent crime being circulated as "the" statistics. We need people from diverse backgrounds in spaces with people from less diversified backgrounds--people who are used to living, working, and being around people just like them--partly because if we don't create those interactions, the overall experience of being a person in this world is misrepresented by the people who are making and spreading our news.

Also, people who have been treated differently from the "standard" throughout their lives, have different lived experiences, and have inherently different perspectives can disrupt echo chambers in a positive way. Too many people who think alike working together on a project can limit its effectiveness, even if we're not talking about making it applicable and effective for everyone who might be affected by it. Including diverse voices on your panels, in your decision-making groups, in your management, on your creative teams, and as your leaders will not only make more accessible and inclusive worlds for us to live in, but will improve creativity and broaden horizons.

Ask not why you should push for diversity in your field and in your life; ask whether you can afford not to!

3 comments:

  1. I posted a link to this article on my FB page because what you say is so applicable to the current events in our country. Thanks!

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