Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about tokenism, diversity for the sake of appearance, and the making of one experience into a universal story. Watching shows that have more than the Hollywood typical cast of straight cis white people is often a breath of fresh air and it’s even better when the characters aren’t cringeworthy stereotypes of their identities or last longer than an episode or two. Code Switch’s recent podcast episode talks about some of these issues, especially in the context of something called rep sweats.
The word diversity has been thrown around a lot, especially with things like #OscarsSoWhite and student protests on college campuses around the nation. There is the misconception by some that simply having people who aren’t privileged in some way fixes all of the problems that plague many places and communities. But the reality is that just adding people from marginalized communities to all these different places won’t change everything that’s wrong and that journey is going to take a lot more work.
All of this doesn’t mean that representation isn’t important because that is incredibly important. But the big thing is that having characters of color in books, shows, or films doesn’t guarantee that they won’t be a token or stereotype; showcasing the few students from marginalized communities on a college brochure doesn’t mean that they feel welcome and accommodated on a campus; hiring queer and trans people doesn’t mean that the workplace is safe for them; and so much more. There needs to be systemic change in all of these areas and more that create a much safer and more diverse community all around.
Systemic change would include having more women of color directors and writers in Hollywood, more gender neutral bathrooms and employment protections, wholly accessible workplaces for differently abled/disabled people, and more marginalized people in positions of power in all aspects. Change would mean a more reflective curriculum on different campuses and that administrations are more prepared to handle issues like racism, sexual assault, and more in a more direct and tangible way. And these are just some of the things needed.
A part of this, for me, comes back to acting in solidarity with marginalized communities and listening to and amplifying the voices from those communities. Listening, reading, and amplifying the voices of people can be an act of solidarity but is there a line between doing that and tokenism? This question comes from a meeting I went to with a few other white people in which one person highlighted this at multiple points – by singling out individual marginalized people to speak on different issues, are we then tokenizing them?
And at the same time, should we be so worried about changing a system that is not really working in any capacity? A part of this comes from reading about how hiring more cops of color won’t end police violence against black civilians. The government, capitalism, and other systems in the US are beyond flawed at this point; with police brutality of black and brown people, the continuous cycle of poverty, a larger number of empty homes than those experiencing homelessness, and so much more, would the addition of marginalized folks in places of power fix these issues? Should we be working towards a society that’s inclusive and diverse in all aspects but still flawed? Or should we work towards a different way to do things?
Leticia Nieto and Margot F. Boyer have written a book called “Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment”, in which they have a slightly different way of talking about oppression and privilege. But in one of the sections (that was also a column in the magazine ColorsNW) called Understanding Oppression Part 3: Skill Sets for Agents, the two talk about inclusion and how the act still centers the privileged and doesn’t do anything to break down the oppressive systems in place. In that space, they write:
Inclusion is often seen as the height of intercultural appreciation, diversity, and liberation. Yet inclusion is still an agent-centric skill. Using inclusion, we do not recognize the rank system, the ways we are consistently overvalued, and the consequences of our privilege and of target marginalization. Without realizing it, we see our own group, and its values and norms, as the standard, and expect everyone to align with Agent-centrism and Agent-supremacy. … We unconsciously expect [targets] to conform to our expectations, to make us comfortable, and to avoid issues that we don’t want to talk about, and even to be grateful to be included. (pg 37)
This is what I’ve been thinking about a lot – is inclusion in a broken system the best way to achieve a just and safe society or should we be working towards one that doesn’t privilege some over others? I don’t have any of these answers and I’m still trying to figure this all out myself. Of course, a lot of this speculation for me is theoretical and safe. I am not the one who is most impacted by the violence carried out by the state nor would I be the one most impacted if the system fell apart. Yes, I am a queer fat nonbinary person with mental health issues but I’m also a white person from a solidly middle class family with a decent amount of generational wealth. In some very important ways, I am the privileged norm and societal default.
Right now, I know how important media representation can be and how awesome it is to see someone like you and stories like yours on a screen or in a book, especially if you’re a part of a marginalized community. But I also know how damaging fake diversity can be and how companies, colleges, and more will gladly show off the “others” in their midst without going through the rest of the motions to make those spaces better.
There is a lot of stuff going on in this post but this is all stuff I think about a lot and have some anxiety over. I don’t want there to be less representation of marginalized communities because having spaces, especially spaces involving power, be only the privileged few seems to help no one but those who already have a whole lot. But I also realize that the systems we have in place now are so beyond flawed that simply having more diversity involved won’t fix many of the issues. The only thing that I know for sure is that I am really excited to see more diverse stories and people in the media that aren’t confined to still being the default in a slightly different way.
Agent: a member of groups that are socially overvalued; the privileged identities
Rank: the system that privileges some and marginalizes others
Target: a member of groups that are socially undervalued; the marginalized identities