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An Aperture of Belonging: The Problem with “Diversity”

When The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that, yet again, the actors nominated in the top four categories were all white (despite it being a banner year for great performances by men and women of color), social media exploded with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It’s led to a wide-ranging public debate about the value of “diversity” — a word that more and more people are expressing discomfort with — and how to actually achieve it.

Anna Holmes, writing before the Oscar shakeup, explains that the word “diversity” has become meaningless “through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia, and self-serving intentions.” She goes on:

“Bragging about hiring a few people of color, or women, seems to come from the same interpretive bias, where a small amount is enough. It also puts significant pressure on the few ‘diverse’ folks who are allowed into any given club, where they are expected to be ambassadors of sorts, representing the minority identity while conforming to the majority one.”

The paradox at the center of these conversations is this: in order to “diversify” we often begin by thinking in very practical terms. We have to count. We have to recruit those who are missing from the count. And this, in and of itself, is objectifying. In trying to create a culture where more perspectives are represented, one actually risks reducing those perspectives to demographic checkboxes. A gamer who grew up with three brothers in the South, loves Star Trek, and hates professional football becomes “a black guy.”

Another word for this reduction is “tokenization.” The truth is, the word haunts me on a regular basis. I co-founded a speakers bureau whose express mission is to diversify thought leadership, and I am often the person in an all-white or nearly all-white room trying to champion amazing people of color to speak on influential stages. I pitch these complex individuals — many of whom I have textured, longstanding relationships with — in 30-second sound bites. The end is noble: more bandwidth for someone with a powerful presence and message. All those lucky enough to listen, get wiser. But the means can sometimes feel gross.

Now some of you, particularly if you are white and newer to this conversation, might be thinking, “Well a 30-second pitch is always a reduction of a whole person, isn’t it?”

This is true, to some extent. But when there are 12 white guys being pitched in a given setting, each of them has more room to be distinguished by characteristics other than their race or sex. This guy is the surfer-photographer. This guy is the gig-economy futurist. This guy is the sustainable farmer.

When there are two Latinas being pitched, not only are they often pitted against one another (as if the world will explode if there is more than one Latina on a stage), but their expertise is often described solely through or largely connected to their race and/or sex. This woman can speak about being a woman in the army. Never mind that she’s also an expert in national security and the privatization of war.

Ask yourself this question: Would you rather have the finite amount of information that strangers know about you be your race and/or sex, or some inkling, no matter how incomplete, of your larger experience in the world? It’s a no-brainer.

The goal, of course, is to get beyond the pitch, beyond the finite amount of information, and give a wider range of people a chance to be known — known, importantly, in a way that they author and feel excited about. If you don’t want to host a tokenizing event, don’t pressure people to represent their entire race or sex. Introduce them according to their full credentials. Don’t ask them to speak only to issues directly related to their race and/or sex, and don’t ask for their input only when the world is watching and you know you’ll get “good white people” points. In other words, create a real relationship that transcends the public moments.

In the case of the conversations surrounding the Oscars, the goal is to get more talented performances by people of color recognized by the Academy, both because Will Smith and Michael B. Jordan individually deserve it, but also because it will change Hollywood. Financing often follows awards, so if more people of color win awards, more films starring people of color get made. If more films starring people of color get made, there is a greater chance for a wider variety of narratives that those films can feature. Yes, this means 12 Years a Slave, but it also means films starring people of color that are about heartbreak and friendship and shipwrecks and rocket launches.

Award-winning director Ava DuVernay told reporters in Sundance this week that she doesn’t like the word “diversity.” “I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue.” She said she preferred the words “inclusion” or “belonging.”

“There’s a belonging problem in Hollywood. Who dictates who belongs?”

There is a belonging problem. That’s a beautiful way to put it.

There’s also an aperture problem. As institutions like The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ache to change, their first step is often clinical. They finally look around and see the preponderance of whiteness in the room. Where before there was just the absence of race, now, when they see non-white people, it’s through a pinhole. They don’t see people — quirky, talented, variable people; they see blackness. They see a box checked; a problem solved; maybe even a shame lifted. And as we all know, motivation born of shame is never good.

Beyond the pinhole is where the real promise of transformation lies. As you widen your aperture, you see not race or sex, but race and sex and story and personality and preference and desire and point of view and wonder and surprise. It’s not “medicinal,” as DuVernay describes the perfunctory efforts toward diversification that Hollywood tends to make. It’s organic. It’s not a box checked — it’s seeds planted, soil tended, relationships nurtured. It’s inconvenient and messy and dignifying. It’s a process, not an achievement. A pleasure, not a duty. And it’s going to take a little while.

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