Marlon James: Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity
Or, Why We Should Try an All-White Diversity Panel
You’d think with the rise of Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen in France, the newly energized Neo-Nazi and KKK movements, and with people from all over the world (but particularly Europe) suddenly emboldened to be public with their racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, that now would be the perfect time to raise the banner high for diversity. Now would be the time to have discussions, and raise awareness. And yet now seems like the perfect time to stop talking about it.
Or at least stop talking about it in the way we always have. Why now, when that voice seems to be needed most? The problem is all this talking. Liberals, in particular love to talk. We debate issues, we explore the conservative angle (despite them never returning the favor), we talk about solutions, we even try to tolerate those who would not tolerate us. The problem with all this conversation, is that it is all we do. We have diversity panels and invite writers of color, perhaps Roxane Gay (who has long called out the lit establishment on this habit, and who inspired me to write this piece), or Junot Diaz, or an Indigenous American and/or Australian so as to not ignore original peoples. We invite a gay man or woman, with extra bonus points if the homosexual is a person of color. Then we invite a few white persons who claim to get it, even if they are mystified by the racial arguments breaking out on college campuses (aren’t they all rich kids?) or Black Lives Matter.
It’s not just that diversity, like tolerance is an outcome treated as a goal. It is that we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it. This might be something we picked up from academia, the idea that discussing an issue is somehow on par with solving it, or at least beginning the process. A panel on diversity is like a panel on world peace. It should be seeking a time when we no longer need such panels. It should be a panel actively working towards its own irrelevance. The fact that we’re still having them not only means that we continue to fail, but the false sense of accomplishment in simply having one is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried.
One could ask, but isn’t that why we need to have that talk more than ever? To recognize and appreciate diversity more, to overcome racism, sexism and all the other isms that divide us? Well for one, saying these isms are dividing us is implying that we are equally to blame for the division. What is happening is one group using social, economic and political policies to separate themselves from others, not always deliberately. It’s not for the black person to be more open-minded. It’s for the white person to be less racist. It’s not for the trans person to prove why she needs to use the female bathroom. It’s for the bigot to stop attacking trans people. The problem with me coming to the table to talk about diversity is the belief that I have some role to play in us accomplishing it, and I don’t. And the fact that I have to return to that table often should be proof that such discussions aren’t achieving what they are supposed to.
And whose diversity is it anyway? Are we truly being diverse, or are we just widening that hierarchal lens for one sector of the population to broaden their view of the world? For some people, an Asian sidekick in a movie is diversity. Or a white woman putting on a Kimono. But who is this diversity benefiting? And what about diversity’s side effects, like cultural appropriation, which some people still look upon as a positive thing? Are we truly broadening our landscapes, or are we just cutting off a manageable chunk of exotica or worse, putting a white voice on top and selling a million copies, exploiting the cultural richness of diverse peoples without accepting the people themselves or even worse—simultaneously driving them out?
Because the other problem with diversity, is that it works with segregation extremely well. In fact it gives liberals in particular the opportunity to pay lip service to a thing that they may be unable or unwilling to actually practice. Well that’s not totally true. They could travel to these neighborhoods of color if they wanted to (maybe for some authentic Indian food), but for security concerns. “Sketchy,” becomes the code word for black, or brown or just poor. Again, these are liberal cities that pride themselves on diversity, and yet New York City has the most segregated schools in America. Chicago’s blacks and whites live such radically different lives that they are essentially in two cities. A multiplicity of neighborhoods merely means that multiplicity exists. It doesn’t mean that anybody lives, works or even plays together.
Funnily enough these diversity panels tend to happen at festivals, and conferences in cities where diversity is all but forced out: New York, Washington DC, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle. Portland, Oregon, for example is the whitest city in America with a 75 percent white population and a 3 percent black population that’s getting smaller. San Francisco is at 5.4 percent and Los Angeles’ population is getting smaller too. These are cities, and by extension people who would be horrified at the idea of being called racist, and yet they seem to be active segregationists. Because one of the hallmarks of these cities is a total failure at housing affordability, something these cities still don’t recognize as failures because 1.) They are a result of environmental policies that meant well, but drove prices up and put huge burdens on low-income households, 2.) So much money is being made and 3.) It’s only colored people who are being kicked out anyway. Last year when a friend lamented to me that he was being kicked out of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, I suggested he track down the Puerto Ricans his arrival helped drive out, and see where they went. Better yet, try this experiment on Air BnB: Book a few places using a photo of a black person.
Diversity can’t accomplish anything because diversity shouldn’t have been a goal in the first place. The other problem is the continued insistence on having the writer of color talk about these things, as if by getting Claudia Rankine to talk about diversity, one has accomplished it. Rankine would be the first to point out the hypocrisy in the assumption itself, probably in the first line of her speech. You would think our sole purpose as writers at these panels is to broaden the understanding of white people, when we could you know, talk about writing. Worse, it’s the same talk we gave last year, and the year before that, and the year before that one, going back years, and decades. Either we’re not speaking loud enough, or clear enough, or maybe nobody is listening. Maybe a diversity panel should be all white.
Think about it: A panel on diversity with no diversity on it. The outrage would be immediate, even from people of color. And yet maybe that is what should happen. And maybe the first question should be why do we need a black person on a panel to talk about inclusion when it’s the white person who needs to figure out how to include? I actually think a far more profound set of questions could arise if the writer of color is not there, beginning by what her absence means. Is such a discussion legitimate without the black, or brown or gay voice, despite diversity being a white problem? What does a white problem even mean, especially if the default position is that we’re basically in the right? Are we even equipped to talk about diversity, or were we leaving it to the colored person to provide insight for us to float an opinion on top of it? What do we really know about segregation? Do we have the latest figures on persons of color working in publishing? Who is Sandra Bland and does she matter to you? Rather than hear black people complain about it, can you provide a guess, or even a solid explanation why all black female writers get the same book cover? And if you hear yourself reciting the same talking points all over again would you recognize it?
My fear though is that our absence would create a different set of problems. After all, when it comes to diversity most of us feel we’re doing a good job until someone, usually a person of color points out that we’re not. Maybe a diversity panel with no diversity results in nothing being discussed. But we, the other, are exhausted by people’s short memories. It’s like that mental condition where a person’s mind goes blank every day, resetting at the point before brain damage. The point I will raise at a diversity panel this year, will be the same point I raised ten years ago, which again reinforces the question of what purpose these panels serve. Especially when its primary purpose, which is to get to the day when we will no longer need such panels, is not any closer than it was before. Maybe we will stop failing so badly at true diversity when we stop thinking that all we need to do is talk about it.
© 2016 Marlon James. Feature photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune.