Doing Diversity


Insert face-palm emoticon here.

Today a quick word about diversity in our arts and media, and the why’s and the how’s of “doing diversity”. There are three highly important, very distinct concepts which people have a tendency to conglomerate into one awkward lump when they use this word. And occasionally the word “diversity” needs to be unpacked, especially if you’re professionally involved in a creative field like film, television, game development or writing.

Doubly so if you happen to be white.

1. Diversity of representation.

Whether you are a creator or a consumer of various media, diversity of representation is important. The real world around us is a crazy quilt of incredibly different people. They have all kinds of sizes, shapes, colors, cultures, religions, philosophies, and sexual identities.

Good art is rich, and complex, and teaches us something about the world. Good creators are capable of crafting characters and exploring experiences from a variety of perspectives. The struggle to empathize and humanize is a lot of what art is about.

So diversity of representation, as stated above, is something that many writers (and creators of all media) strive for. Anyone might find it useful to open up and enrich their art and expand their audience by opening their eyes, and trying to empathize and portray more of the world and its people.

Diversity of representation also matters from the point of view of the audience and its mental health. It’s arguably the case that constantly consuming imaginary worlds which erase a sizable percentage of the world’s population and shine a spotlight only on a tiny sliver of humanity is…kinda crazy-making. Both for the people who are in the spotlight, and those denied any right to exist.

Ultimately, though, creators should not embrace or attempt diversity of depiction for any agenda other than the personal. You’re not doing anyone ELSE any favors. You’re doing diversity of depiction because it feels right to you. These are the people you find interesting. This is a human story you want to understand.

2. Diversity of authorship

The above being said, “doing diversity” of representation as a creator is ABSOLUTELY NO SUBSTITUTE for having an entire industry “Do diversity” of authorship. Yes, we need all authors to write all characters as well as they can, and to make their characters real and their worlds feel real, relate-able, and richly drawn.

But creating diverse characters for the sake of your audience and yourself, as a creator with a singular viewpoint, is absolutely no substitute for lifting up and celebrating the creative works of diverse people. Writing female characters well, as a man, is no substitute for having female authors working in a field, adding their own voices.

This is a huge issue in Classical scholarship, which I studied in university. The vast majority of Classical sources which deal with the lives and experiences of women are written by men ABOUT women–the woman involved is an object rather than a subject. She may be held up as laudable or ridiculous, worshiped or reviled, but ultimately she has no voice–she is not expressing her own point of view.

You actually have to go to ancient epigraphy–inscriptions from the period–to capture a real woman’s voice, writing about her own experiences, feelings and concerns. And the difference is night and day. The same difference will be seen in shows, movies, comics, novels and games which are made BY people who are not straight white males, rather than just ABOUT them.

To diversify authorship is to open up your professional world and share wealth, attention, fame, fortune and awards with people different from yourself. It takes work and it yields tremendous rewards. You do it by diversifying and integrating creative teams for an art form like film or television whenever possible. In other fields you create shelf space and screen space, and you share power, laurels and air time with a Gaze and Voice which is not white, not male, not straight, not Christian or atheist.

Doing so changes the world. And it’s a good change.

3. The Open World

The last hurdle of diversity is not just for creators in a position of privilege to attempt diverse characters, or for editors, publishers and consumers to support a diversity of talents…but for the world to be truly open, with flow and feedback possible along all possible channels.

As a white person who has never traveled to Africa, Asia, India and Mexico in person, I can definitely enjoy a show like the recent science fiction drama Sense8 by the Wachowski Brothers. It has the combination of persuasive depictions of places I’ve visited in real life–Germany, Paris, San Francisco–with glimpses of places I’ve never been, and may never go, like a Korean women’s prison, a bus route in Nairobi, or the Mexican television and film industry, or the elite upper circles of India’s new tech companies.

It’s an exercise in Diversity of Depiction from a well-meaning white creative team. And that’s okay.

On the other hand, I also immensely enjoy living in a world where the voices of real men and women from India, and Africa, and Mexico, can critique these shows and characters as FICTION in real time, often with immense humor. Because while it is charming to attempt to draw a sketch of someone, or write a poem about them, it is also immensely powerful and worthwhile to have the object of the art become a subject in real time.

Especially when they laugh and say, “That’s ridiculous. And hilarious. What Africa is this? What Mexico is this? What India is this? Who are these paper-thin imaginary people of yours?”

When I was studying Classical epigraphy, I often found the real voices of women offering the same humorous rebuttal to the voices of men. One of the most common endearments of a Roman man to the woman addressed in a love poem is “Mea Domina”, for example–“Mistress of my heart”, the woman who enslaves me with passion. But in the graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii, you find the woman who laughs at “Mea Domina” and says, “Valens, (you call me) Mistress. Valens, would that I was a woman who owns slaves!  We (low-born folk) ask (only) for good health.”

Romantic worship, particularly without consent, is just another objectifying relationship. “Stop looking at me like that–you’re being goofy” is a valid message–whether it comes from a woman speaking to a man waxing googly over her beauty, or from non-white person speaking to foreigners waxing googly over their “culture”.

An open world gives us both artistic freedom and accountability. And we’re better and stronger for it.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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One Response to Doing Diversity

  1. Tuhin Saleem Razak says:

    I have to echo your point 3. I’m constantly struck by how often people who have little familiarity with a particular culture/sub-culture, consider works of fiction[s] by authors not from that culture/sub-culture as “authentic”. As though they were able to judge such a thing themselves.

    It also bugs me when a lot of folks use the “it’s just fiction” line to gloss over glaring inaccuracies in a particular portrayal. But yet treat the portrayal as authentic in other ways [without critiquing it any further].

    I’m glad you wrote this post.

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