I don’t think it needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m pro-diversity, and there’s no buts about it. Heck, do you remember when I talked about why I needed representation as a child and need it now as an adult? That still stands; nothing has changed. I still need representation.
However, the more I hear it, the more ‘off’ the word ‘diverse’ feels to me. I keep hearing how people want more ‘diverse’ characters, and how this book had a ‘diverse’ character which made the book awesome. I don’t doubt those opinions (on the contrary, I am confident they are pure in intention) but it is strange seeing characters – representations of people – described as ‘diverse’.
Before I delve into my qualms with the word ‘diverse’ and how it is used to describe characters, I would like to briefly talk about the Other and Othering.
The Other and Othering
For those who are not familiar with the term, when we talk about the ‘Other’, it is essentially the opposite of the self, opposite of ‘us’, or opposite of sameness.
In Sociology, we talk about the ‘Other’ quite often because it plays a big part in how we talk about social identities. So, it’s not about how you, as an individual, personally identify; it’s about how groups of people establish social identities through agreement, disagreement, and negotiation. Think about a community that you belong to, or even your national identity: what does it mean to be part of that group? Therefore, when we talk about the Other, it is often described as what we are not.
Ever heard of the phrase, ‘we are not like them‘? Regardless of who them is, this is a form of Othering – more of than just a word, the Other is an idea that creates division and separation, an idea that defines an identity by what something is not. For example, in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Oceania is perpetually engaged in a war with two other superstates. As seen in the book, the Party utilizes othering to fuel the hate, fear, and subsequently war to further the Party’s propaganda and ideology. In other words, we don’t know anything about the people of the other superstates, but what people do know is that they are not us, are apart from us, we should fear them and hate them, and they are thus the enemy.
On a wider scale, othering has been used historically – and even in more recent times – to create political and cultural divisions, and othering helped make cultural imperialism and colonialism so successful. (For further reading, I highly recommend Edward Said’s Orientalism.)
The takeaway message: othering perpetuates division and dehumanizes the people who are ‘othered’.
So how does this relate to ‘being diverse’?
Who is ‘diverse’ anyway?
Who are ‘diverse’ people? When someone says, ‘this book was good, it had a diverse character!’ I think what they are actually saying is, ‘this book was good, it had a character that was non-white/non-heterosexual’ – and so on.
On a very personal level, it sounds very weird to hear the phrase ‘diverse character’ being thrown around. As a woman of colour, does that make me a ‘diverse’ person? If going by its popular definition, yes it does, but I argue that it shouldn’t. To call me, or anyone, a ‘diverse’ individual is a form of Othering. It preserves the division and difference between me, a ‘diverse’ person, and the person who is ‘non-diverse’ (i.e. white, heterosexual, etc.). It upholds that I am the ‘different’ one, that I am the ‘Other’ to an in-group or normal or default. To go further, it upholds the institutions of power that make me an outsider and an Other. Think about it: Who decides what is ‘diverse’? What position are you in when you are calling something ‘diverse’? Why is it ‘diverse’?
I am not a ‘diverse’ person. I am a person with social identities that may be different to you, you are a person with social identities different to me, but I am not an Other.
Bringing it back: Why diversity matters
We promote, advocate, and fight for diversity so that we have more and better representation of individuals of all backgrounds, all sexualities, and all social identities. Using the phrase ‘diverse’ characters still maintains an (not necessarily malicious) us-versus-them and is ultimately counter-productive. After all, the purpose of diversity is to be inclusive and to normalize less-represented groups so that it leads to more inclusion and more representation.
After all, as Ava Duvernay, director of Selma, very eloquently stated, representation of a variety of groups – especially your own – is a very emotional issue. Representation and seeing yourself being represented in the media is a very emotional thing. People advocate for diversity and better representation because it is meaningful to them. We need to make the emotional connection between representation and the ‘diversity’ movement to why ‘diversity’ is important to people personally. We need to deeply reflect on why, beyond that it is just ‘important’, diversity matters.
My suggestion: don’t tiptoe around it, don’t call a person or character ‘diverse’, and just say it for what it is. More Happy Than Not was a story about a gay teenage boy of colour living in poverty and For Today I am a Boy was a story about a Chinese trans woman. Simons vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda was about a gay teenage boy, and The Joy Luck Club was about Asian-American women. Some books have diverse narratives – multiple stories to be told, and ‘diverse’ used in this instance is fine by me. Some books have important stories to tell, and sincerity in what they tell and represent is necessary and highlights the potential impact of their narratives.
And I think that’s what it comes down to: having our stories being told, having stories not often told to be told so that people can understand us. So we can see ourselves and others in the media. So we can pave a way towards more acceptance and understanding of people different from us. So we can celebrate those differences.
Let’s talk about it!
These are thoughts that have been stewing in my mind for a long time now. To reiterate, I am pro-diversity – I want to see more narratives, more stories, more dialogue about people of colour, people who are LGBTQA+, people with disabilities, and people from all walks of life. What I do have a problem with is how the word ‘diverse’ is used to describe people, and the implications the word can have. In saying that though, I recognize my opinion is imperfect; this isn’t a concrete opinion piece – it is fluid and I am working on developing my ideas better.
- What do you think about the word ‘diverse’ being used to describe a person or a group of people?
- If we don’t use ‘diverse’, what other words could we use?
- Do you feel anything when ‘diverse’ is being used to describe you/people like you?
Share with me your thoughts below; thank you all for reading.
UPDATE 16/08: Thank you to everyone for your support, for sharing your thoughts, and for just being generally awesome people. If you have the time, Naz from Read Diverse Books shared with me a post, and I think all of you should read it. It’s called, ‘What does the term ‘diverse’ mean to you?’