On What Diversity Is Not

(John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned)

(John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned)

The fear is sameness: everyone becomes possessed, a pod person, a zombie, a conformist. This is the conundrum: we as humans fear everyone being the same but also want everyone to be the same. 

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Diversity is a word we use to describe certain circumstances; however, as an idea, it is somewhat abstract. Similar to a math symbol, we know it exists, and we are aware it denotes something, but how does it relate to the course of our day-to-day lives?

If I were to say "black person," you could point someone out. If I were to say "apple," you could pick it out of a fruit stand. If I say "love," you may connect it to a recognizable feeling. If I were to say "diversity," associating it with a familiar context may not be immediately apparent. There is the diversity we see in nature, as a way of describing nature, but in broader society, it is less description and more intent.

Reading a dissertation may hold little tangible substance to the nonacademic, but perhaps a casual conversation with a diversity expert can bring clarity. For this, I probed the mind of Amy Granados, a doctoral student at USC. Amy's research focuses on diversity, specifically gender imbalances in film and television.

[*A note from Amy – "All of my data about diversity in film comes from research conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith and colleagues at the USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative."]

I asked Amy, what is diversity? She said:

It depends. That may be a frustrating response, but I stand by that because there is no true denotative meaning for it. There are, however, myriad connotative meanings for it. Over the last ten years, I have been in enough meetings with high-level decision makers, that I know ‘diversity’ often means ‘race,’ and ‘race’ often means ‘black or African American.’ This makes sense, given that the main thrust driving the civil rights movement and many subsequent advances in social life have focused on the rights and representation of African Americans.

While this focus is important, it is also problematic because if we’re talking about the landscape of America onscreen reflecting the population offscreen — African Americans have been at or near parity since the early ‘90s (Mastro, Bradley & Greenberg, 2000). Many of those depictions have been narrow, negative, and stereotypical, but if representation is the lowest bar for diversity, we must include other categories of people in our primary definition of the concept. To illustrate, Latinos make up approximately 17% (US Census Bureau, 2015) of the population, and just under 5% of the speaking characters in film (Smith et al., 2015). Although women are 51% of the population, they make up about 27% of speaking characters in film (Smith, Choueiti, Pieper, Liu, & Song, 2014). Because so many demographic and social groups face under- and misrepresentation, the very definition of diversity can be another instrument of oppression and exclusion.

This raises some questions, like, how representative is what we see in media in comparison to the actual population? Are Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld's homogeneous Manhattans representative of real Manhattan? And, is identical representation to real life, the standard for diversity?

Diversity is subjective. Who gets to decide on the meaning? How do social scientists determine what is “normal”? Is there similar precedence? There are no hard answers, which is why these questions are worthwhile.

‘I know it when I see it,’ that was a phrase used by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 to describe his definition of obscenity in media (Wikipedia, 2015). The court was tasked with defining hardcore pornography and eventually concluded that obscenity is material where the ‘average person, applying contemporary community standards would disapprove of.’ Think about that for a minute. Who decides who is the average person? Who defines our contemporary standards? What is disapproval? Eventually, the court went on to define the definition of hardcore pornography as that which, among other things, lacks ‘serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values’ (Wikipedia, 2015). Although there are countless videos and magazines that most people would agree are hardcore pornography it’s still complicated.

You didn’t ask about pornography. I know. But obscenity and violence precede ‘diversity’ as social issues with which the media have been blasted for, and subsequently spawned decades of research on media contents and effects (Bryant & Jennings, 2009). An appreciation for the past times when media and society have had to reconcile what is acceptable and what is unacceptable historicizes the current debate.

Also, I like to think of ‘I know what it’s not’ as the contemporary ‘I know it when I see it’ explanation. Scientists only concern themselves with that which can be objectively measured. We both see that molecule, right? Social scientists are in a trickier boat because it takes decades for them to agree on the definition of something. Why? Because Dr. Brown has to do research with a particular definition of diversity that has to be replicated by Drs. White, Brown, and Lee before it will be taken seriously.

How does this relate to diversity? It means that there is no hard-and-fast definition of diversity. There are, however, indicators of the lack of diversity that are important.

In the dojo, the cliché was that the mats were the paragon of diversity. We put our pasts behind us, put on our white uniforms, and we are all the same, only denoted by experience. "Diversity" was casually thrown around, yet looking around the room, diversity meant different occupations, one or two races, a few guys over thirty, and that was it. Women were a bonus, but not a requirement for diversity.

Though there are many categories, by focusing on gender (the oldest category), perhaps we can see the inner workings of diversity — and also examine how these same principles can apply to all groups.

What Isn't Diversity?

Four presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon) toasting in the White House Blue Room prior to leaving for Egypt and President Anwar Sadat's funeral

Four presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon) toasting in the White House Blue Room prior to leaving for Egypt and President Anwar Sadat's funeral

It’s not: a group where everyone looks the same without a legitimate reason. Put another way; diversity is not: exclusion, homogeneity or sameness, underrepresentation or misrepresentation. I know it is not these things.

How Do We Improve Diversity

One way is to point out where diversity is lacking in nonconfrontational ways. It’s one thing to say that ‘girls are marginalized in films for children.’ It’s quite another to say ‘girls and women make up 51% of the population but are only 30.2% of 30,835 speaking characters from 700 successful films’ (Smith et al., 2015). You can argue with the data, but you’re fighting a losing battle.

There is no magic bullet to improve gender diversity, but the first steps must be accurately measuring the lack of diversity so that advocates are not simply dismissed as ‘angry feminists.’

Can We Be Gender-Blind?

Shi-Yeon Sung was the first woman to win first prize in the Sir Georg Solti International Conductors Competition

Shi-Yeon Sung was the first woman to win first prize in the Sir Georg Solti International Conductors Competition

In general, no, mostly because gender is one of the first three characteristics, the other being race and age, that humans use to make automatic categorizations about other people. There are, however, examples of decision-making processes where gender can be removed from the equation. Some symphony orchestras have musicians perform behind a screen. Doing so can raise a woman’s chance of advancing through the audition process by as much as 50% (Rice, 2013). Some women screenwriters found that their scripts were left behind on tables at networking events, so they started listing only their initials as authors in hopes that they would be presumed to be male. There is evidence to suggest that manipulating or hiding the gender of an applicant on a resume can influence how they are perceived (Isaac, Lee, & Carnes, 2009). So, at least within the hiring process, a form of gender blindness is possible and may be helpful to women and other underrepresented groups.

We are not good at voluntarily making ourselves blind to gender; it is only possible when there is no opportunity to know a person’s sex. In experiments with racial bias, minorities who hid their ethnic names increased their chances for hire than those who did not.

People who considered themselves blind to race or gender only proved to be blind to those qualities when they were forced into it. Meaning, they were never blind to gender or race, to begin with. Even people who espouse egalitarian values experience automatic and implicit judgments of other groups.

Diversity isn't purely about fairness either, as the most diverse cities and states in the United States are often the most successful (richest). Bias often works against our own best interests (productivity, finance, and utility). Diversity asks the question: Do we do more of the same as demands change or do we change with demands?

However, Blindness Is Not Necessarily Equality

Parity has not been reached, and considerations must be made. Equal treatment does not mean equal equity.

We know that people are more like to identify with and help their own ‘in-groups’ (Tajfel, 1992). For example, a highly qualified woman working at a predominantly male tech start-up is a victory for diversity, right? What if the organizational culture is such that she needs to act like ‘one of the boys’ to fit in? She’s conforming to male workplace norms, and may be less inclined to mentor other women for fear of being accused of giving special treatment to other women.

If men give special treatment to other men, and women, in trying not to appear to have bias, do not give special consideration to other women, then all considerations belong to the men. This can be applied in many ways, where all considerations go to the majority, and the minority errs on the side of the majority to "fit in."

Ignoring Differences Is in Itself a Form of Bias

Another barrier to gender equality is the failure to appreciate potential differences between men and women or cultural differences for other groups. There may be true differences that fall along gender lines that mean that women being treated as men are not equality at all — that in and of itself is a sexist act. There is no ‘correct opposite,’ instead, each situation must be considered individually. Additionally, the current societal and cultural status of men and women must be considered. We cannot pretend that women are not valued more for their physical appearance (Moradi & Huang, 2008) and are judged more harshly for deviating from gendered norms (Yoder & Schleicher, 1996).

One recent example of ‘invisible’ sexism is the recent finding explaining why many women are always cold at work. A study reported in the journal ‘Nature’ found that offices use a formula to set the temperature based on the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man weighing about 150 pounds. Not only do women have a different metabolic rate, but men typically wear more clothing than women, who don’t typically wear three-piece suits to the office. This may be a low-stakes example, but it illustrates the idea that what is seen as ‘normal’ is often determined by what is comfortable for men, and the same may often be true for norms for Caucasians compared to other groups.

Fighting Our Own Universal Narrative

(The sameness of the Empire | Star Wars)

(The sameness of the Empire | Star Wars)

One of the reasons the United States is so diverse is because of the American attitude against conformity, thought-control, and everyone being exactly the same. This is why in American dystopian and horror genres, the fear is sameness: everyone becomes possessed, a pod person, a zombie, a conformist. This is the conundrum: we as humans fear everyone being the same but also want everyone to be the same.

(From They Live)

(From They Live)

This paradox creates dramatic terror and tension in films, and in real life, it creates political strife and cognitive dissonance. The "horror" is in knowing: even though we hate blind conformity, we are not immune to it, we can still succumb to it, because we have seen it already happen.

The rebels of Star Wars

The rebels of Star Wars

And who are our natural heroes? The nonconformists, the plucky band of rebels who fight for freedom against the Empire.

The most famous nonconformist, August Landmesser, in a sea of Nazis

The most famous nonconformist, August Landmesser, in a sea of Nazis

We Have Come Far, but We Will Always Have Further to Go

As I try to wrap my mind around diversity, I am reminded of the words of French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville writes:

It is possible to conceive of men arrived at a degree of freedom that should completely content them; they would then enjoy their independence without anxiety and without impatience. But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented. Whatever efforts a people may make, they will never succeed in reducing all the conditions of society to a perfect level; and even if they unhappily attained that absolute and complete equality of position, the inequality of minds would still remain, which, coming directly from the hand of God, will forever escape the laws of man. However democratic, then, the social state and the political constitution of a people may be, it is certain that every member of the community will always find out several points about him which overlook his own position; and we may foresee that his looks will be doggedly fixed in that direction. When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.

Among democratic nations, men easily attain a certain equality of condition, but they can never attain as much as they desire. It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on. At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment from their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted its delights, they die.

The ideals of diversity are always evolving. Unlike the nature of air or water, diversity is not static, which makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint. Diversity is a human-made process rather than an absolute. When there is diversity or when diversity is lacking, we, its creators, are accountable. Complete parity may never be reached unless a utopia has also been reached. We don't know where it should end up; we just know where it shouldn't. Then the goal of the process isn't perfection; the goal is to make things better than they were before. That is progress.

Some might argue, look how far we've come. Some might argue, look how far we need to go. Both are equally true, it is not mutually exclusive. One must look at the past, think forward to the future, without forgetting to enjoy the charms of today.

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