Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her ethnographic work focuses on religion, pilgrimage, and politics in the Nepal Himalayas. Her research also addresses material culture, divine personhood, and ritual practice throughout South Asia. Drawing on theoretical frameworks in religion, psychological, and linguistic anthropology, her current work focuses on the roles of sacred landscapes and digital/online religious revival in the relationships between Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Her recent published work on this topic is a book titled Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas (Amsterdam University Press, 2020). Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. You can follow Holly on her blog, Peregrination and on Twitter at @Manigarm.
If you watched cartoons in the late 1980s or into the mid-1990s, “diversity” had an especially recognizable look. One Black character. One white character (or one blonde and the other red-headed/brunette if the cast was large enough), one Latina/Latino character, one Asian character (substituted for the Latino character if the cast was small), and one character in a wheelchair. Bonus, of course, if any of the characters ticked off more than one box in the otherness checklist.
For me, the first time I noticed this particular trope was in an advertisement for the Burger King Kid’s Club sometime around 1991 or 1992. Where, yes, the kid in the wheelchair was actually named Wheels.
For many years afterwards, this image of diversity became particularly ingrained in Euro-American media (especially in children’s programming) but it also took hold more insidiously within the business and corporate worlds as well. Today, it’s what many people now know of as DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Broadly speaking, DEI generally refers to a loose program of policy and hiring initiatives within HR departments that is meant to improve a given company’s acquisition (though not necessarily retention) of employees who are “different” as seen mainly through the lens of race and ethnicity. In short, it is an ideology that seeks to plug a variety of multi-cultural faces into a structure that is, and always has been, predominantly white.
The Great Awokening
But if all this is in service to better representation and eventual inclusion, at least as corporations imagine it, what could be the problem? Well, as Sarah Mayorga-Gallo puts it, this view of DEI doesn’t actually result in meaningful diversification. Rather, it simply reduces all forms of difference to a matter of race consciousness in service to an ideal “color-blindness” where race no longer matters and racism is merely an issue of a few bad apples. This then does nothing to address histories of power and inequality on multiple axes, from neurodiversity and disability to sexuality, gender presentation, and age. The “white-centering logic of diversity ideology” she goes on to say, thus “frames amorphous diversity as the answer to racial inequality, while centering white people’s desires and feelings. These conceptualizations of diversity are devoid of power and history, which is how systemic whiteness is reinscribed.”
Similarly, disabled communities have also long argued that reducing the representation of disability and accessibility specifically to visible mobility deficits (i.e., the character in the wheelchair) has had similar effects. Disability advocate Xin Sun, for example, notes that the iconic international representation of all disability (called the International Symbol of Access or ISA) since the 1960s has been the stylized white icon of a person in a wheelchair against a blue background. This symbol, of course, is immediately recognizable as an indication that a washroom, entrance, or parking lot is supposed to be accessible to anyone with a disability. But that’s not what it really means, is it? It doesn’t mean that the relevant facilities are barrier-free to those living with chronic or terminal illnesses, hearing or vision loss, fine motor deficits, or any other type of visible or invisible disability. It simply means that a wheelchair can get inside it. But the symbol, which has been globally ubiquitous for decades, has also deeply shaped how many of us see diversity overall.
Sun’s example highlight’s exactly what I mean here.
“Let’s set up a scenario for you. Let’s say, I try to get on a bus, and I get on the bus with my white cane. People are likely to know that a blind or vision impaired person is getting on the bus, they are likely to try to move out of the way for me, and, they may even help me find a seat in the priority seating area on the bus. However, more often than not, the reason why I needed a seat on the bus, is not just because I am vision impaired; it’s also because, due to my chronic illnesses, I am unable to stand for longer periods of time, and it’s especially difficult to stand in a moving bus. But, it’s very unlikely that people will know about my chronic illnesses, because I don’t “look like” I have any other disabilities, other than the apparent one.”Queen’s Gazette, January 2020
“Look like” is the key.
The Dynamics of Resentment
What then, you might be asking, does this have to do with diversity according to whiteness?
As Candis Watts Smith, Professor of Political Science at Duke University, discusses in her work, much of it comes down to a denial of systemic and institutionalized inequality. In other words, that the problem of diversity is not about the appearances of specific individuals one slots into various hierarchical positions but about the shape of the hierarchy itself. This is why discussions of diversity among younger generations remains fraught with anger and frustration despite the fact that those born after 1980 tend to view themselves and their peers as far more tolerant than their parents or grandparents.
She goes on to say,
“The millennial generation is the largest, recently overtaking boomers as the largest U.S. generation. Millennials are the most educated cohort, and they recently became the largest portion of the American workforce. This group is also the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation. Nevertheless, as is true for other American generations, there are racial differences in partisanship and political attitudes. In 2008, millennials turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate. In that election, 54% of young whites gave their votes to Obama. But that was a high water mark. By 2012 young whites gave a majority of their votes to Republican candidate Mitt Romney; and in the 2016 presidential election, according to exit polls, young whites aged 18 to 29 voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 48% to 45%. In contrast, 83% of blacks and 70% of Latinos of the same age voted for Clinton in 2016. Clearly, young people of color and young whites have different perspectives on politics and divergent ideas about how power and resources should be distributed.”
And it is this last line that I want to ultimately highlight. Diversity according to whiteness is not about who should occupy the spaces of public discourse, so much as it is about who should have the power to decide who occupies the spaces of public discourse.
That is to say, it’s not about if there are more Black and Brown faces in the hiring pool. It’s about who decides when and if those faces will ever make it to the hiring pool at all. It’s not about bigger splash pages for more women CEOs, it’s about who decides what a woman is and where she belongs. It’s about the ignorance of caste and kinship or any other non-European form of difference. It’s about corporate Pride logos that are displayed only when it is convenient and profitable to do so. It’s about who defines disability in the first place.
In the end, media portrayals both reflect and reinforce current beliefs about diversity and inequality in society. This is why, as Smith encourages us to do, we must go further than base statistics on interracial marriages, rural demographics, and quotas in employment for a more holistic view that reveals both the subtle and the systemic, the superficial and the structural. It’s time we grew up, stepped out of our cartoon nostalgia, and moved beyond a child’s understanding of what the real diversity in our world looks like.
[Images in this blog provided by the author.]