In this day and age anytime you turn on the TV, flip a page in a magazine, or see an advertisement, there are vibrant signs everywhere celebrating how diverse and inclusive we are as a community, as a company, as a convention, etc. But these words often fall on deaf ears because in reality the words “diverse” and “inclusive” don’t make people feel either of those things. These phrases have an underlying us against them mentality that perpetuates systemic racism even more.
Using the word inclusive implies that prior to the ad or project in question an underrepresented group was excluded. When a company says it focuses on having “diverse” models for an upcoming campaign, this obviously refers to models of a different race than the assumed white models. But why is white the default? The reality is that it’s not, but in advertisements, movies, magazines, etc., it dominates the space. But by making whiteness the norm, we are allowing other groups to be marginalized and considered “abnormal” to the “norm” of whiteness. The goal is to be accepting and bring in more people without fetishizing or tokenizing any group.
There are many companies, programs, and committees dedicated to focusing on diversity and inclusion in order to bring in these underrepresented groups. But look around you. Do any of the people on this committee look like the individuals they are trying to include? Because if the answer is no, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Know You’re Not Exempt
When talking about underrepresented groups the goal should not be inclusion. The goal should be intersection: where both underrepresented and represented groups meet in one place, whether that be a magazine, advertisement, or book.
“Humility is correlated with age. Arrogance is inversely correlated with age. Why? Because as you get older, you realize how hard it is to get things done.”*
It’s true that going against the “norm” and shining a light on underrepresented groups is going to be difficult. The current political landscape of America in addition to resistance to change will make this tough. But doing anything right is tough; there will be resistance, there will be critics, and it’s important to remember that no matter how old you are or how many degrees you have, school is never out. Your education is never over, and as humans we never stop learning.
“Part of being humble is realizing how much you don’t know that you don’t know. Learn something new so you can remember how hard it is to learn.”* It’s never too late to learn more about race issues, engage with a new community, or speak a new language.
So if you find yourself not understanding a political issue, or why something was offensive, please turn to the internet.
Are you surprised?
Don’t be. When I say to turn to the internet it’s because I want you to do real research on the issue using reputable sources. In the internet age, true power comes from sharing information not hoarding it. Researching an issue allows you to backup your position with data, and while you are actively searching to find your own answers it’s important to remember not to ask any of your friends (who are a different ethnicity than you) to explain this issue.
1. They are not the spokesperson for their entire race.
2. It can be draining both physically and emotionally to have to explain something over and over and over on top of trying to process their own feelings about the issue.
Does that mean you can never talk to your friend about this issue? Absolutely not. You definitely can but it’s important to ask their permission before you start any conversation, and if they agree then go into a conversation with prior knowledge about the topic so it’s easier to have a two-way conversation, as opposed to your friend giving you a lecture on the issue.
How to Change
Mean what you say. Google wrote a fantastic article on how to successfully lead your team:
“A great leader has to commit — body and soul — to a team’s goal and vision. People can tell if it’s not the case, and they’re always watching. ‘Smart people can smell hypocrisy. So think before you speak, and make sure you spend your time on the things that you say are important. Culture is set from the top, and once set, it cannot be changed.’”*
When hiring for your team it’s important to identify passion — whether it’s for the position they are interviewing for or other areas of their life — because how can you be passionate about your work if you’re not passionate about anything else? Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. If your company has started focusing on highlighting underrepresented groups, ask them what intersectionality means to them. If they don’t know that's perfectly fine, but if they do and they have a real passion for issues that revolve around intersectionality, that may be an indicator to bring them on to your team. Don’t compromise the quality of your candidates in the hiring process.
Passionate, quality candidates from all walks of life and different backgrounds will be your best defense against myopia. Having a patchwork team cut from various cloth means they can see problems and solutions differently; this kind of insight cannot be taught, which makes your team invaluable.
What You Can Do
Be a broken record. There is no such thing as too much communication, especially in a digital space. When you think you’ve communicated something too much you’re probably just starting to get your message through.
Listen. If you’re under fire for something, and you’re too busy talking at your audience instead of listening you’ll never learn anything. Taking the time to listen makes you more humble, more intuitive, and smarter. If you must talk, ask questions. Too many people spend their time talking about how they think something works, when they could just listen to someone who knows.
When talking about underrepresented groups the goal should not be inclusion. The goal should be intersection: where both underrepresented and represented groups meet in one place, whether that be a magazine, advertisement, or book. As for your audience? We should all strive to empower audiences from an information standpoint. If you believe that you want to bring more people of different backgrounds, cultures, and religions into your space, that’s great but be wary of tokenizing groups. What is most important is making sure anyone from a different background is included, appreciated and affirmed, and not objectified or turned into a diversity prop. By only reaching out to include them for the sake of being “diverse,” people will be able to tell that you are being inauthentic, and when you put out a call to action it can very quickly deter people from applying.
Now this sounds like a catch 22, doesn't it? But the thing is it doesn't have to be.
Be okay with changing your structure, be open to bringing people on for their talents instead of the color of their skin. Don’t focus on featuring someone because they are Black, instead focus on featuring them because they are the best wedding photographer, artist, or event planner in their city.
Still at a loss? When you feel doubt about what you should do to bring people in, consider the issue from your customers’ or collaborators’ perspective. If you were them, how would you want to be approached? Who can you collaborate with? What are some things you can do in your everyday life to bring in more underrepresented groups to your company?
Ask your current team for help. This shouldn’t be the sole job of one person. Everyone needs to be on board or this will fail. Group dynamics are critical for solid decision-making. None of us are as smart as all of us, and “if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.”
NOTE: As a Black writer I am writing from my own personal experience. In a perfect world I would study race in America for over a hundred years and successfully pen out an article touching on every race, gender, class, intersection etc. and their current struggle with underrepresentation in the industry. But as I am only human I can only speak from my own perspective. I will not speak for other people. Misrepresenting another culture or group by speaking for them is wrong, and I refuse to speak about or give my perspective on something I have not experienced first hand. I hope this article sparks a dialogue for all of us to express our struggles and feelings about the deplorable amount of underrepresentation in America. And I hope it inspires you to pen your own experience and submit it to Catalyst to keep this much needed conversation going.
Amarie Baker is a freelancer and activist currently living in the concrete jungle of New York City. She enjoys talking about race in America, bringing down the patriarchy, and connecting with other badass creatives.