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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Big Fail

The word diversity has as of late become so overused as to be meaningless. In a 2015 article for The New York Times Magazine, Anna Holmes wrote about the dilution of the word diversity, attributing its loss of meaning to “a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia, and self-serving intentions.”

The word diversity is, in its most imprecise uses, a placeholder for issues of inclusion, recruitment, retention and representation. Diversity is a problem, seemingly without solutions. We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it and nothing much ever seems to change. And here we are today, talking about diversity yet again.

I am so very tired of talking about diversity.

Publishing has a diversity problem. This problem extends to absolutely every area of the industry. I mean, look at this room, where I can literally count the number of people of color among some 700 booksellers. There are not enough writers of color being published. When our books are published, we fight, even more than white writers, for publicity and reviews. People of color are underrepresented editorially, in book marketing, publicity, and as literary agents. People of color are underrepresented in bookselling. On and on it goes.

And, of course, it’s not as if there are no people of color who are eminently capable of participating in publishing. We are many but somehow, publishing can’t seem to find us unless we do the work of three or four writers and catch a few lucky breaks. This inability for publishing to find people of color is one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time, I suppose.

Instead of problem-solving, we count as a means of highlighting just how underrepresented people of color are, in all area of publishing, and how very little changes. People of color offer testimony about their experiences in publishing and are dismissed, more often than not. Or, the few of us who do manage to break through are touted as examples of progress while we are still the exceptions and not the rule. And then, the writers who come up after us are told that there’s no room for them. I can’t tell you how many black women have written me to tell me that their essay collection was rejected by an editor because, “Publishing already has a Roxane Gay.” Those of us that break through are, to some, interchangeable tokens, trotted out as examples of progress when, in fact, that progress is mostly an illusion.

When our stories are heard, they are generally forgotten until of course, there is a hand-wringing article to be written or there is a panel to be convened or there is a conference to be gathered. Then, people of color, myself included, are invited to talk to and teach white people about things that are, largely pretty easy to figure out. We are asked for solutions to problems we had no hand in creating. Though we are writers, we are asked to become experts on diversity which is, in fact, a specialized field of its own. More often than not, we are asked to provide this labor without compensation. We are asked to provide this labor while neglecting our own creative work for some ephemeral greater white good. Let me tell you-- it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Last year, I decided I was done sitting on panels about diversity. I am done having the same conversations over and over while very little changes. People don’t really want to hear about diversity and inclusion. They don’t want to do what it takes—the investment of actual money, for a sustained period of time, to change the make-up of this industry. Instead, most people seem to want to feel better about themselves by making a few symbolic gestures and letting those symbolic gestures be enough because hey, at least they tried—a panel discussion here, a fellowship there, change, nowhere to be found. Herein lies the inertia, the self-serving intentions...

Author Roxane Gay, Publisher's Weekly Winter Institute, Minneapolis, January 27-30, 2017

The problem is all this talking. Liberals, in particular love to talk. We debate issues, we explore the conservative angle (despite them never returning the favor), we talk about solutions, we even try to tolerate those who would not tolerate us. The problem with all this conversation, is that it is all we do. We have diversity panels and invite writers of color, perhaps Roxane Gay (who has long called out the lit establishment on this habit, and who inspired me to write this piece), or Junot Diaz, or an Indigenous American and/or Australian so as to not ignore original peoples. We invite a gay man or woman, with extra bonus points if the homosexual is a person of color. Then we invite a few white persons who claim to get it, even if they are mystified by the racial arguments breaking out on college campuses (aren’t they all rich kids?) or Black Lives Matter.

It’s not just that diversity, like tolerance is an outcome treated as a goal. It is that we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it. This might be something we picked up from academia, the idea that discussing an issue is somehow on par with solving it, or at least beginning the process. A panel on diversity is like a panel on world peace. It should be seeking a time when we no longer need such panels. It should be a panel actively working towards its own irrelevance. The fact that we’re still having them not only means that we continue to fail, but the false sense of accomplishment in simply having one is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried.

One could ask, but isn’t that why we need to have that talk more than ever? To recognize and appreciate diversity more, to overcome racism, sexism and all the other isms that divide us? Well for one, saying these isms are dividing us is implying that we are equally to blame for the division. What is happening is one group using social, economic and political policies to separate themselves from others, not always deliberately. It’s not for the black person to be more open-minded. It’s for the white person to be less racist. It’s not for the trans person to prove why she needs to use the female bathroom. It’s for the bigot to stop attacking trans people. The problem with me coming to the table to talk about diversity is the belief that I have some role to play in us accomplishing it, and I don’t. And the fact that I have to return to that table often should be proof that such discussions aren’t achieving what they are supposed to.

And whose diversity is it anyway? Are we truly being diverse, or are we just widening that hierarchal lens for one sector of the population to broaden their view of the world? For some people, an Asian sidekick in a movie is diversity. Or a white woman putting on a Kimono. But who is this diversity benefiting? And what about diversity’s side effects, like cultural appropriation, which some people still look upon as a positive thing? Are we truly broadening our landscapes, or are we just cutting off a manageable chunk of exotica or worse, putting a white voice on top and selling a million copies, exploiting the cultural richness of diverse peoples without accepting the people themselves or even worse—simultaneously driving them out?

Because the other problem with diversity, is that it works with segregation extremely well. In fact it gives liberals in particular the opportunity to pay lip service to a thing that they may be unable or unwilling to actually practice. Well that’s not totally true. They could travel to these neighborhoods of color if they wanted to (maybe for some authentic Indian food), but for security concerns. “Sketchy,” becomes the code word for black, or brown or just poor. Again, these are liberal cities that pride themselves on diversity, and yet New York City has the most segregated schools in America. Chicago’s blacks and whites live such radically different lives that they are essentially in two cities. A multiplicity of neighborhoods merely means that multiplicity exists. It doesn’t mean that anybody lives, works or even plays together.

Funnily enough these diversity panels tend to happen at festivals, and conferences in cities where diversity is all but forced out: New York, Washington DC, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle. Portland, Oregon, for example is the whitest city in America with a 75 percent white population and a 3 percent black population that’s getting smaller. San Francisco is at 5.4 percent and Los Angeles’ population is getting smaller too. These are cities, and by extension people who would be horrified at the idea of being called racist, and yet they seem to be active segregationists. Because one of the hallmarks of these cities is a total failure at housing affordability, something these cities still don’t recognize as failures because 1.) They are a result of environmental policies that meant well, but drove prices up and put huge burdens on low-income households, 2.) So much money is being made and 3.) It’s only colored people who are being kicked out anyway. Last year when a friend lamented to me that he was being kicked out of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, I suggested he track down the Puerto Ricans his arrival helped drive out, and see where they went. Better yet, try this experiment on Air BnB: Book a few places using a photo of a black person.

Diversity can’t accomplish anything because diversity shouldn’t have been a goal in the first place. The other problem is the continued insistence on having the writer of color talk about these things, as if by getting Claudia Rankine to talk about diversity, one has accomplished it. Rankine would be the first to point out the hypocrisy in the assumption itself, probably in the first line of her speech. You would think our sole purpose as writers at these panels is to broaden the understanding of white people, when we could you know, talk about writing. Worse, it’s the same talk we gave last year, and the year before that, and the year before that one, going back years, and decades. Either we’re not speaking loud enough, or clear enough, or maybe nobody is listening. Maybe a diversity panel should be all white.

Think about it: A panel on diversity with no diversity on it. The outrage would be immediate, even from people of color. And yet maybe that is what should happen. And maybe the first question should be why do we need a black person on a panel to talk about inclusion when it’s the white person who needs to figure out how to include? I actually think a far more profound set of questions could arise if the writer of color is not there, beginning by what her absence means. Is such a discussion legitimate without the black, or brown or gay voice, despite diversity being a white problem? What does a white problem even mean, especially if the default position is that we’re basically in the right? Are we even equipped to talk about diversity, or were we leaving it to the colored person to provide insight for us to float an opinion on top of it? What do we really know about segregation? Do we have the latest figures on persons of color working in publishing? Who is Sandra Bland and does she matter to you? Rather than hear black people complain about it, can you provide a guess, or even a solid explanation why all black female writers get the same book cover? And if you hear yourself reciting the same talking points all over again would you recognize it?

My fear though is that our absence would create a different set of problems. After all, when it comes to diversity most of us feel we’re doing a good job until someone, usually a person of color points out that we’re not. Maybe a diversity panel with no diversity results in nothing being discussed. But we, the other, are exhausted by people’s short memories. It’s like that mental condition where a person’s mind goes blank every day, resetting at the point before brain damage. The point I will raise at a diversity panel this year, will be the same point I raised ten years ago, which again reinforces the question of what purpose these panels serve. Especially when its primary purpose, which is to get to the day when we will no longer need such panels, is not any closer than it was before. Maybe we will stop failing so badly at true diversity when we stop thinking that all we need to do is talk about it.

Author Marlon James, "Why I'm Done Talking About Diversity, Or Why We Should Try An All-White Diversity Panel," LitHub, October 20, 2016

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