Why visibility is not enough
Image taken from Flickr user Cliff
In 1996, Reverend Jesse Jackson organized a
The same year, California approved of
These two instances show that twenty years ago, many people believed that diversity issues were no longer relevant. Minorities were visible in mainstream media, politics, and society. The ability to see people of color in the mainstream became the measure of integration. Those who were calling for diversity seemed to be crying wolf. Come 2016, many of the same people who did not blink an eye at the call to actions twenty years ago are now promoting boycotts, petitions, sit-ins, think-piece articles, etc.
The diversity bubble is what happens when the realities of institutional discrimination can no longer be hidden by descriptive representation. Descriptive representation is when the mere presence of marginalized people is used to measure progress. Descriptive representation is falsely equated with substantive representation, allowing the guise of progress to hide the mechanisms of the status quo. However, when the realities of institutional discrimination begin to override the weak boundaries of descriptive representation, even those who have benefited from descriptive representation begin to feel the discrimination of their respective institutions. It is only when the limitations of descriptive representation are felt by the marginalized benefactors that people rededicate themselves to actively promoting substantive representation. And this is the phenomena we’ve been seeing in a variety of institutions since 2014.
Let’s start with Hollywood. The 2016 Oscar nominations exposed the false perception that diversity was progressing in Hollywood. For two consecutive years, the acting nominees were all white. George Clooney claims that Hollywood “
Women, who comprise an identity group that intersects with racial identity, may not even be recognized by the industry if female specific categories did not exist.
Ironically, it seems simple for the Hollywood elite to understand that the presence of women is not indicative of their equality in the system. High profile actresses,
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, epitomizes the failure of descriptive representation. One would assume that her presence, as a black woman, would impact how the Academy conducts its voting. However, since her tenure began in 2013, the Academy has been scorned for two years consecutively for its lack of non-white nominees. While Isaacs has argued that the actual voting choices are out of her control and that the Academy’s response to #OscarSoWhite was not reactionary, it brings attention to the failure of presence in reflecting substantial power. It is not the Cheryl Boone Isaacs we should be worried about, but the Jim Gianopulos’, Michael Mark Lintons, Gary Barbers, Brad Greys, and Donna Langleys in the industry. Their names may not resonant with many people, but they have significant power in Hollywood. We need more people who are dedicated to diversity along the whole production process. The Oscars comes at the tail end of the filmmaking process, but the Academy voters are the moviemakers who are a part of the machine that generates films. So we need to understand what substantial diversity looks like. Brad Pitt is an example of someone who despite his skin color, has taken the opportunity to produce films with people of color. His production company Plan B Entertainment produced both 12 Years a Slave and Selma. Pete Nowalk, a gay white man, is the creator responsible for the diverse set of characters we see in How to Get Away with Murder. They don’t simply give visibility to minority characters, they are helping create a platform where people of color can build their own influence in the industry. And it doesn’t have to be white people, but I use Pitt and Nowalk to prove that conflating descriptive and substantive representation hides the real work that the people in Hollywood could be doing right now to improve the conditions of diversity.
The protests pointed out that universities have to do more than just accept students of color into their institutions.
These issues exist even in less elite circles. Look through a university’s website and you are bound to find the most prominent pictures of students to include students of color. However, despite the presence of students of color, recent protests have pointed out the lack of actual integration for students of color. Just like the #OscarSoWhite movement, the campus movements have larger implications than isolated grievances. Many of the fall protests occurred just around the time the Supreme Court was considering its decision for Abigail Fisher’s
But the protests were not an attack on intellectual diversity. Instead the protests pointed out that universities have to do more than just accept students of color into their institutions. They have to create an environment where students of color are also stakeholders in the community. Universities that rely on the
Whether we’re talking about Hollywood or universities, it is important to emphasize how people of color are incentivized to stay silent. Their presence in privileged societies puts them in precarious positions if they begin to point out the flaws in the same system they benefit from. Silence is often a result of the fear in loss of status. With stakes so high, silence is expected and desired. Therefore, highlighting past silence is not indicative of the veracity of the grievances expressed in moments of uproar. All demographics have their own plurality of identities and it’s oppressive to believe that all people belonging to an identity think in the same way. I am not saying that the opinions of the token who sides with the institution is illegitimate, but rather that it is rarer and more poignant to find people rally behind demanding a significant change in how an institution operates. That’s why the recent outcries are significant. When a collective of black voices rises up, institutions can’t punish selectively and are forced to respond legitimately. Institutions are used to relying on token spokespersons that help maintain the status quo, but when the collective rises up, it’s hard to enforce inertia.
One thing that people tend to forget, is that agency is possible in tokenism. You can truly enjoy and engage with members of your institution when you are the token. Yet, if every time there are accusations of institutional discrimination and the institution looks to you as proof of invalid criticism or to express dissent, then yes, you’re probably a token. Having a spokesperson for diversity is not a legitimate response to accusations of discrimination. Tokenism is simply the use of marginalized bodies to enforce the agenda of those whose best interest is to maintain the status quo. And usually the response by the token doesn’t even address the concerns brought up. Rather personal anecdotes about the token’s respective presence is used to defend the institution. In 1996, it was easy to dismiss Jesse Jackson’s protests, since Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Will Smith were not supporting his actions. Now, the same demands are being brought forward with the backing of the industry’s tokens, forcing a legitimate
The simple presence of marginalized people in visible spaces is not an indication of progress
With that being said, increasing diversity as we conventionally perceive it may not be the right answer for progress. Selma director,
Diversity defined by the ability of the marginalized to conform rather than influence is always short lived. The meaning of diversity needs to be redefined. The simple presence of marginalized people in visible spaces is not an indication of progress. The Oscars Boycott and university protests are very important, but by themselves mean nothing. Being recognized by the Oscars does not necessarily address the institutional barriers that limit the production of proposed films with people of color. It does not address the fact that film plays a significant part in societal perceptions and has to take the lead in changing prevalent stereotypes about people of color. University protests will also continue as long as a student’s chance of admittance is significantly skewed by something as arbitrary as the parents’ ability to send their child to a prestigious boarding school, the district a student lives in, or acceptance to a program like Questbridge. Change with impact never has an end point, like a quota. Impactful change continues to push against the restrictions of discrimination, never allowing the distraction of temporary success to curtail the seemingly unending fight to eliminate mechanisms of inequality.
Martina Fouquet is a senior at Princeton University studying Politics and Creative Writing. You can follow her on Twitter @fouqit.