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In 1996, Reverend Jesse Jackson organized a movement to call out the Academy for the near absence of nominations for people of color. He called for an increase in diversity in Hollywood, and started the Rainbow Coalition for Fairness in the Media movement. Jackson requested black Hollywood actors in attendance to show their solidarity by wearing a rainbow pin. And many powerful black actors and celebrities ignored him. Whoopi Goldberg, that year’s host of the Academy Awards, joked about Jesse Jackson’s absence. Oprah Winfrey was “furious” with Jesse Jackson and his protests. And Will Smith did not wear a rainbow pin.

The same year, California approved of Proposition 209. Proposition 209 prohibits the consideration of “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting”. In 2012, research exposed that for Hispanics and Blacks, attendance at California’s most elite public universities has declined, going opposite the trend of high school enrollment. In 2015, dozens of American universities erupted in protests with minority students demanding restitution from administrations that overlooked the grievances of their students of color.

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 “used to be better at it [diversity]”. But the better question is: was Hollywood every truly progressing? The sheer fact that much of the attention is placed on the actors indicates one of the issues with representation in Hollywood. While actors are important factors of movie success, they are also usually the least powerful factors in the whole production. The screenwriters, directors and most especially producers are the ones moving the wheels. But they do not have the same visibility as the actors, so less attention is given to the diversity in these roles. Whoopi Goldberg’s retort that “I won once [The Oscars]. So it can’t be racist” captures the misguided mindset many people have in the measurement of diversity. The mere presence of black award winners is no indication that the system itself is not racist.

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, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, are fighting for equal pay in the industry, using many of the same arguments that have been made to increase the representation of people of color. It still seems to flabbergast many as to why black people, who are not even represented at the Oscars, are upset. It’s a good exercise to imagine how many women would be represented at the Oscars if they combined the actor and actresses categories. 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. And yet BET’s existence continues to confuse. This comparison of intersecting grievances points to the importance of more than just the diversity of presence, but also inclusion in positions of power and influence.

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 appeal against affirmative action in Texas universities. The protests were triggered by student desire to quell any racist rhetoric that was on campus, which many interpreted as restricting freedom of speech. Many interpreted the demands as restrictions on intellectual diversity. Intellectual diversity is the ability of multiple viewpoints to be shared in a space, for example allowing both conservatives and liberals to express their viewpoints on a subject matter. The protests were predicted to possibly make Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy vote in Fisher’s favor, since affirmative action is only justified on the basis of intellectual diversity and the protests were interpreted by many as violations of intellectual diversity.

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 past to inform present decisions often ignore that historically universities were in favor of explicit exclusion of people of color. For most of our history, the precedent has been set by white males, who had a near monopoly on how institutions were structured. Most of the student demands were about increasing the diversity of professors, establishing diversity centers, and implementing cultural training for faculty and staff. Students are encouraged to keep the demands in spaces like forums or private conversations that do not implicate the university’s need to respond legitimately. Joshua Freeman, student co-founder of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, took issue with how Princeton’s Black Justice League went about fulfilling their demands. The Black Justice League’s biggest offense was the civil disobedience of sitting in an office. He forgets that student activists were involved in discussions with administrations before, but found that the discussions were often delaying action. Yet the administration still has an advantage when students protest with sit-ins or die-ins. While academic success can be achieved without the explicit approval of school administrations, time spent writing articles, having meetings, and organizing protests, takes away from academics, which give reluctant administrations an advantage in negotiations.

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 response from the industry.

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, Ava DuVernay doesn’t want people to say diversity anymore. She wants the focus to be on inclusion. She’s right. So far, marginalized people have been given a seat at the dinner table, but have yet to be served a meal. Diversity has quickly become a buzzword that often hides the deceitful intentions of unmotivated institutions. The changes that are being called for at universities and industries across the USA require sacrifice and hard work. For the industries that have yet to be rocked by outcries for further inclusion, their time is soon to come. Protests will come cyclically as long as superficial remedies are used to fix deep rooted issues. And twenty years in the future, people will be pointing to that one time in 2016 when people were pointing out the same problems.

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

Martina Fouquet is a MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark Creative Writing Program. You can follow her on Twitter @MartinaFouquet.

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