The Five Stages of Diversity

Written by Aya de Leon

May 16, 2014

In recent weeks, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed participating in conversations on twitter about diversity in media. This recent round began in March with the publication of a New York Times article by Walter Dean Myers citing a study which found that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about Black people.

In April, the twitterverse responded to the massive lack of diversity in the speakers and panels at New York’s scheduled BookCon expo: 30 authors, all white. “There are more cats than people of color scheduled,” Jeff O’Neal, the founder of the website BookRiot, wrote soon afterward. In response, a group of 22 writers, publishers and bloggers launched the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which went viral. While did it manage to bring a diversity panel to BookCon (some say too little too late), it also showed that there’s a passionate, active groundswell of readers, writers and industry professionals who want diverse books. People spoke about race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, mental health, and the need to see the diversity of the world represented in books. Around the same moment, Dominican author Junot Diaz wrote a piece in the New Yorker “MFA vs. POC” about the racism he and others had experienced in creative writing MFA programs.  Daniel  José Older also explored this theme in “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” where he asserted, “The publishing industry looks a lot like these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.”

Yesterday, Hood Feminist co-founder Mikki Kendall started the hash tag #DiversityIsNot as she prepared to write about diversity in media. The hash tag elicited so many tweets about failed attempts at diversity, some quite well meaning. Whatever the intent to diversify, the impact is documented in the twitter conversation: the media in our society, at best pays lip service to diversity, but fails to produce it at a significant level in any of the above categories of diversity.

As I read through the tweets, I was struck by different categories of failure. The well meaning but incompetent. The outraged and defensive. If we saw diversity as a transformative process, perhaps there could be stages. It reminded me of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ powerful model of the 5 Stages of Grief. I learned the stages in my 20s and still know them by heart: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The stages have been applied to other things. Why not diversity? I began to tweet them out on Kendall’s hash tag yesterday.

While I do have a sense of parody and humor about this, the underlying sentiments are quite serious. In a conversation about lack of equity and access that’s been happening for decades, people are deeply frustrated. But I always like to lighten the mood a little while we gear ourselves up for the next round of battle to demand that the cultural institutions of the society accurately reflect our world.

The Five Stages of Diversity

1 Oblivious Homogeneity: Really? We’re all ____? Everyone? (looks around) I guess I never noticed.

The first stage is when someone inside a group realizes (or more likely someone from outside the group points out) that the group is deeply lacking in diversity. This can be an aha moment, but is more likely a huh? moment. Group members are often disoriented, as they have to reframe their community from “who we are” or “how it is” to notice that some form of elitism, exclusion, or exclusivity is at play. For those marginalized, particularly those who speak up, the transition of the insiders from obliviousness to foggy awareness is intensely frustrating. But we, by virtue of our exclusion, are acutely aware of the lack of diversity. In some cases, we feel it every moment of our lives. Other times, it’s just a hum in the background. We tune it out, except when we feel the fresh sting of a new exclusion.

2 Insensitive Tokenism: Look class we have a new student who is ___. Perfect for all your Qs about ___!

This is the first failed attempt to solve the problem. In the mind of the privileged, the systematic exclusion and subordination of various groups in society can get reduced to a surface mix up. No _____s in the group. Let’s just go get one! The facilitator from the dominant group, having failed to look deeper into the situation, views the newcomer through a lens of entitlement. Teachers, bosses, and other power holders are notorious for expecting the lone token to stand in for, and often speak for, the missing members of their group.

Yes, Miss _____. What do women want?

_____, what do black people think about that rapper _____?

_____, I guess all the gay people are happy today about _____, right?

_____, you’re Asian, what did you think of that martial arts movie?

This an insidious form of exploitation by the dominant group. In addition, for the lone individual who enters the previously exclusionary space, it is seen as a form of upward mobility. But their token status engenders isolation from their original community, and no peers to face a hostile environment.

3 Defensive Self-Righteousness: How dare you accuse me of ___ism? Some of my best friends are ___!

At some point, however, the balance tips a bit. What used to be one diverse person becomes several or many. These people begin to push on the institution and make demands. In this climate, the institution pushes back. We see this in the social media world, where demands for equity and justice are dismissed as “political correctness.” Also, in many cases the subordinated group has been subject to documented institutional discrimination over decades or centuries. However, these members of the dominant group are completely focused on the encroachment on their privilege. At times, they equate their recent and limited loss of complete privilege with historical inequality. At other times, they are completely preoccupied with their imagined victimization and can’t even see that the other group has any valid claims. In the above example from my tweet, the individual feels threatened and develops an absurd defense to prove their lack of prejudice. They position themselves as the offended party by virtue of the accusation of bias. However, in recent years, particularly in the era of the Internet, people are “embracing” their bias. Instead of a huffy denial, they fully claim the right to dominate. As such, they lash out with viciousness, verbal violence, and threats of physical or sexual violence.

4 Mindless Deference: Sure! Eldridge Cleaver sounds great for Black History Month heroes! (look it up)

This is another failed attempt to solve the problem. In progressive circles, sometimes members of the excluded group are invited into positions of leadership or influence. Overall, this should be an improvement. However, in too many cases, the group or institution lacks strong relationships with people in the marginalized group. They have low expectations or deep discomfort in having authentic discussions. Sometimes the person is unprepared to lead, or has toxic issues that poison their work. These situations are worse than lack of diversity. I wrote about an example in my first Let’s Talk post, where white institutions refuse to check African American men’s anger and sexism. The above example from my tweet has the same dynamic: Eldridge Cleaver is a former Black Panther who, at one point, believed that raping white women was an appropriate and effective strategy to combat racism (he “practiced” on African American women first). The last thing the African American community needs is anyone justifying sexual violence.

We need members of dominant groups to listen to members of our group, but not to be yes-men and women to every idea that any of us have, particularly the ones that are obviously dysfunctional or disastrous. Not only does this wreak havoc with our organizations and communities, the lack of oversight guarantees failure. Conservative forces recast the failure of their institutions to effectively implement diversity as a failure of diversity. See, that’s why we didn’t hire any _____ for all those years.

5 Conscious Partnership: between equals from under and overrepresented groups.

This is the final goal. There’s an acknowledgement of the history of inequality, but an intention to stand on footing that is as equal as possible. In this model, people work together to carry out the goals of their organization or company, as well as to address the ongoing challenges of diversity. The historically dominant groups take a step back and the historically marginalized groups take a step up. It works best if there’s more than one person from marginalized groups and their relationships are supported. During the token phase, there was only room for one from any group and competition between the formerly excluded has become all too common.

None of this is easy to accomplish. Prejudice is deeply ingrained in the minds and impulses of those in dominant groups. Internalized oppression is deeply ingrained in those from subordinated groups. But I have seen enough instances of true partnership across differences that I have begun to trust that it’s possible. Also, in spite of Internet trolls and the slow pace of institutional change, I see a groundswell of individuals reaching for diversity that includes connection and equality across difference. At the end of the day, I deeply believe that the drive for that connected equality is the truth about human beings.

Feature photo: Michael McCauslin (CC BY 2.0)

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