What Should Diversity Mean?

Last weekend, I was following posts and tweets about Maggie Stiefvater (a white writer) being on a panel called “Writing the Other”. You can get some background here, but it’s not necessary for my post. The gist of many of the posts was that Stiefvater, a white writer, had no place on such a panel. There is a certain argument for that — that whatever else she is, Stiefvater still has a certain amount of privilege that means her voice doesn’t need promoting as much. And her definition of “Other” was fairly loose and included “writing about places you haven’t visited” and examples like that, which is not usually what we mean when we’re talking about “the Other”.

To pause and briefly define terms, when we’re talking about “Otherness”, it’s usually (in my understanding) about other identities, rather than other experiences. So gay people, people of colour, people with disabilities, Jewish people — groups of people who are “Othered”, who are treated as a distinct group with common traits.

But I did like something Stiefvater said in her original post, which I’ll quote here:

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write [sic] about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

To me, this definitely has a place on a diversity panel. I can tell you that as someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve definitely been Othered. Even just as a Welsh person, I’ve had experiences that sometimes echo those of people of colour — for instance, when I read Catrin Collier’s introduction to Margiad Evans’ book, Country Dance:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

Sound at all familiar? It did to me — both from the experiences of post-colonial people (which arguably, includes the Welsh) and from my own experiences. I didn’t know there was any Welsh literature. Raised in England, I was vaguely under the impression that writing was not a thing Welsh people did, that we didn’t have a written culture. Or not one worth exploring, at any rate.

Imagine my surprise at university, at the age of 21, when I signed up for a ‘Welsh Fiction in English’ class, and discovered a whole world of Welsh writing!

So what should diversity mean? The assumption seemed to be that Maggie Stiefvater could not be Other, could not represent diversity, because she’s visibly white.

Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too. The very fact that people immediately assumed that Stiefvater couldn’t be Other is a little worrying — there are invisible illnesses and disabilities, there are people who aren’t out, there are people whose racial/cultural background isn’t obvious. Diversity panels obviously shouldn’t be made up solely of white people, but let’s make an effort to think about the non-obvious forms of diversity, too. Just because you can look at someone and see white skin, a majority culture and a boyfriend, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about diversity.

I haven’t read any of Stiefvater’s work yet, nor do I know anything about her mental health; the fact that she wanted to talk about it, though — and that the person who criticised her involvement in a panel didn’t even seem to consider that angle — struck a chord. If Stiefvater has things to say about OCD and suicide from personal experience, then we need to make space for that. If not in a panel about ‘Writing the Other’, then where? What is more Other than a group of people who’ve been literally demonised throughout history?

Now, if there’s a panel made up entirely of white people, we should definitely criticise it. And we should criticise any sign of homogeneity in such panels, if we end up at a point where a panel is all white gay men, or all white women with mental illnesses. But perhaps not by targeting an individual and saying, essentially, ‘you have no right to talk about being Other‘. Maybe, instead, we could ask, ‘Why do you feel you’re qualified to talk about being Other? What do you bring to the table?’ Let’s make a space for people to say, “I have an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to talk about how ‘crazy’ people are represented in fiction.” Or, “Well, I’m a woman dating a guy, but I’m actually bisexual and I’d like to talk about bi-erasure and problems specific to bisexual people.”

And if the answer is, “Well, actually, I’m not from a minority group at all, but I have thoughts about how they should be portrayed in fiction,” then we can say, “Maybe you should step down from the panel in favour of people who’ve lived those experiences.”

Mind you, I don’t know if that’ll work, because some people will always think they have something worthwhile to say, whether they do or not. Some people will always privilege their voices above others. But I’d like it if people would just stop to think about what diversity really looks like — whether it looks like anything at all, or whether we need to hold back on some of our assumptions.

Maybe it does need to look diverse. I just read Justina Ireland‘s post about diversity panels, and the fact that her experiences show that having a person of colour on the panel — just one! — already means a lot to other people of colour. Maybe we need to make sure that the people we have to speak on diversity panels are not just diverse, but intersectionally so. Black and mentally ill. Gay and Jewish. Genderqueer and Islamic.

For damn sure, diversity panels right now are sending a message, and it’s not the right one.

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37 thoughts on “What Should Diversity Mean?

  1. You make a very good point, and I think it’s a common issue – people have a specific idea of what diversity looks like, as well as what “non-diverse” means, and often it’s most glaringly obvious in situations where people have actually made an effort to be accessible in some way, or to be diverse, but have totally missed something or are actually making things worse. Case in point: some of the Paralympics medals podiums were only accessible via steps. The wheelchair racing ones had a ramp, but many of the others didn’t, because the committee had forgotten that someone might possibly use a wheelchair even if they don’t compete in a wheelchair-using sport! Fancy that! /sarcasm

    Another example: my girlfriend and I were looking for somewhere to park in a public car park two days ago, and we had to drive around a roundabout to get to the dedicated accessible spaces (the rest of the spaces for cars were off the second exit of the roundabout). A man seemed to be about to drive away from a space so we waited for him to leave, but he shook his head violently and held up his blue badge. We assumed he was actually arriving, and defending his right to park there – and in fact felt bad that he’d thought we were judging him for parking in an accessible space.

    We went round the roundabout again and parked in a regular space (which was further from the building and not as big, so tricky to get my girlfriend’s wheelchair out of the boot) and when we walked past the accessible spaces the car had gone. So he had been leaving. He’d simply assumed that we couldn’t possibly be entitled to park in the space he was vacating, because we “didn’t look disabled”, and decided it was his job to police the use of the car park.

    I am still pretty angry about this, actually (my girlfriend is a much more lovely person than me and remained fairly relaxed about it all). It’s just another example of how people make assumptions and presume that if someone doesn’t look like them, they can’t possibly be in the same category as them and must be excluded for the protection of the category members. Ugh. People aren’t great.

          • I’m imagining giant insects inside your head now…which is not a pleasant image!
            But seriously, GAD can be really debilitating, as I know from experience; if you’re house-bound with anxiety are you more or less disabled than a paraplegic who goes out every day in a wheel-chair? Are you more or less crazy than a depressed person? Stupid, value-judgement laden questions!

      • It was rather ironic, because this guy actually got out of the car and walked round it to wave his badge at us. Naomi can’t walk more than a few paces and does so with a distinct gait, and anyway she only just got out of intensive care so wouldn’t waste her limited energy on elaborate disability-offs (but would definitely have won this one).

      • Quite a few!
        Wales has a very long and illustrious literary history but does anybody from outside know it? I was deeply disappointed in the BBC’s Country File programme recently when they turned up in Wales, misprounced every single name in the most crass English-phonetic manner and left again without a hint that they’d been utterly insensitive and further promoted English cultural hegemony. It’s not like most of the names were actually difficult to pronounce for English speakers – “Ifan” can only be mangled if you don’t even bother to ask how it should be said. Boy, was I peeved!

        Having recently become legally considered disabled in the UK, I was discussing with other Aspies the fact that it’s essentially invisible. When we meet strangers (which is really stressful), we can’t really say, “Hi! I have Asperger’s Syndrome!” Do we wear a badge or have an “A” tattoo-ed on our foreheads or what?

        • Oh man, really? I don’t watch tv at all, so that one passed me by.

          I didn’t know that Asperger’s Syndrome now counted as a legal disability! Interesting. And I think stuff that causes people to act “not normally” gets dismissed as people just being weird, you know? Like, people don’t see me freaking out over an insect and think, “Oh, they’re obsessive-compulsive, maybe I should get rid of the bug for them” — they think “oh wow, they’re weird, back awaaaay”. Whereas if I were visibly, physically disabled and I, I don’t know, dropped my stick or something… okay, some people would ignore me, but there’s also a lot of people who’d rush to help.

          • I wasn’t aware it was considered a disability until weeks after I received the diagnosis!

            Flagon would help you with insects as they are his favourite food.

              • I did, yes. I know that average waiting times for an assessment in the UK are ~2 years. Locally it’s ~1 year. I got a cancellation and it was still 7 months. I also know that some GPs are reluctant to refer adults for assessment and I didn’t have any hassles there, either; I told my GP I wanted one and he did the necessary admin without question. Seems I was lucky on all counts!

                As for the assessment itself, what they are really doing isn’t so much deciding if you you’re autistic but if you’re autistic enough to warrant extra help from society at large, which isn’t the same thing: I was considered border-line but they gave me the diagnosis.

                • Yeah, it does seem to be largely luck. Sometimes even with serious things in the NHS. *glares at the local ones* They think I might still have gallstones, maybe in my bile ducts, that it might be all blocked up and that’s why I’m in pain and frequently nauseated… they took three months to book me in for an ultrasound to even begin the process. Sigh.

                  Interesting. I can’t see anyone in my family even wanting the help, so the diagnosis for us would be pretty pointless. I didn’t even know there was support available!

  2. I think it’s a really important part of learning how to do diversity better to accept that sometimes we aren’t going to do it that well. And that should be an opportunity to improve. Not to give up. We’re all gonna make mistakes and the more we can give each other room to make mistakes without getting dug in and defensive the faster we can get better.

    • Agreed. It’s quite difficult to learn if you’re never challenged, too — you can read all the 101 stuff you like, but until you say something stupid, it can be really hard to connect that with your behaviour.

      • Yes that’s true. So it’s important to ditch the fragility as fast as possible. If someone challenges you don’t say oh my God how dare you say thank you, let’s talk about it. And just have honest conversations with each other where we accept that some of the time we’re going to get it wrong and it’s not the end of the world as long as everybody tries to do better.

        • Responsibility in both directions. Don’t call people bad humans and ostracize them just because they made a mistake. Offer your perspective and definitely talk about why what they said is hurtful, but don’t dehumanize them. And if you did make a mistake yourself, don’t shame spiral into a defensive crouch and start lashing out in all directions either.

  3. Also I think that diversity does include white, able, cis (etc) people. However it also needs to include the acknowledgement that those people have dominated the conversation for a long time and maybe need to invest some energy in looking at how not to dominate the conversation.

      • And when I say that I mean quite literally learn and explore and practice skills around how to listen and how to encourage others to speak, and how to support people. Not just sit in a corner waiting for your turn. There are actual skills involved. Which can be learned. I see people – and yes, men are particularly bad with this who get all “you just want me to shut up,” because they don’t know any way to support other people’s voices and can’t conceive that it means anything but be quiet.

          • Ha ha. Yes, my sister and I have this theory that its okay and sometimes even necessary and important for me to be the center of MY world, but its not to be confused with being the center of THE world.

  4. “Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too.”

    Ages ago, when I was in college, I went to see a Holocaust survivor speak about her experiences during WWII. She said something very similar. It was something like, to learn true history we must look at the silence, the things people do not wish to talk about.

    It’s always stuck with me and I love when a book tackles a subject or topic that’s never/rarely written about. Or come at it from a new perspective. It’s brave. It’s refreshing. It adds diversity to the world.

    Terri M., the Director
    Second Run Reviews

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