Lately, “diversity” has become something of a reviled political buzzword. The recent casting of a black man, a Guatemalan-American, and a (white) woman as the three central characters of the new Star Wars franchise, for instance, caused a flurry of backlash and thinkpieces. Similar cycles of backlash-thinkpiece-backlash-thinkpiece take place whenever anybody, real or fictional, is revealed to be LGBTQ+.
An interesting theme among the backlash population is this: “Why is this character’s [nonwhiteness/femaleness/ LGBTQ+ identity] necessary? Why does it have to be this way? Why are we pandering to social justice activists by caring about ‘diversity’ instead of quality, ‘diversity’ instead of story?”
It’s important to unpack the rhetoric and look at the intention in these questions. Superficially, it sounds like the protesters are concerned with logic, with their focus on questioning and explanation. The structure of the argument veils the underlying sentiment, which is: “We don’t need new narratives about minority populations, and the existence of one irritates me.” These questions are nothing more than a request that minority characters Prove Their Worth in order to merit existence. Centrally, they reveal a mindset problem: that straight white male characters are default (as, historically, they have been), and any other type of character is an active choice.
But asking for reasoning for a character’s identity is as absurd as demanding reasoning for real people’s identities. “Why are you Indian? Why are you trans? Why are you a woman?” In reality, these questions would be ridiculous. They shouldn’t be acceptable in cultural discourse.
Besides, diversity doesn’t occur at the expense of quality or story. (That said, I firmly believe that minority characters should be allowed to have low-quality stories, just like Adam Sandler is allowed to continue making movies. Equal-opportunity terribleness, if you will. There shouldn’t be a higher bar for minority characters.)
Lastly, the idea of diversity being an initiative that “panders to social justice activists” is a hilarious misrepresentation. If anything, storytellers are pandering to the vast majority of a media-consuming population. 51% of the U.S. is women; 36% of our country is nonwhite. Is it really a question that a publishing company or movie distributor would want to appeal to 70% of consumers?
Polls to determine LGBT demographics are more varied in their results, but a recent study found that “only 48 percent of 13-20-year-olds identify as “exclusively heterosexual,”” and “65 percent of millennials aged 21 to 34.”
As a bisexual, biracial woman, I’m dedicated to helping normalize a different narrative, especially in kids’ fiction, which is formative and often lacks diversity. As for the word itself? The term “diversity,” politicized as it is, has started to become a scapegoat, something pointed to as a goal forced on an unwilling population rather than an accurate depiction of the world. This is unfortunate. “Diversity” is a term chosen not to emphasize minorities’ stories because they’re inherently more valuable: it’s a term chosen to reflect the historical underrepresentation of these narratives. “Diversity” is in comparison to our previous status quo. Otherwise it would be called “reality.”