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Diversity Does Not Equal Representation

The word ‘diversity’ has bothered me for a long time, simply because it seems inappropriate to use it in situations about equality and representation. It seems like a lot of people think that ‘diversity’ = equality, and that’s not the case. To clarify why that is, I thought I’d write about it.

The definition of diversity is “a range of different things”. If you all studied algebra or know anything about middle school math, you know that ranges can be just as small as they can be big. So technically, for example, a major news publication can have a photo spread with one model of color, all the same body type, and call it diversity. This has been a big problem as of late with magazines targeted at the LGBT+ community – they are all not only the same kind of person, but the same color.

Also, ‘diversity’ implies difference. While there is obvious difference in the appearance, gender, or sexuality of groups of people, there should be no difference in the role they take in whatever they’re asking to be included in, or difference in how they’re looked at. Often, ‘diversity’ has come to mean ‘tokenism’. It has come to mean that we’ll include one Black girl, or one gay man, to feel like we have a variety of people. And then that person will feel ostracized and put apart because they are different.


Photo credit: Salon

For example. See Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, two recent Hollywood attempts at adapting anime properties that resulted in disastrous whitewashing and cultural appropriation. In Ghost in the Shell, there are Asian characters and cast members, sure, but most of them are in the background and barely have any role or lines. Death Note has a Black character, but almost none of the principal cast is Asian – which is where the culture derives from. But technically, these are ‘diverse’ casts. There are people of color in them – included, but not represented accurately to their own cultures. The white actors are clearly the star of the show, despite these properties being based deeply in Asian culture. Do you see the problem with using ‘diversity’ as a reference frame?


Photo credit: Netflix

Here’s why ‘representation’ is a much better word to use. ‘Representation’ means “the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature”. Basically: if you have a Black character on a television show, Black audiences will more likely gravitate towards that character because they can see themselves in them, and people feel more comfortable with things that are similar to them.

When we talk about ‘representation’, it has no limit – and it genuinely implies equality. Discussions of representation are not only about the way said groups are portrayed, but that they are portrayed in the first place. Representation has more meaning to me – because as a gay Black man, watching Moonlight was the first time I felt represented by Hollywood. And as someone who pays to see these movies, we should all be reflected in the content we consume, regardless of age, weight, color, race, gender, sexuality, or class.

Representation is when little Black boys feel delight watching the new Star Wars trilogy, seeing themselves reflected on screen in John Boyega’s Finn. Representation is when Black girls watch Beyonce’s Lemonade and feel that she’s directly speaking to and reaching out to them. Representation is casting Asian actors in anime properties, having Asian talent behind the camera, and letting them tell their own stories.

I hope that this distinction makes things a bit clearer. Diversity is not the goal – the goal is representation.

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