How Brands and Content-Makers Are Thinking Beyond Diversity

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By Rajiv Menon, Cultural Analyst, TruthCo.

In the last year, one particular word has been a standout in the cultural psyche: diversity. From the second annual #OscarsSoWhite scandal to ongoing calls for more nuanced representation in the business world, brands and content-makers have been both basking in the glory of progressively demonstrating diversity and publically shamed for their lack of commitment to this social effort. Born from the multicultural impulses of well-meaning corporate boardrooms, “diversity” has been a hot-button term. But is this the right language when the cultural fabric of the United States has grown so much more complex? 

The language of diversity stems from a largely White, corporate perspective that treats cultural difference as something to be “dealt with,” not a rich part of American life today. It implies additive difference, suggesting a largely White, “universal,” cultural center that can then be modified and jazzed up with the addition of non-White characters.

But Millennials are looking at things differently: in contrast to diversity, Millennials are instead demonstrating “Omnicultural” values, which entail viewing cultural difference as a normal part of life and not as a barrier to engagement. Reflecting radical cultural shifts related to race and immigration that preceded them, Millennials’ embrace of Omniculturalism is increasingly visible in the brand and television worlds, providing major cues for content makers looking to connect to this target.

Unlike Millennials, Gen X approached racial and cultural difference as something to be handled delicately. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and the immigration reform of the ‘60s, cultural difference was still alienating for Gen X. While non-White or immigrant characters could occasionally appear on screen in content meant for a general audience, the very idea of a “general audience” still largely frames the norm as being White. This explains the rise of multiculturalism, which celebrates cultural difference, but still frames it as a departure from a presumed White norm. In the cases where  “multicultural” material does exist, it is presented as niche and novelty, and not intended for everyone. In contrast, as opposed to seeing difference as a departure FROM a universal norm, Millennials see difference AS a universal norm.

As Millennials demonstrate a preference towards Omniculturalism, in which cultural difference is a normal part of life, the conversation about diversity feels stuck in the past. The constant calls for diversity–especially the entertainment industry’s desire to talk about it, flag it, and label it–seem fundamentally detached from Millennial experiences, which embrace inclusivity. While conversations that imagine White audiences and non-White audiences as separate entities are still pervasive in the entertainment industry, the wider brand world has begun to free itself from this thinking.

In addition to brands like AirBnb, whose “Belong Anywhere” campaign seems to inherently communicate its Omnicultural values, other visibly successful brands targeted at Millennials tacitly communicate their belief that cultural difference does not have to be a barrier. For example, both Nike and Beats have strikingly racially inclusive ads that illustrate a take on a general market that doesn’t assume Whiteness. Both brands root their messaging in an aspirational urban setting defined by a natural, effortless cultural plurality, not just superficial diversity–a key factor in their wide resonance with Millennials.

While the conversation in entertainment still seems to be bogged down in the multicultural politics of diversity, several standout examples in television have challenged these norms by demonstrating the mass appeal of Omnicultural inclusion. Netflix, for one, has been a standout in this department, with Orange Is the New Black and Master of None directly refuting the idea that non-White characters and experiences constitute niche content. In both these shows, non-White cultural identity is a piece of its characters’ story, but not the only piece, making clear that these stories do not have to be solely for non-White audiences. Outside of premium and streaming content, programs like Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin are similarly opening space for non-White protagonists to speak to a wide, inclusive audience, which demonstrates a greater need to focus on culturally resonant storytelling over window-dressing diversity.

Emergent Millennial values signal that the language of diversity is becoming deeply out-of-touch with the experiences of American Millennials. While the media still has substantial ground to cover in challenging the norms of inclusion and representation, moving beyond the vocabulary of multiculturalism and diversity and toward that of Omniculturalism and plurality is an important first step.

About the Author

Rajiv Menon is a Cultural Analyst at TruthCo., an omnicultural branding and insights company that analyzes the current cultural landscape to deliver actionable recommendations that keep entertainment brands and their offerings relevant. TruthCo. will soon release “10 Things to Know About Omniculturalism.” Connect online at www.truthco.net or on Twitter @TeamTruthCo.