This past Saturday I attended Book Con which is like Comic Con except with less smelly people, corporate interests and strange sights. While there, I sat in on a panel concerning diversity in science-fiction and fantasy novels. The panel featured several figures involved in the genre, either in the capacity of writers or editors, discussing questions pertaining to diversity and political correctness in the ever-changing publishing landscape. While many good questions were considered by the panel, I'd say the most thought provoking was the seemingly simple "What is diversity?" I don't believe the question was asked quite in this way but the consideration of another question necessitated the definition. So, what is diversity?
Some words are simple. They describe something that is universally agreed upon. Should a number of people hear the word blue, they will more or less think of the same thing. Even this might not be true but for simplicity's sake we'll say that it is. Some words are not so simple. They are written or spoken expressions of ideas that are infinitely complex, subject to the interpretations and sensibilities of countless individuals. Diversity is one of those words. Diversity is the state of being diverse which according to Merriam-Webster is defined as differing from one another. One author on the panel insightfully described diversity as a collective term. According to its very definition it involves more than one individual. A company can seek to have a diverse body of employees, but it cannot seek to hire a diverse employee. An individual can be of a diverse background, his ancestry diverse, but the individual himself cannot be such. What has happened is that the word diverse has become a euphemism. In an effort to avoid offending the sensibilities of any number of groups and individuals, the word diverse is constantly used in place of what amounts to non-white. We need to hire a diverse employee. We need to hire a non-white employee.
As a country, we are in a time of great change both in our demographics and our perceptions of what constitutes normality. Normality is another not so simple word upon which volumes could be written. The cultural establishment is shifting at an incredible pace and equilibrium appears to be nowhere in sight. This rapid change, although having brought about much good, has also brought with it negative effects. We are witnessing the tumultuous rise of a new regime of sorts, an inclusive regime. Probably my favorite television show of all time in Mad Men ended a couple of weeks ago. Alessandra Stanley described the show as having "chronicled the last days of WASP ascendancy." The beauty of Mad Men was the way in which it meticulously and unabashedly portrayed all that was wrong about the old days: the rampant sexism, the almost complete absence of minorities, the prevalence of day drinking; perhaps that last one is up for debate. The show displayed these failings as though an exhibit in a museum, to criticize the people it represented and show how far we've come. I do believe we've come far. I believe that as a society we are producing people who are more understanding, compassionate, and eager to learn and empathize than their predecessors.
In order to achieve such change required the careful curating of the most prominent voices in media, not to mention several key pieces of legislation and the immense struggle to bring these about. To break down the establishment required unity of cause, as could be managed, and a concerted effort. Nothing can bring these things about more than an enemy, a figure simple enough to recognize and attack. Think of how much America has achieved historically through enmity and rivalry with the Germans, the Japanese and the Soviets. Thus the crusade against the white man was launched. The white man is not your neighbor, or your classmate, he's the representation of the old regime, the WASP ascendancy. He is arrogant, privileged and naive to the point of cruelty. The only problem is that he doesn't exist at large anymore. Many white men, actual white men, have found themselves the symbolic enemy against whom the Culture Wars is being waged. In this way you have white men born well past the height of the WASP ascendancy, a lot of whom aren't even Protestant, being told to check their privilege, that their opinions don't count. This has caused some to lash out in what they consider self-defense, taking stances that they might not have been initially inclined towards.
The WASP ascendancy was real. It was very real. The actions and attitudes of those days do in fact continue to benefit white Americans, particularly men, and hinder minorities. It is one of the great challenges of our time to bring about true equality, to allow all to succeed, frankly, to perpetuate and enforce the purest notion of the American Dream. One way in which we seek to do this is by ensuring diversity in workforces and college student populations. We must not only consider but atone for the mistakes of the past. We must atone for the racism that proliferated every strata of American life from mom-and-pop businesses to the highest levels of the federal administration, the effects of which are still prevalent today. In doing so, however, we needn't demonize any demographic, regardless of their history. We needn't put the white man down in order to lift minorities up. Diversity is as noble a pursuit as any. To ensure the inclusion of people from all ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds is not only admirable but essential. While representation isn't so much a problem for them, we need to remember that all voices, including those of white men, are important in the arduous cultivation of a truly diverse society.