You can’t just mash some stuff together and call it diversity

After my discussion of some of the problems with how diversity is handled last week, I wanted to delve into something else that’s been troubling me: The tendency to sort of jam cultures together in a hodgepodge and call it diversity. There are a lot of reasons why people do this, and why they claim to do it, and it bears closer examination because it’s a huge and growing problem. The bottom line is that mashing things from multiple settings together to make some kind of statement doesn’t work unless you are being very, very careful, and I am not talking just about contemporary fiction but also science fiction and fantasy that borrows from real-world things (which is most!), about mystery, about horror, about every other genre.

So here are some examples of the kind of thing I am talking about, to ensure that we are on the same page:

1) The appearance of Native, indigenous, First Nations, or Aboriginal characters, places, or themes taken without context that borrow from a huge range of experiences and then squished together into one imagined character or culture. Sometimes people show their ignorance, naming a specific tribe or community while drawing elements of multiple communities into one. Sometimes they say they’re making an homage or wanted to create a characterisation or setting that drew from ‘tradition,’ rather than reality. The result, though, is a setting in which stories, cultural traditions, religion, foods, and other activities are all crammed uneasily together, and it’s a sticky, unpleasant thing. Especially when authors expect to be praised for it, like it’s some big accomplishment to toss some stuff at the wall and call it inclusionary.

2) Vague mashings-together of various religions and sects. Hinduism and Buddhism are not the same, though like many religions they may share some symbolism and beliefs due to their cultural proximity. Christianity comes in many sects. All Muslims are not the same. Sephardic Jews have their own distinct cultural and social identity. You can’t just stick a bunch of things into a pot, stir, and feel proud about the results. These things are more complicated and nuanced than that.

3) Messing around with different gender identities and relationships to gender, often gliding over different cultural conceptions in discussions about gender — for example, two spirit people are unique to a specific culture and setting. So are hijra. They can’t just be adopted into a text willy-nilly.

People sometimes claim that they are doing these things because they wanted to create something new for the setting of a piece of media. They are apparently too lazy to invent their own cultures, religious traditions, or other cultural attitudes, so they haphazardly stick things together and call it good, and then expect to be praised for it. They’re so creative! Putting together a truly unique culture requires work and thoughtfulness, and while it may involve researching existing traditions and conceptualisations of the world, these should not become the basis for a unique culture, but rather the foundations of understanding about how and why people build new traditions for themselves.

Other people are straight up lazy. They can’t be bothered to really dig in with research, consult people, and think about how they are depicting communities. This kind of media creation is extraordinarily frustrating, as it can be easily avoided by taking the time to be thoughtful and do it well. It’s also notable to see what people think should be researched, and what people think can be slapped together. Some people go in deep on things like medical research to make sure a doctor is depicted accurately, but they make her Indian-American and don’t stop to consider her faith, or her relationship with her family. Or they load her up with some stereotypes: She had an arranged marriage, her brother is a lawyer, she’s Hindu (but we never actually see her participating in religious festivals or other activities), her parents push their children to be high-achieving model minorities. There’s no thought into her depiction and how it feeds into or counteracts social attitudes.

Doing research takes time. And there are settings in which cultural cross-pollination can be done well, and it can be authentic and accurate. If you’re imagining a world in which Muslim and Christian communities are interacting for the first time, for example, you can research the specific strains of Islam and Christianity that you’re going to depict, and talk about how they inform and influence each other. What happens to children coming from parents of both faiths? How does society make decisions about holidays? Are there social tensions surrounding potential beliefs in conflict, or do people build community and solidarity with each other? As multiple generations grow up in this community, do lines blur? Why? How? If people are on a generation ship trying to preserve their cultural traditions, what does this mean as they get further and further from Earth in both time and space?

But this isn’t the kind of thoughtful, careful blending that we see in fiction very often. Instead, we see the repeated use of cultural traditions as a sort of plot device, and one that creators also clearly intend to use to score points. Thus we have traditions from multiple Native North American communities plopped together with no understanding of their origins. We have religious traditions that are a complete jumble that no one would actually recognise, and there’s no explanation for how and why they got that way. We have cultural values that are completely vague and clouded because they’re not grounded in anything real, just whatever the creator imagines to be true.

Rather than applauding diverse work without interrogating it, we need to be taking a closer look at characters, settings, cultures, and traditions. Are we seeing the results of genuine, authentic work on the part of the creator, or are we seeing culturally-loaded assumptions stuck together with superglue?

Image: Young Muslim Women, Garry Knight, Flickr