With the mounting conversation that surrounds the topic of diversity comes the very real necessity of definition. I don’t pretend to know everything about diversity and its definition. My language on the subject is still cumulating. But I do know what it’s not:
“Diversity of opinion” is not diversity.
Let’s unpack why.
Reason one: this statement refers to a definition of diversity we are not concerned with.
In the most general sense, having several opinions in a room that are not the same is ‘diverse,’ just like a spread of five different color swatches can be referred to as a ‘diverse’ set of colors.
You might trash a color swatch because it doesn’t fit the atmosphere of your decor and it will feel no pain because of it. People are not color swatches. People experience violence. People are harmed because of the color of their skin. People feel a massive amount of pain on a daily basis due to slights against their identities.
You may ask, “but Sarah, can’t white people be marginalized too?” Yes, we can. White people can be marginalized if, say, they’re queer or disabled. That does not change the fact that they are still white, and therefore enjoy a level of privilege a person of color who is queer or disabled does not experience.
When we speak of diversity in YA, this is what we mean: the inclusion of marginalized voices within the stories we craft, as well as the industry that brings them to fruition. What is important here is the word ‘marginalized.’ Marginalized people exist within a society that oppresses them on a systemic level. No matter how hard a marginalized person works, where in the country they live, or what education they have, systemic forces work against one or more of their identities. It might not be conscious or intentional, but it is there.
We Need Diverse Books, defines diversity as such: “We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”
Reason two: Not all opinions are self contained, and some can cause irreparable real-life harm.
One of the fun things that people like to say when they voice a contentious opinion and receive push back, is that they have the freedom of speech and can therefore say whatever they want. You know what? They’re right. The first amendment provides this protection. Despite an inability for a person voicing a contentious opinion to be arrested, that doesn’t mean people cannot or will not say something against it.
While these people are busy defending their ability to say whatever wretched thing they want, the reason so many people speak up slips right by their notice.
At a fundamental level, not all opinions are created equal. Some have a wide-ranging impact, and others have no impact at all. For example, I have several tattoos. My opinion is that I like tattoos and I want them. Someone else may have the opinion that they do not like tattoos, and do not want them. Me wanting a tattoo and someone else not wanting a tattoo are two parallel lines that occupy the same plane and yet never intersect. They are two systems that are entirely self-contained. One does not spill into the other.
Harmful opinions are not self-contained. They touch others and leave consequences in their wake. They do more than hurt your feelings; they actively enact violence against people. The immediate effect may not visible, but that does not negate its residuum. This damage ranges from microaggressions to outright violence. Microaggressions can a white person locking their car door when they see a black man, to using words with to describe black women’s candor, such as ‘hostile’ or ‘hyperbolic.’
It might seem like these opinions (‘I think that man might rob me’; ‘I believe that woman is too angry’) are similar to the tattoo example, in that they do no serious harm. The difference is one is a singular event, and the other is a product of systemic conditions.
Once you fill the world with door-locking and disapproving people, the effects become more than hurt feelings. They become systemic. That person who would lock their door if they see a black man coming is also the hiring manager at that same black man’s prospective job. The woman who wags her finger at the frustrated black woman is the editor at a major publishing company.
It seems insignificant; What’s one flap of a butterfly’s wings to the surface of the ocean, after all? In order to comprehend the full effect, you must step back. Where you thought there would be a minute ripple is a vicious rip-tide born of the seemingly insignificant act.
The opinion that diversity in fiction, particularly young adult fiction, is useless or harmful to white people is not a self-contained system. It is a system that collides with another and does it significant damage. It is harmful.
If a young black girl picks up a book that does not have any black characters, or does, but they are stereotypical representations, you might not think it does no serious harm. It’s one book, right? What’s one book? Except the next book she picks up doesn’t have a black person in it either. Or the next. Or the next. Or a single one after that.
The impact is one of misinformation at its most basic level: that complex, little black girls to not exist in the worlds our fiction depicts, one of which is ours. By dismissing the existence of little black girls, their very lives as human beings are invalidated.
The effects of constant invalidation of black lives is all around us. Simply turn to your local news for a feature on the newest victim of police violence for evidence of how black bodies are perceived in contrast to white bodies. Fire up Google to see how black bodies are perceived to be less human or more violent.
Unless you’re the most charismatic person in the entire world, you know what it is to feel isolated in a crowd. You know what it is to feel like there is no one like you, that you are singular, that you are alone.
Take that feeling and widen it to the magnificent stretch of the world, then apply it to every moment of your life. This is what people are telling little black girls they just have to endure when they say the notion that ‘diversity of opinion is diversity’ is okay. That is what you, the person who thinks diversity is one of the worst words that exists, is saying.
Reason 3: Specific groups bear the brunt of violence.
When speaking about diversity and inclusivity, it is vital to recognize that there are some intersections of marginalizations that are the recipients of violence at a consistently higher rate than others. Women of color are one of those recipients.
As a queer women with depression, I know what it’s like to pick up a book and have difficulty finding someone with my particular intersections. Even when I couldn’t find another teen with depression in YA, there were white girls who saved the world I could look up to. They wanted to kiss boys and were neurotypical, but they were like me in at least one way.
For women of color, the probability of seeing someone like them in a genre they love is radically lower than for someone like me. If a young woman of color does manage to find a character who looks like her, then she better not have depression, be queer, trans, or disabled, because then her chances are essentially null.
The very fact that I can write this op-ed without a guaranteed stream of harassment and threats illustrates this very imbalance. When a white woman speaks up, she may get a few hate-mongers in her social media spewing grotesque comments. A woman of color, especially a black woman, who says the same thing will get the same hate-mongers multiplied by a hundred and then some. Death threats, images of gore, racist memes, and sexual harassment abound when a woman of color voices her opinion on the internet.
That’s not to say I and other white women do not deal with harassment. We do. Regardless, I can guarantee that what we do deal with could be far worse – for some, it is.
Women of color received hundreds of instances of harassment daily for tweeting their opinion. Calls to action result in hashtags that draw out scum by the bucket-load, ready and raring to throw their combined internet weight at the women who create them. Articles written by women of color about misogynoir produce comment sections that overflow with rancor, hostility and outright racism.
Intersections of marginalizations are uncontained systems. When one spills into the other, it takes every microaggression and outright violent act it incurs with it. Every microaggression, which appears minimal to an outsider, is a searing burn to the recipient. Those seemingly lone cuts, burns, and scrapes are neither individual nor insignificant.
If that sounds like an oppression competition to you, take a step back and ask why. Why is it so difficult to admit a black, queer person deals with a heavier load of violence than a white, queer person? Why is it so very difficult to admit that, when it comes down to it, we are not equal even in our marginalizations?
When you’ve held the higher ground for so long, stepping towards true equality can feel a lot like stepping back. In a sense, you are losing. Your weighty advantage is diminishing. The cradle you’ve been nurtured in is losing its walls, and the turbulent outside world you’ve been protected from is becoming visible to you. It’s scary.
Stepping back is exactly what you’re doing when you say ‘diversity of opinion is diversity.’ With this statement, you’re saying a white person’s opinion is more important than the safety of a woman of color. No matter how frightened you are of the reality you’ve been exposed to, no matter how much you weep for the ‘better’ days of the past, a harmful opinion will never ever ever be more important than a woman of color’s health and safety.
Even if you think ‘diversity of opinion is diversity’ is harmless, that doesn’t mean it is.
Even if you think you should be able to wield a harmful opinion, that doesn’t mean you will be allowed.