At my corporate day job, or as I affectionately call it, That-which-pays-the-bills, the bosses are currently on a “diversity” kick. You might be thinking, “Hey, that’s a noble pursuit in a corporate environment.” And you’d be right. It is important to view the workplace as a plurality of culture, rather than a monoculture. But whenever “diversity training” comes up (and it rears its ugly head at least once every couple of years), rather than being informative and insightful, it’s more indicative of how desperately proper training is actually needed.
Case in point, those in charge of the upcoming bout (a pair of in-house colleagues chosen by leadership) sent out questions to allow us to prepare answers before the meeting.
- Has anyone ever had a preconceived notion about who you are that isn’t true?
- Can you share something you have struggled with in your life that you have had to overcome?
So, after we discuss how much it has sucked to be us (I may be paraphrasing the email here) then we’ll talk about how we celebrate who we are…Because that’ll be the general mood after all that.
Setting aside the fact that these questions are incredibly personal and, in my opinion, inappropriate to ask of people in a compulsory workplace meeting, my greatest concern is this: Rather than deconstructing categories of thinking, the questions ask us to point out to our colleagues the ways in which we have been viewed as an “Other”, something they may previously have never done but may possibly do now. Contradictory to the point of diversity, to say the least.
Naturally, my brain turns this idea towards writing as well. In speculative fiction, it has been said that diversity of characters is on the short side or portrays them as victims/stereotypes. Sure, there may be the main character’s quirky friend, distant relative, or (hopefully not exclusively) villain who is non-white, but essentially the hero/heroine tends to be white, good looking, able-bodied, and straight. There is of course nothing wrong with these types of characters, but it’s their predominance in fiction, as opposed to roles of people of color, that is cause for concern.
Why the concern? It’s those darn categories of thinking again. Race is a social construct. It assigns meaning and value based on outward appearance. We are not born with these ideas in our heads. They are accumulated over time based on what we observe actively and inactively from the world around us.
An example: Mainstream media finds the word “exotic” to be complimentary when describing a beautiful woman of color. The thing is, it’s not really complimentary. It’s boxing her into a specific type of beauty, a construct that has additional meaning beyond how beautiful she is. Why the moniker? If she is beautiful, is it necessary to describe her beauty as “non-white”? If beautiful is the normal word, what does it mean that non-white beauty must be described using a different word? They’re insidious, these categories.
Apply the questions to storytelling: Why are main characters usually white, and the secondary “side-kick” characters non-white? In main characters that have multiple backgrounds, do they have brown/black eyes, or are they frequently given “green/blue” eyes, and if so, why? Are those considered more attractive? Why? Are villains always dark haired/dark eyed/unattractive? (Anyone seen the new Star Wars villain? Or any Disney movie?) Why are villains portrayed this way?
Authors have an awesome job. They get to create fantastical worlds, fascinating characters, and amazing adventures to share with the world. But they are also burdened with a duty to ask themselves these types of questions. A willing burden, yes, but one that should be held at all times in the forefront of the creative mind. Because if we are not aware of how categories of thinking can manifest themselves, the complexity and accessibility of our work is likely to be inhibited by them.
As for my work training…yeah, wish me luck. Given the nature of the questions we’re supposed to answer, something tells me the expectation is to talk about “what” I am, which is too bad, because the more interesting story is who I am on the inside.