As a person of color, racial discrimination and minority representation, especially in the arts, are important issues. Everyone deserves a voice and the arts provide a valuable medium for genuine stories—especially those that subvert the mainstream. However, the latest efforts to promote diversity and combat racism have not only been demonstrably ineffectual, but further exacerbate friction in race relations and marginalize minority voices.
Two weeks ago, Barnes & Noble announced their new Diversity Edition project intended “to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month.” These intentions are perfectly sound, but Barnes & Noble’s proposal was shockingly superficial: they planned on launching a number of classic literary works by white authors, such as Peter Pan, Frankenstein and Romeo and Juliet, with covers depicting visible minority characters. The disparity between the organization’s intentions and the impact of their actions was stark. How does replacing fictional white characters with POCs on the covers of literary classics promote minority authors? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate works like Toni Morrison’s poignant The Bluest Eye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad?
Recognizing minority artists is important: that’s why, for example, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ground-breaking Pulitzer Prize award in 2017—for “capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”—felt so special and genuine. Aziz Ansari’s Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Comedy Series for his brilliant Netflix series Master of None felt similarly rewarding.
After heavy backlash and accusations of literary blackface, Barnes & Noble cancelled their “Diversity Edition.” But incredulity at the clumsy proposition remains. Barnes & Noble’s shallow attempts at diversity are incredibly patronizing. People of color want more opportunities, not for their skin color to be commoditised and painted onto a book cover.
Such superficial attempts at diversity are one problem. Repudiating white people in the name of diversity is another. Yolanda Bonnell, an up-and-coming Canadian playwright of Ojibwe/South Asian background, has written a new play called Bug, which is now playing in Toronto, Canada. The aim of her play—to fight against the colonialism that has historically oppressed her community—is perfectly reasonable. Colonialism, racial oppression and slavery are unequivocally worth examining and art can provide a place for education.
The problem is that Bonnell has urged only people of colour to review her play. “There is an aspect to cultural work—or in our case, artistic ceremony—which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices,” Bonnell writes in her official statement. “In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from IBPOC folks only.” Ostracizing white people does little to encourage “deeper discussion” or unite people from different backgrounds. Indeed, many white people haven’t experienced the plight of immigrants like myself, the racism felt by visible minorities, or the struggles of low-class African-Americans in inner-city Chicago or Toronto. But, to better understand the dynamics of racism and discrimination, people must be exposed to diverse art by authors from different backgrounds. Exposure is the first step to understanding—but Bonnell’s radical approach only exacerbates the problem.
Excluding white people because of their alleged “colonial reviewing practices” doesn’t help the cause. Nor does insisting that all white people are innately racist by virtue of their whiteness. It is unlikely that anything could devalue the charge of racism or deepen racial division even more—but this is precisely what the “Race To Dinner” initiative is doing, as it offers to educate white women (since white men seem to be a lost cause) about their participation in upholding white supremacy over dinner, for the price of $2,500. Their front page reads, “white women: We are talking about your complicity in upholding white supremacy.” Their About Us page explains: “Dear white women: You cause immeasurable pain and damage to Black, Indigenous and brown women. We are here to sit down with you to candidly discuss how exactly you cause this pain and damage.”
There is a multitude of empirical and philosophical issues with the gross oversimplification that whites are universally privileged over racial minorities. One of the primary measures of privilege is economic and yet “Race To Dinner” doesn’t acknowledge the racial complexity of America. Several ethnic groups in the United States consistently outperform whites. According to median household income stats from the US Census Bureau, South African Americans, Pakistani Americans, Filipino Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Iranian Americans, Indian Americans, Lebanese Americans and Chinese Americans are just some of the minority groups that out-earned whites in 2017. While people in these groups certainly do face discrimination and barriers to success, whites are clearly not the dominant group. It’s more complicated than that.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that, in 2017, Asians out-earned all other racial groups, including whites, who earned around 84% of what Asians earned. Income statistics in Canada show similar trends: whites significantly and consistently lag behind multiple minority groups, including South Asian Canadians, Arab Canadians and Japanese Canadians. The most pronounced disparities exist between minority women and white women—unsurprisingly, since minority women are the single most educated group in Canada. Ignoring all of this data, and the plethora of other data in crime, education, and economic success—which shows whites far behind multiple minority groups—Race To Dinner fabricates the intersectional narrative that all black, brown and other minority groups in America are marginalized and suffering at the hands of whites.
Apart from the obvious empirical fallacies in the white privilege narrative, this sophistry dilutes and cheapens the charge of racism. When everyone is racist, no one is racist. Racism should be identified, condemned and rectified whenever it is encountered. But when all white women are racist, real racists get a pass. Such blanket statements lump good-hearted white people with legitimate racists and discriminatory individuals—yet, it does nothing to combat the evils of actual racism and xenophobia which I traumatically experienced in a majority white elementary school growing up, for example.
Certainly, more needs to be done to facilitate the integration of immigrants in the West and create more opportunities in inner-city minority communities. African-Americans, the target of many modern diversity initiatives, are disproportionately both victims and arrestees of crime, as Jill Leovy compellingly narrates in her award-winning book Ghettoside. Criminal justice reform, better schools, more effective policing and vocational opportunities must be discussed and implemented. Other minority groups also suffer obstacles and hardships that many wealthy, privileged white folks do not. That alone justifies promoting minority voices. But superficially touting diversity, excluding white people for their colonial ideology, or stereotyping all white people as innately privileged and racist is regressive and counterproductive. It truly does nothing to empower and uplift minorities.