by DaMonique Ballou, Writing Fellow
On October 19, Ava DuVernay, a black female filmmaker and distributor of independent films, was honored at the 22nd Annual ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards. There, among people underrepresented in the film industry, she outlined a solution to the lack of diversity in Hollywood in front of and behind the camera.
Her narrative begins with an anecdote her uncle told her about a black village its country deemed valueless. Though considered subordinate, the villagers continued existing as everyday citizens—cutting their hair, teaching, preaching, baking, performing works that help a community function as a people.
Despite that, the village lived in coerced segregation. When confronted with situations denying their existence, they “fought…for recognition of their humanity and dignity.” DuVernay’s anecdote illustrates a community’s desire to exist beyond external perspectives. They live as themselves, not consuming or allowing sources that devalue them to control their existence.
To live like such people, we should focus on supporting our neighbor and developing the community. “We value us. We build or village. ….We focus on her—the woman sitting next to us. We focus on us.” DuVernay emphasizes community, perpetually stating “we.” Contrasting the villagers’ isolation, she believes redefining our understanding of “us,” so that “we” extends to the villagers rather than the comforts of the country, the self, is one solution to systemic segregation.
Dwelling within the comfort of the self, only inhabiting spaces congruent to one’s social identity, and, therefore, prolonging segregation, creates a social impediment that perpetuates issues like racism, sexism—every “-ism” within the patriarchy. The conflict of the self, which leads to the creation of “-ism” terms, distracts us and “keeps [one] explaining [their] reason for being.” This conflict of the self embodies a problem with the term “diversity.”
Diversity focuses on how the self looks and appeals to external sources. It does not support, celebrate, or attempt to create a village. Rather, it simulates the country’s relationship with the village. When populations exist in a space like the village, they must learn to live beyond external perceptions, defined by the country or within it. Either decision marginalizes those populations and prevents them from belonging within the country.
Less metaphorically, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in an awkward position in class as someone felt obliged to announce my blackness. Needless to say, I was the only black student. The comment derived from a need to justify my reading of a black character, while signifying that such action did not mean I was to act on behalf of black people. The person made such a concept into a joke. Out of confusion and discomfort, I laughed in response.
After speaking with a professor about the moment, she explained that these types of classes typically lack “diversity,” and cases like mine are nuanced but frequent. As the only black student in a class lacking racial variability, I exist as an outlier because my presence and actions need to be justified—comically or otherwise.
My state of being, however, rests in the hands of someone (the country) who traditionally exists in the place I inhabit. In representing the villagers, the moment forces me, as I did, to overlook the situation or address the discomfort. Either decision forces me into a role of separation where I must confront another’s distress with my being in the class.
The conflict rests in the need for my presence to be justified or presented as a disclaimer when I perform a task in the classroom. Having “diversity” within a class, then, creates a varied population that does not know how to exist comfortably with each other.
DuVernay’s conclusion articulates my sentiments, which “diversity” fails to address. “I really hate the word ‘diversity’,” she says, “It feels like medicine. Diversity is like, ‘Ugh. I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me, is a disconnect. There’s an emotional disconnect.”
The “disconnect” refers to how the term merely seeks to acknowledge difference in a singular space. Diversity has no transformative action. As determined by its definition, diversity represents a state of being diverse—having variety. The term embodies an inactive noun that allows one to evade social issues by, for example, acknowledging variability (or the lack thereof) within a population and not doing anything with it.
In my example, the professor uses the lack of diversity to distract from the belief that I do not belong in the class. The burden of comfort rests in my need to adjust to the others rather than each student in the class adjusting collectively. Diversity falsifies the experience of a united community; it recognizes the village in the space, but does not address the relationship it has to the country.
DuVernay suggests we replace “diversity” with “belong.” She states, “… We all belong to film. We all belong to television. We all belong to what this is…So I just want us to think about belonging. Think about who belongs. And welcoming people into that belonging.” Again, she requires the audience to adjust for the sake of the group. We need to think about who belongs. We need to welcome those people. We need to broaden and extend our power to best practice this liberal delusion of diversity.
Chernikoff, Leah. “Why Ava DuVernay Hates the Word Diversity.” ELLE. 21 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015