It feels a little weird to comment on diversity in the middle of a week where the topic has dominated cultural commentary (see Beyonce’s performance of Formation at Superbowl 50 and the subsequent video). I had planned this post before Beyonce’s new song ignited a fairly heated discussion about privilege and activism. (One of my favorite commentaries on the matter comes from The Atlantic, which muses that “forgoing the universal also involves risk, as Beyoncé surely knew.”)
Simultaneous to all of this, I’ve been reflecting more on Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes, specifically, her thoughts on diversity. As a psychologist, I’ve long wished that discussions of diversity would move beyond a kind of tokenistic focus on demographics to the real potential benefits of having people with different backgrounds and perspectives contributing to a shared purpose. Rhimes pointed out something else about diversity, particularly in entertainment, that I think is spot on. Diversity can help build relationships and improve our powers of empathy.
Here are the basic ideas Rhimes, who has won awards for creating shows with diverse casts, puts forth on the subject:
1) Diversity often is just a reflection of the way things really are. This is not stock-photo diversity, where there is one member of every major racial group plus a person in a wheelchair. This is about looking around your college classroom or the employees of a Fortune 100 company and seeing lots of different types of faces looking back. Rhimes says, “I am making TV look like the world looks.”
2) Diversity makes it easier to connect with individual people because you give them a better chance to recognize themselves in a character. A first step to empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s perspective. Relating to a character on tv or in a book because they share your background can help make that happen. Rhimes writes,
You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe. And your tribe can be any kind of person, anyone you identify with, anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth. You should get to turn on the TC and see your tribe, see your people, someone like you out there, existing . . . You are not alone.
Everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them, because perhaps then they will learn from them.
In the end, Rhimes says, her commitment to diversity in shows comes down to her need for connection. She writes:
I only ever write about one thing: being alone. The fear of being alone, the desire to not be alone, the attempts we make to find our person, to keep our person, to convince our person not to leave us alone, the joy of being with our person and thus no longer alone, the devastation of being left alone.
The need to hear the words: You are not alone.
The fundamental human need for one human being to hear another human being say to them: “You are not alone. You are seen. I am with you. You are not alone.”
This idea that diversity can serve as the conduit to connect people–that it can bring people together by aligning perspectives and ideas and helping us recognize commonalities in each other–is hugely appealing. That the wider the cast of characters (in the fictional sense or not), the more likely any one person is to recognize a connection . . . that seems like a pretty good argument for diversity to me.diversity