The Burden of Diversity

Every year it was the same. The then Milwaukee Sentinel printed the pictures of all their summer interns who worked at the paper. The pictures were divided into two categories:


Minority Interns

Each year, my picture, with the worst lighting imaginable, was displayed under the minority banner. I hated that term: minority intern. It was code for so many things. “Look, we have people of color on our staff!”

But the title also translated into some real life/work challenges as well.

Minority Interns meant you were “guided” into certain beats. Community Affairs, which is also code for the “N***a Beat,” writing about Juneteenth, and all other manner of black experience. Such things are a joy to write about when you want to write about them. But we were all trying to be reporters. We wanted to break news, not cover parades. The breaking news was usually divided amongst the “intern” interns. The ilk of writers who dropped in on the city for the summer to get their mid-size paper cred before jumping to a top-tier internship like the Washington Post or the New York Times. This paper was their stepping stone. For most of us minority interns, though, this was our first and possibly last step.

Minority internship meant you could cover the police beat, which meant chasing fire and murder stories. I excelled at this position for a few reasons. One, I worked in the police station and was pretty much left to my own devices. Two, I got to go out and talk amongst the people. Three: that usually meant “my people.”

However, covering crime for intern interns was different. When there was a neighborhood that was deemed “sketchy” by the editors, the intern intern would be reassigned while the minority intern would be thrust out into it. My safety was not a concern. My ideas about larger stories were not heard.

In the newsroom in the late 80s/early 90s, minority meant diverse, but it also meant less than.

The fight for diversity is an age old one, and one of no less importance today than it was years ago.

What has changed is the way we, as a people, consume information. Years ago, the goal for reporters who were women and people of color was an opportunity to cover stories about more than just themselves. Now, however, the fight seems to be about understanding that our topics are just as important as any other beat. This was exemplified most recently in the original Guardian article about racism in the newsroom by Howard W French and then further unpacked and argued by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The topic of diversity in MFA programs and among the “literary canon” are so heated that a professor friend of mine went so far as to preface her lecture on diversity and literature by saying: “This will not be the oppression Olympics.” This is to say everyone has skin in the game on the topic of the “emotions” surrounding diversity.

#oscarsowhite didn’t just happen out of the ether. It was started because there was a lack of representation in film that did not reflect the population. This lack of representation is an especially important discussion in conjunction with mass media, because that is how most people witness our country and mass culture.

The popular films, television shows, books, and websites give many people an idea of how our society works. But it also gives us a not-so-hidden glimpse as to whose story is most important.

Recently, Jonathan Franzen was asked by if he would ever write a book about race. His response was shocking:

“I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare.”

For me, this comment shed a lot of light about how the “other” is perceived, valued, etc. The idea that because you don’t know a lot of black folks and you were never in love with a black woman means you can’t use your public clout to write about social injustice as it relates to race is both scary and traumatizing. And, in a large sense, I understand the fear. No one wants to get it wrong. No one wants to write about something outside themselves and be jeered for not getting the nuances right. But the other side of this argument is that Franzen seems to be saying: since they’re not in my world, I am not going to even try.

The most interesting point about this, when I look at it from the other lens, is that I’m forced to learn all about mainstream culture (read: white and male), including the stories of these people and their histories from kindergarten on. I have never been “in love” with a white woman (or man, for that matter). But I am no less obligated to understand white, “mainstream” history and culture as if it were my own. Because it is my own. I need to know this information to survive in this world. I know too many friends who are in the same world and cannot speak the mainstream language.

The argument goes both ways. Women, blacks, LGBT, disabled, and a variety of other people who may, in fact, be different, maneuver around this very same space and their histories and hopes and fears are no less important.

That is why Black Lives Matter is so misunderstood. If all lIves really mattered, there would be no need for a Black Lives Matter campaign. But, the fact, the hard truth is: all lives do not matter. Some narratives have more weight than others. This is the fight. Not to pretend we are color blind, which really only means we can all assimilate. But the seeing and acknowledging of differences and a variety of narratives that are no less important to our collective discussion.

The burden of diversity always tends to be put on the oppressed.

You talk about race too much.

Don’t you already have gay rights?

Isn’t 95 cents on the dollar pretty damn close to equal?

The truth can be summed up in the popular movie, “A Time to Kill” starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson. In the film, Jackson kills a group of men who rape and beat his 10-year-old daughter in Canton, Mississippi. McConaughey, who plays the defense lawyer for Mr. Jackson, is stumped to find a way to save his client until, at the end, he tells the court about all the harrowing things done to this little black girl. Of course, that is not enough. So at the end, face full of tears, says, “now imagine she were white.”

George Kevin Jordan is an author and journalist with too many names who likes to write about things that give him ice cream headaches.