The Difference Between Performative Diversity and True Diversity in Media
The “token” Black, queer, or other minority character is an overused trope in Hollywood and the media in general. Under the guise of “inclusion” or a similar buzzword, showrunners of popular TV shows like “Bridgerton” vie for viewer attention by hiring diverse actors. Yet it’s a smokescreen of sorts, and the shows in question typically lack serious commentary on societal issues and rarely utilize the diverse experiences of their cast members.
This phenomenon of false inclusion is known as performative diversity, and it has gone by a variety of terms over the years. According to essayist and YouTuber Khadijia Mbowe in a January 2021 video, “race-baiting” was one of the first, initially coined in 1961. Race-baiting is “the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.”
Yet Mbowe implores her viewers that, in terms of popular media such as TV shows, the contemporary definition of race-baiting has more in common with its counterpart known as “queerbaiting.” In instances of queerbaiting, same-sex relationships are used more as a joke or to create (often non-existent) sexual tension. The unfortunate reality is that the phenomenon of queerbaiting has long been used in Hollywood and the media.
On a 2012 Talk of the Nation episode, a listener named Adam told host Neal Conan that he believes the gay community is primarily represented in stereotypes, concluding that, “you never see a true representation of my community, I don’t think.” His statement succinctly sums up the heart of the problem: The lack of true inclusion in favor of performative diversity. Let’s explore the differences between performative diversity and true representation, and why the latter is so crucial in our multicultural world.
The Value of True Diversity
Make no mistake: True representation is crucial to those minorities struggling with their own identities and/or self-esteem. A famous example of how diverse representation in the media can positively impact the lives of others is the story of Caryn Johnson. The iconic sci-fi series “Star Trek” made its debut in 1966, and a young Johnson saw herself reflected in the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman.
According to Johnson herself, seeing Nichols onscreen, in a position of power, changed her life. She ran to her mother, and gleefully exclaimed, “Momma! There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Johnson became a life-long Star Trek fan, but she was also inspired to pursue an acting career, eventually changing her name to Whoopi Goldberg.
Goldberg’s story is far from unique. Research also backs up the importance of diverse representation and inclusivity in the media. Positive on-screen representation can empower underrepresented minority groups, enhancing their feelings of self-worth. Minorities seeking a career in the entertainment industry and/or new media outlets might see more doors open for them as well when true diversity is prioritized.
Fostering True Diversity in Daily Life
Performative diversity spans well beyond the media we consume, however. In virtually every industry, companies of all sizes may convey a commitment to diversity and inclusion yet fail to follow through in an actionable form. To avoid falling into the trap of performative diversity, business leaders should work to create improved workplace policies that promote inclusion and adapt hiring practices as needed to attract more minority talent.
On the other side of the coin, diversity in media is also beneficial to those who don’t identify on the LGBTQ spectrum or as a racial minority. Put simply, increased media representation helps expand one’s worldview, exposing viewers to different cultures. True diversity brings new perspectives into one’s life, from the classroom and the workplace to streaming services and beyond. By exposing themselves to other cultures and the diverse experiences of minorities, humans from all walks of life may also develop greater empathy while ridding themselves of dangerous prejudices.
Cultivating Diversity Across All Forms of Media
And make no mistake: Stereotypes and performative diversity in the media we consume can actually create and perpetuate those prejudices and false ideas about people from different cultures. It’s time for Hollywood and the modern media giants to follow in the footsteps of the innovative minds of the past, for whom true diversity has always been valued.
Comic books, for example, are no strangers to minority representation, and many animated cartoons have taken the same route. Queer characters and Black superheroes are increasingly becoming the norm, even as well-meaning shows like “Bridgerton” and the award-winning “The Queen’s Gambit” fall behind. In both shows, a Black character serves as a symbol of inclusivity, yet racial subjects are glossed over or ignored completely, and the characters themselves have little substance when compared to their light-skinned counterparts.
By de-emphasizing performative diversity in favor of true diversity, showrunners can better attract audiences and promote inclusivity, both on-screen and in the real world. Learning what true diversity in the media looks like, and the power it can hold in making the world a more tolerant place is the first step.