A few months ago, while doing what every productive and responsible person would do when a deadline is approaching, I was scrolling through Instagram, watching the Instastories of other productive and responsible people procrastinating by showing others what they were doing. That is, what they were not supposed to be doing. But sometimes, you find some valuable surprises that stay with you for longer than the few seconds Instagram allows you to watch; that stay with you past your deadlines. That was the case for me when I was watching Aja Monet’s story. Monet, a poet from the US, shared her thoughts on “social media poetry”. While “social media poetry” is another topic altogether, she did mention something that is very relevant for us today.
When thinking about the topics under discussion, I mainly think about what they truly signify. What does diversity mean? What does inclusivity mean? What does representation mean? Or better yet, what do those words *really* mean?
One of the things that struck me while going through Monet’s story was a quote of someone – I can’t remember who exactly – saying that representation isn’t a means in itself. It isn’t the end goal. Representation is merely a therapeutic tool in the struggle for more equality in a power imbalanced world. The world of literature is an example of such a power imbalanced environment. Rather than diminishing their importance, this new definition highlighted to me the true significance of certain concepts, like diversity, inclusivity and representation, and how easy it is to get caught up in a very one-dimensional, questionable approach to those concepts.
Let’s start with ‘diversity’. A word, a notion that is too often used not to celebrate the many multiple identities different people embrace and find in themselves, nor to create a more inclusive space, but to boost sales figures or to attract a bigger audience. That is not diversity, that is exoticism and tokenism. And like anything built on shaky ground, that is not the understanding of diversity that will lead to structural change.
A lack of awareness of power dynamics can make ‘diversity’ a very hollow word.
The problem here is not just superficial motives. A lack of awareness of power dynamics can make ‘diversity’ a very hollow word. Writers writing about people from vulnerable communities they are not part of often do this with an extreme freedom in their writing. Freedom in writing should be celebrated, but not if it comes with little information and self-reflection, if it undermines in a disproportionate manner the freedom of others. That will always be the case when writers rely on stereotypes, on what they think they know and on the misplaced courage and arrogance to take it upon themselves to write a story that is not theirs to write. This shows a sense of entitlement that should be critiqued.
Inclusivity can be a misleading term as well. While I think that it should mean that doors are being opened for people who were previously unable to get access to certain places, it often means that those people will have to go through a checklist of imposed conditions first before they can safely enter. That is not what true inclusivity means. True inclusivity entails letting go of your own terms and conditions, so you can leave room for the other person to enter on their terms and conditions. It reminds me of several writers of colour who are being limited in their creative writing because, for example, when they make up a new word, when they use their creativity, they are deemed to be unable to write correctly. Ironically, they are corrected on the use of a word that they created themselves. Or they are asked by publishers not to use those newly created words or expressions because their writing might be considered bad and unintentional.
To bring this full circle, let’s go back to “representation”. While representation is very important, also as the therapeutic tool I spoke off earlier, it is a word that, just like related concepts, is easily misused. We can’t speak of representation when a book has several characters from very different backgrounds and communities, but those characters portrayed are stereotypical, shallow, weak and secondary. Representation can’t be measured in numbers but must be measured by the position of those we write about and those we work with in the writing process.
How can we guard ourselves against those shallow understandings?
It is necessary for every actor in and outside the world of literature to constantly listen to the critics and activists around them and to value their input.
It is necessary for every actor in and outside the world of literature to constantly listen to the critics and activists around them and to value their input. At the same time, it is important for them to be self-critical and to develop an awareness of how they themselves, in their attempts to be more inclusive and diverse, can easily get caught up in superficial understandings that create a false image of inclusion.
It is necessary to be brave and to question the environment you are working in. Who is in charge? Who makes the decisions?
When we sit next to and across from each other later this afternoon while discussing and sharing ideas, our first questions should be: What does your organisation look like? Who is on your board? Are there people of colour on your board? Are there members of the lgbtqia+ community on your board? Are there people with a disability on your board? Are there women on your board? Who is your chairperson? What is their background?
Only by asking those specific questions will we understand how deeply words like diversity, inclusion and representation really matter for an organisation and only then will the organisation itself know how much work there is still to be done. Only then, I believe, can we end this event tonight with a very concrete game plan to finally and radically change everything up. We have the people and tools present here today to do so. Now the only thing that’s left for us to do is to be courageous.
Deze tekst werd ook gepubliceerd door de organisatoren van de conferentie Elk verhaal telt.
Op 1 april 2019 stelde het BoekenOverleg het diversiteitscharter voor in het Vlaams Parlement. De tekst van het charter kan je hier vinden: