I’m Sick of Words Like ‘Diversity’, ‘Inclusion’ and ‘Representation’
Language is important but so is action. Julie Zhu challenges empty rhetoric in her speech at the Power of Inclusion film industry summit.
The Power of Inclusion was a two-day film industry summit in Auckland earlier this month that purported to “present a myriad of world views”, “posit future action to create a more inclusive industry and world” and to “catalyse the future of screen”. Attendees were promised a line-up of more than 60 international and local speakers that “includes but is not exclusive to people of colour, women, inter-faith, indigenous, LGBTQ+ and people with a disability”.
After the initial announcement of the summit back in April, there was a backlash against the high ticket prices, which made a so-called ‘inclusive’ event highly exclusive. The organisers added at least 150 free scholarship places, which meant younger and emerging artists from backgrounds that face marginalisation were able to participate. The issue of the high ticket prices didn’t go away, however: within the first session of day one, the event had again been called out by a speaker for being inaccessible, and commentary has continued since.
In addition to the creation of the scholarship tickets, a committee was formed to advise how to make the event more accessible and better reflect in the speakers list the diversity the event wanted to represent. It was clear to me when I attended the event that the advisory committee had made a difference, even if they hadn’t got across everything they wanted to. More POC, transgender and people with disabilities were also seen in the list of speakers that was later announced. High-profile speakers of colour at the summit included Pose creator Steven Canals and US actress and activist Yara Shahidi, alongside local speakers like Heperi Mita, director of Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.
Despite the inclusion of several speakers of colour in the programme, many other keynote sessions of the day featured cis white women, who focused on narrow narratives of feminism that often left out other marginalised voices. For me, a stand-out example was keynote speaker Geena Davis, whose advocacy for her Institute on Gender in Media’s tool – an app called the GD-IQ: Spellcheck for Bias, which automatically detects biases in gender (and race, and LGBTIQA+, and disability) in scripts – felt like a cop-out. In lieu of encouraging people to learn about sexism and misogyny, their solution seems to just be to simply switch a gender. Plug in to a programme and all your biases are fixed.
The summit was open in some ways and yet tone deaf in others.
Many of my peers felt frustrated at what potential paths there could be for our communities who sit at the intersections, while the basis of gender equality still dominated the discourse. One moderator gave the example of no less than 17 women of colour who had gone up to her after the first day of the conference expressing that often they aligned themselves more with men of colour than with white women, so narratives focused on a singular struggle facing all women felt false and disingenuous. Other examples included the pervasive use of the phrase ‘ladies and gentlemen’ – a phrase that perpetuates a binary view of gender – to address the audience; notably used immediately after a phenomenal performance by FAFSWAG, and the Houses of COVEN, AITU, IMAN and ORDER as a throw-down of the Auckland vogue scene. Examples like this illustrated how the summit was open in some ways and yet tone deaf in others.
I had been asked to speak at the conference as part of a panel, which was the only way I managed to attend. A few people came up after my speech and shared how much they related to what I’d said, though I felt like it was just what all my peers had been saying all along. I also want to acknowledge that these words were expressed primarily through a lens of being a migrant person of colour in Aotearoa. Here is what I said.
Like many people in this room I’m sick of words like diversity, inclusion, representation. We’ve heard these words for years and they don’t mean anything anymore if we don’t see meaningful action behind them. In my experience, only white organisations feel a need to do diversity, often out of feelings of white guilt.
We’ve heard that cliché that diversity is inviting someone to your party and inclusion is asking them to dance. My problem with this metaphor is that by asking someone to dance you are still the one with the power, as the host. You determine the music, the venue, the context, the rules. If they don’t adhere to the rules, you always have the power to kick them out. So, to me, if you’re being inclusive then you’re not changing power.
The last few years I’ve drifted towards words like decolonisation as a means to acknowledge the power structures that are in play in our society. As our MC Oriini Kaipara said before, titiro whakamuri, anga whakamua. We need to look backwards in order to move forwards. We cannot start from a place of inclusion as if all the inequality and inequity we see now is somehow natural and organic. Everything is a consequence of its past – of patriarchy, of colonisation, of systemic oppression – and just because we see these as historic wrongs does not mean they do not continue today. So for me it’s about power – not starting from a colourblind ‘neutral’ position of historic amnesia where we pretend we are the good guys by ‘including’ others.
I don’t doubt the goodwill and genuine intentions of the organisers behind this event but we’ve reached a point where good intentions aren’t enough.
For example, this conference does a good job at inclusion, including a pōwhiri, including kupu Māori, Māori words and titles across its programme, but how is it tangibly contributing to deconstructing power, to reinstating balance? As Hepi Mita mentioned, cost is a huge barrier to attending this event. I know many of my peers couldn’t attend and I myself wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t been asked to speak.
I don’t doubt the goodwill and genuine intentions of the organisers behind this event but we’ve reached a point where good intentions aren’t enough. And we aren’t going to give people a pat on the back for every good attempt or good intention anymore.
Nowadays I don’t get mad as much at overt racism. I think covert and institutional racism is much more insidious, and the way to solve that is not just inclusion but it’s about those with the power actively giving that power up. In order to dismantle the systems that we have now, it’s not just about bringing others in, it’s about those with power and privilege making space and giving up some of that power. And if that statement makes you uncomfortable then it’s clear your interest in this idea of diversity and inclusion is only when it serves you, not for the benefit of others.
Just because we belong to oppressed groups doesn’t mean we aren’t also complicit in oppressing others.
I want to also say that we are all guilty of having this view of diversity and inclusion. Just because we belong to oppressed groups doesn’t mean we aren’t also complicit in oppressing others. I think sometimes our communities are too quick to desire or settle for just the crumbs of representation. Sometimes I think we are so eager to try to fit ourselves into a deeply white system, we forget to question the bigger picture. But how do we negotiate the tension between fighting to belong and choosing to be okay in our not belonging? Are we actually upholding and legitimising white supremacy by constantly asking to be let into the system that continues to oppress us? Sometimes I think we forget the real battle is to tear down the institution, not to demand a place in it.
In talking about power, I’m deeply conscious that as migrants or visibly ‘other’ people trying to find a sense of belonging here in Aotearoa, it’s vital we don’t erase the special status of tangata whenua, the Indigenous people here. And more than that, how do we acknowledge how complicit we too are in settler colonialism? There may be aspects of racism that affect both migrants and Māori, but how do we also contribute to the ongoing marginalisation of Māori?
These are difficult questions and I don’t have the answers, except to say that one of the best ways to make change is to build relationships with others, to stand in solidarity with one another in our shared oppressions. Operating from a place of empathy is important. All of us are at different stages of learning about the world and our place in it. The idea of wokeness and progressive thought keeps growing and expanding, but it’s important we don’t leave people behind.
This is a fight for justice, not just for representation.
I want to also pay tribute to what occurred in this country at the start of this year, on March 15. Many New Zealanders were deeply shaken by this horrifying act of terrorism. For some of us, everything we had been speaking about, calling out systemic racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, all of it was suddenly so, so real. What more could we say that hadn’t been said? At the vigil in Auckland a week after, some people walked out because they thought there was still too much talk of systemic racism rooted in colonisation. People were quick to say “they are us” or “this isn’t us” or “this isn’t New Zealand”, with others saying “actually this very much is us, look at our violent history”. And then, only a few weeks later all the anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric was back. Because this country is grounded in historic amnesia. I want to acknowledge what happened in Christchurch because it brings to light how all this talk is connected. This is a fight for justice, not just for representation. This is a fight because people’s lives are on the line.
To finish, language is important but so is action. It’s not enough for us to simply acknowledge that the word diversity is a cliché if we are not invested in radical change. I used to work with an organisation where I tried to explain why I preferred the word decolonisation and now that organisation uses the word decolonisation all the time, and yet in over ten years of existence they’ve never hired a Māori staff member in a position higher than an assistant or intern level in the office. So the point of all this is an encouragement for all of us to do better, to acknowledge our privileges and the gaps in our knowledge, and commit to justice, not diversity and inclusion.