Yeah, I know: Even seeing a title like that just makes you want to duck and cover… it’s that hazardous, poisonous and unforgiving a subject. And it’s easy for perfectly intelligent and reasonable people—like The Martian star Matt Damon—to say something off-the-cuff that will make them look like racist idiots to many.
So why am I going there? Am I asking for trouble by even opening my mouth? Well, probably. But the fact is, the issue of diversity is such a knife-edged subject specifically because we’re all so frightened to discuss it… we’re all afraid that, even when we think we know what we’re doing, it’s still going to blow up in our faces like a century-old stick of dynamite (very soft call-out to Daniel Roebuck… we hardly knew ye, Les).
In the example alluded to above, Matt Damon recently tried to explain the issue of diversity when it comes to movie-making, downplaying the need for diversity behind the camera (and it didn’t help that he was trying to tell this to African-American film producer Effie Brown). His comments were so badly managed that they completely obscured his support of the need for diversity on-screen. Without condemning or lionizing his statements, I’ll just say that the point he was trying to make was utterly ruined by his poor choice of words. Okay, so Damon’s not great on thinking on his feet. At all. And the dynamite that is popular media predictably took his head off.
A lot of people believe you can only tell a story you’ve lived. Many authors and even a few moviemakers live by this mantra. And many minorities believe that non-minorities are frankly incapable of telling minorities’ stories well—or at all—because they can’t really understand something they haven’t lived. I believe Effie Brown’s comments reflect this opinion; and her opinion also happens to be a popular way of advising those in power that there should be more diversity in their businesses in order to assure full understanding, appreciation and consideration for those minorities.
Matt Damon’s disagreement comes from his being an actor—someone who’s played various types of characters, from astronauts to angels, good, bad, accomplished and stupid—and his believing that an actor, or for that matter a writer, director, set dresser or dialogue coach, doesn’t need to have actually lived an experience in order to portray it well through acting… or writing, directing, set dressing or voice coaching.
I fully support a diverse workplace, of course. However, I don’t agree with the argument that, by Brown’s example, only an African-American can understand the issues faced by another African-American. This is a false logic, based on an idea of inherent and absolute differences between groups that cannot be appreciated by those outside of those groups. All African-Americans are not the same; nor have they all had the same experiences, any more than every African, Asian, European, Indian, Latino, Mediterranean or Inuit has. And we, as a people, have learned enough about the experiences of others to be able to fully empathize with those unlike us, or know how to learn enough through sharing stories to achieve that empathy.
As a writer who has told stories of men and women, hetero and homosexual, mean and pacifist, smart and stupid, and every color of the racial rainbow… as well as people from other planets, and beings that weren’t even remotely human… I know that intelligence, empathy, imagination and research can come close enough to approximating actual experience for a good writer to be able to tell a genuine-sounding story to others. I know how to tell stories that I haven’t, in fact, lived. And I’m not alone, as anyone who’s a fan of science fiction or fantasy can attest.
Right now, the greatest advantage to encouraging and practicing diversity is to remind people of how different we all are, how wide our experiences range, and how incredible a mosaic we all live in. In what is still a pretty unbalanced popular media in the U.S., we use every tool at our disposal to promote and establish that diversity, including the occasional delving into false logic to make a point. We should encourage businesses where anyone, of any type, can play a part. But we need to accept that, at heart, the color of our skins do not separate us. Diversity is a tool… it is not the point.