Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How not to be diverse

Saturday Night Live recently held auditions for a black female cast member.

The show needs one badly. But it needs something else much more: a sufficiently diverse worldview to where it doesn't need to hold auditions for a specific demographic.

I've said often that this is a major difference between today's Democrats and Republicans. A black Republican makes news, because such a person is rare, and their rise is mostly contrived. The GOP's effort to reach out to African-Americans is largely a reaction to the party being outed as a bastion for white male privilege. Party leaders, earnestly or otherwise, are hoping a few faces can neutralize public concerns and cover the fact that not much will otherwise change.

SNL is much the same way. Despite the occasional Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Kristen Wiig, the show has been dominated from day one by an upper-class, male, WASPy sensibility. In fairness, many of those WASPs have been uproarious, and Lorne Michaels' philosophy has served him well over the decades.

But times have changed, and attitudes should as well. Any single, dominant cultural view is ultimately stagnant for an institution enjoyed by so many Americans. While the WASP-PTB can't (and shouldn't) change who they are, they can consciously work to bring more sensibilities to the table. That starts with knowing how to do it. Seeking a black female member is an awkward way to do that, though I guess I should be happy that at least something is happening.

Still, is it really progress to say, "Let's get one of those black girls on the show?" Or is it actually more diminishing to take this approach?

This is too often the debate about affirmative action, that it's forced diversity for its own sake. That's an incorrect view. Forced surface diversity, wherever it happens, is wrong. Affirmative action is actually about ensuring that government institutions consider minorities on equal meritorious grounds with whites — an initiative intended to counter the racial bias that has plagued colleges and workplaces for generations. It's meant to give a fair shake to deserving people, not elevate unqualified people for its own sake.

SNL should keep the difference in mind. It's better off (if the tryouts don't pan out) not hiring a substandard performer just to have a black woman in its cast. Instead, it should cast a wider net when casting time comes — an endeavor that starts with hiring more diverse (and qualified) talent scouts, and having an inclusive and open-minded operation in general. Then it will naturally attract a staggering spectrum of talent, and such specific casting stunts will never again need to be an issue.

That's true of everything, by the way.

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