‘Proportional Representation’ Has No Place In Diversity Discussions -The Toast

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pieAfter listening to my radio segment on CBC Here and Now , some commented on the statistics I cited. “You said that 82% of the nominees were white people but I looked it up and the percentage of white people in Canada is 76%. So, really it’s not that bad. They’re pretty close.”

I was stunned and a little tired so I let the comment go without a reply. I’d heard similar arguments before (even from people who support greater diversity) and, though they rankle me, I never really examined why.

But now that I’ve slept and had time to think: LOL. No. You are wrong. Shut your face.

In response to an Ask about the diversity of film/TV characters in the US, Trudy of Gradient Lair gave this amazing answer that exemplifies the nuance needed in discussions of diversifying spaces. It’s not just about the numbers; the meaning and power structure behind the numbers is important.

Since we are talking specifically about the diversity of writers, and all the writers in question made the shortlist for the Giller Prize, a prestigious literary award in Canada, I’ll take the discussion of differences in quality of the work off the table.  Instead, let me point the many other reasons citing census figures is a red herring.

Statistics don’t reflect true impact

The statistic I used was cumulative from 2003 to 2012 inclusive. Over ten years, 39 of the 48 shortlisted authors have been white. The 2013 shortlist consisted of five white people so over the past eleven years, the numbers shift to 44 out of 53. To hit the 75-76% range, the 2014 shortlist would have to be all people of color. Not that hard but very unlikely.

What’s harder is addressing the total history of Canadian literary prizes. What do their cumulative statistics over the nearly 90 years of Canadian English language literary prizes look like? How long would the juries have to select all POC shortlists for that statistic to reflect the demographics? And what about the total history of Canadian literature as whole? Can we even attempt to guess what percentage of Canadian books have been written by white people?

Furthermore, the statistics don’t tell the story of the differential impact of majority white shortlists. It is easy to see which books and writers are honored and which are consistently excluded. While privileged writers may not even notice the ways in which the system works in their favor, writers from marginalized groups certainly notice their exclusion.  It doesn’t take a chart to confirm that this literary award is yet another site of marginalization.

But let’s put that aside. Let us pretend for a moment that the statistic did in fact match the demographics of the country. Guess what? It still would not be enough.

Census figures aren’t a useful target

Census numbers and statics on demographics are not objective representations of a population. Behind the numbers is a whole history that answers the question “how did this happen?” You cannot say the US and Canada are white majority countries without acknowledging that the US and Canada are white settler colonialists nations.

I’m sorry. Are we not supposed to talk about that?

You cannot point to the small percentage of people from x ethnic background as justification for their exclusion without acknowledging that the departments of immigration (and national security) of the US and Canada tightly regulate the movement of peoples across their borders based in large part on the labour needs of the state.

Were we not supposed to talk about that either?

Look how easy it is to say “There are more books by and about white people in the US and Canada because there are more white people in the US and Canada.” It rolls off the tongue as if it were common sense. And the statistics support such a statement.

This reality is a bit harder to swallow:  There are more white people in the US and Canada because the US and Canada were established using the systematic genocide of Native peoples, the theft of Native lands, and the labour of enslaved peoples in the past and immigrant peoples currently who were and are never meant to stay or survive.

And now you’re uncomfortable. Good.

When you accept and acknowledge that census figures reflect a long history of marginalization, it is preposterous to use these same figures as the benchmark to which you measure the inclusion of marginalized people.

But Léonicka, you’re whining, why are you bringing up all this heavy shit! I thought we were talking about books?!

The lack of diversity in literature and publishing in 2014 is a symptom and result of centuries of oppression. I will never discuss the former without referencing the latter.

Better measures of success

Lately I’ve been trying to incorporate the word equity into my discussions in an effort to emphasize that diversity and inclusion are not about the numbers. I encourage counts and looking at statistics because they are an easy way to quantify how bad things are. I also believe doing the counts regularly is a useful way to track progress and change.  Unfortunately, numbers can’t be used to demonstrate success.

The goal is not to maintain the status quo but with more diverse faces. The goal is to address and repair the historical and present day injustices. There is no magic number at which you have “enough” diverse people on staff or “enough” diverse books on your shelf or “enough” diverse people shortlisted for the Giller Prize. We will not be successful until people who are marginalized are no longer marginalized.

What is a more useful way to track our success, then?  Perhaps one way is to look at patterns and try to disrupt them. When we look at a VIDA count (or CWILA count in Canada) we attribute meaning to them based on patterns. Majority male and white results are predictable and fit into the pattern of patriarchy that we are actively rejecting. When I gave myself a pat on the back after my 2013 reading stats, it was because my count did not fit the predictable pattern. I measure progress by how often my work rejects the dominant narrative.

Consider your own work and goals. What are the best ways for you to measure your success without relying on census figures? List your ideas in the comments!

Léonicka Valcius is a Toronto-based publishing professional. She blogs about various topics, including diversity in the publishing industry, at www.leonicka.com. Follow her on Twitter at @leonicka.

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